A few power brokers decide what happens in Assembly

January 08, 1991|By William Thompsonand Thomas W. Waldron | William Thompsonand Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

The General Assembly's 45 new members had better not harbor any grand ideas about setting a new state agenda when all 188 legislators convene tomorrow for the Assembly's 90-day session.

After all, the only people who really believe that the legislative soup of bills and hearings is stirred by a truly democratic group are either in kindergarten or still wearing spats.

In reality, the power that determines what happens to the state budget or any given bill is hardly distributed evenly. The fact is, most of what occurs in Annapolis is decided by a handful of power brokers.

Certain offices -- such as the governor and top legislative leadership spots -- carry muscle regardless of who holds the positions. Other key players -- lobbyists, for example -- derive their power largely from their accessibility to elected officials.

Regardless of how and why they wield such power, the state's political muscle-bound are mostly male and white.

Who are the proven and potential heavyweights in Annapolis for 1991? These people would be on almost anybody's list:


Maryland gives its governor the greatest role of any governor in devising the annual budget, which alone makes Schaefer the mightiest elected figure in the state today. Add his power to veto bills and his penchant for punishing those disloyal to him and Schaefer becomes the most feared politician in the state. His mood swings affect those around him, and sometimes make his digs in the State House seem like Castle Elsinore. Legislators, however, may be less fearful of Schaefer since he failed to win re-election by a landslide, which could dim his power as he enters his lame-duck term.


With a seemingly boundless sense of humor, the lieutenant governor has managed to weather four years working for the temperamental Schaefer. Steinberg sometimes serves as Schaefer's conciliator in the legislature, where Steinberg was once Senate president and still has many friends. Over the next few years, he may have the unenviable task of trying to sell those friends on tax increases. And as he begins campaigning for the 1994 gubernatorial race, State House types will be watching to see how he manages to share in Schaefer's triumphs but distance himself from his setbacks.


One of the most intriguing politicians in Annapolis, the Senate president can cajole with sugary reasoning and macho back-slapping or threaten with locker-room bullying. He is equally at home discussing the Civil War or rock 'n' roll oldies. Miller tries to be polite, but his tongue sometimes runs ahead of his brain. The Prince George's County Catholic came out in favor of abortion-rights legislation last year, but watched in despair as a filibuster derailed the business of the Senate. He was criticized for failing to control the Senate and vows not to let that happen again. He also talks about the need to raise the gas tax -- something, he says, that will "separate the statesmen from the politicians."


At times bull-headed and thin-skinned, the House speaker is a steadfast advocate for the conservative values of his rural constituents on the Eastern Shore. At his best he builds consensus in the 141-member House; at his worst he reduces the voting process to crass fiat. Mitchell's power may be dimmed by the continuing criminal investigation of his brokering of a real estate deal involving harness racing czar Mark R. Vogel. Mitchell is expected to be a formidable opponent of proposals to raise the state gas tax and to impose new development curbs around Chesapeake Bay.


The governor's Budget and Fiscal Planning secretary used to be Baltimore's top bean counter when Schaefer was mayor. At 74, Benton is the eldest and, in the governor's opinion, one of the brightest members of the Cabinet. He has Schaefer's ear not only because of the serious budget woes, but because his straightforward advice on other issues, including abortion, has a soothing effect on the excitable governor.


Legislative Fiscal Services director Ratchford is the man Miller and Mitchell turn to on money matters. Schaefer hates "Ratch," as this financial wizard is called, because he and his army of analysts recommend where to cut the governor's budget. But, when Ratchford talks about money, lawmakers listen.


"Buzz," as the House Appropriations Committee chairman is known, practices what he preaches. He's a community college professor of government studies who melds political theory and Maryland realpolitik. For a chairman of an important money committee, the Prince George's County delegate seldom makes the news. He knows the real power comes behind the scenes, where he is on good terms with nearly all factions of state government.


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