Democrats analyze Sager's defeat

May 22, 1997


Staff Writer

Low voter turnout and the lack of a strong campaign led to three-term incumbent Democrat Steven T. Sager's downfall in Tuesday's election for mayor, local political leaders said.

"When people are generally pleased with what's going on they see no real need to go to the polls," said Terry Smith, treasurer of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee.

"I think this is the case with such a low turnout. People said, `Why should I bother?'" Smith said Wednesday. "But, if you're supporting a challenger, people usually make a point of getting out."


Rick Hemphill, Democratic Central Committee chairman, agreed.

"People tend to vote against something, as opposed to for something," Hemphill said.

"By and large, I think the election showed the citizens of Hagerstown are relatively happy," he said. All three incumbent City Council members were re-elected.

Smith said he thinks many people outside the West End and downtown stayed home because one of the main issues being debated - crime - didn't affect their neighborhoods.

Both Mayor-elect Robert E. Bruchey II, a Republican, and council candidate Larry A. Vaughn were the top vote-getters at the four West End precincts - an area where citizens have voiced serious concerns about crime.

Sager won five precincts, including the absentee ballots. He won Bethel Gardens, Northern Middle School, Potomac Heights Elementary and one of the polling places at the Army Reserve Center.

Only 3,853 people, or 23 percent of registered voters - cast ballots in Tuesday's general election, according to the election office.

Some political leaders also thought Sager's lack of campaigning and Bruchey's door-to-door campaigning played a big role in the upset.

Dick Ebersole, United Democrats of Washington County president, said "Steve didn't campaign very hard." There were few Sager signs in peoples' yards.

Hemphill said, "In any campaign, the voters want to see the candidate. They want to know he's really interested in the job."

Vince Dellaposta, Republican Central Committee vice chairman, said Bruchey worked hard.

"He went out, knocked on a lot of doors, talked to a lot of people. He handled himself rather well," Dellaposta said.

Bruchey said he talked to more than half the number of people who voted for him, which was 2,183 people. He wore out one pair of shoes and had to get another pair resoled.

"I think the crux was the people felt I could definitely lead them and serve them," Bruchey said.

Hemphill said the negative publicity last week about Grand Piano & Furniture Co. leaving downtown didn't help.

"I don't think this constitutes a mandate for Bruchey," Hemphill said. That might have been the case if Bruchey had won with 50 or 60 percent voter turnout.

"Obviously, it's a clear win, but I wouldn't consider it a public referendum on Sager's administration. In time, people will see how many good things happened during Sager's administration," he said.

Susan K. Saum-Wicklein, chairwoman of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, said Sager's style might have put off voters.

"I think Steve's style at times had been less than conciliatory," said Saum-Wicklein, who served on City Council for eight years during the Sager administration.

Sager tended to focus on goals rather than building consensus, she said.

Sager said it was just time for a change.

"I think the majority of people wanted something different," he said in the mayor's office.

Despite Sager's failed re-election bid, some Democratic leaders think he would make a good candidate for Washington County Commissioner in next year's election.

Sager says he's not interested.

"I don't at all see running for County Commissioner," he said. But, he wouldn't totally discount the notion.

"I doubt that I would seek public office again, but who knows?" he said.

Sager said he would be more likely to seek a seat on City Council.

Sager said he has three job possibilities so far. They include being a part-time grant writer for a nonprofit organization and two full-time redevelopment jobs - one public, one private.

"Change brings opportunity," Sager said.

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