The governor needs to start memorizing some birthdays

Frank A. DeFilippo

April 04, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

A REPORTER once asked former Gov. Marvin Mandel the secret of his mastery over the General Assembly and his wizardry at winning passage of difficult legislation.

"I'll bet you can't tell me the name of the delegate from Garrett County," Mandel replied.

The reporter wriggled and writhed, unable to dredge up the answer.

"I not only know his name," Mandel said, "I know his wife's name, when her birthday is and what kind of flowers she likes."

It's a safe wager that the present occupant, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, is not such a diligent student of the legislative process. If he were, he wouldn't be in the jam he's in.

For in that seemingly simplistic statement of Mandel's lies an understanding of the awesome power and mystery of the governor's office. It is this: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Schaefer's a bully. He subscribes to Scud missile attacks and the blunderbuss when often a pat on the back or a stroke of the ego will do. His recent assaults on the legislature not only have helped to kill or delay his very own programs; his peculiar behavior has cost him points with the public as well.

It is a truism in the State House that there are two ways to pass a bill: on its merits or with the votes. It's often necessary to deal with the raw numbers by bottom-fishing for votes -- 71 in the House of Delegates, 24 in the Senate.

Schaefer has never understood the nicety of assembling votes and passing bills strictly by the numbers, the one-on-one process that it takes to choreograph the dance of legislation. Simply dropping a bill in the hopper and testifying on its behalf is not enough to budge the General Assembly into action, no matter how lofty the issue. Oh, Schaefer knew that it took 10 votes to ram a bill through the City Council, all right, but as mayor he left that to his wheel horse, the late Irv Kovens.

The quickest way to legislators' hearts is through their egos. The powers of persuasion at the governor's disposal are formidable. Patronage, the system of rewards and punishments, is among the most convincing. Bestowing an appointive office on a legislator's friend (or relative) is a form of bonding for life.

And in the tight little world of Annapolis, never underestimate the power of the suck-up. Equally compelling is quietly helping a lawmaker move a bill through the legislature, a gesture that'll put a legislator in the governor's pocket forever. Inviting a legislator up to the governor's office to ask for help is a high form of flattery, as are rides in the executive limo, cruises on the governor's yacht and flights on state helicopters. Breakfast at the Governor's Mansion, one-on-one, also carries a certain cachet.

It helps, too, to have skillful administration lobbyists functioning as elbow-grabbers, scurrying around the assembly's halls, facilitating legislation, dispensing favors and distributing race track passes and other bibelots. The celebrated "open spaces" bill of the early '70s, for example, squeezed through the House of Delegates by a single vote with the help of two season race track passes.

But Schaefer apparently considers the art of the deal to be repugnant. There are those around him who say that the governor believes that asking for a favor is a badge of weakness. To Schaefer, favor-seeking goes from the bottom up, not the top down. It is also a hallmark of the Schaeferian style that this is one governor who only punishes, never rewards.

As a result of Schaefer's failure to grasp the free-wheeling nature of the governor's office and his idiosyncratic relationship with the General Assembly, Schaefer has suffered more humiliating defeats this year than any governor in the past 30 years -- Millard J. Tawes, Spiro T. Agnew, Marvin Mandel, Blair Lee III and, yes, even Harry R. Hughes.

Instead of trading favors, Schaefer has exchanged insults, not -- only with legislators but with voters as well. His confrontational derring-do with the public has cost Schaefer support in the General Assembly, where legislators consider themselves fair game in the process of give-and-take but resent seeing their constituents hassled by the governor. As Schaefer's public support dropped sharply, his authority with the assembly faded along with it.

In normal circumstances, the executive and legislative branches strive to make each other look good. The road to Annapolis may be paved with good intentions, but this year it's also littered with Schaefer's dead bills. Along with the Linowes tax restructuring program, the 2020 zoning master plan, the gas tax increases, the ban on assault rifles and other legislation, Schaefer was even unable to win confirmation of four election board patronage appointees -- a rare rebuke by the legislature.

In politics, as in love, timing is everything. Yet Schaefer doesn't seem to understand when to declare victory and withdraw. With 3 1/2 years remaining in his final term, he had better begin compiling a list of birthdays.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.


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