The effect in Annapolis

Bruce L. Bortz

November 05, 1992|By Bruce L. Bortz

ODD as it may seem, Tuesday's election may have great impact on a body most of whose members weren't on anyone's ballot -- the Maryland General Assembly.

First there's the Schaefer factor.

By openly endorsing George Bush and going to another state to do it so openly, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, already politically weakened, has given the state legislature yet another reason to weight the balance of power still further in its direction. Mr. Schaefer's behavior makes quasi-governors of House Speaker C. Clayton Mitchell, already Annapolis' most influential player on budgets and government restructuring, and Senate President Mike Miller, an ardent Clinton supporter.

Then there's the abortion factor.

In session after recent session, the legislature's normal ebb and flow has been altered by an agonizing distraction: the inherently divisive abortion issue. Tuesday's nearly 2-to-1 victory for Question 6 on the Maryland ballot should enable pro-choice forces to keep abortion off of the legislative plate for as long as a decade. That can only streamline the legislative process and improve abortion-strained relations in Annapolis.

And there's the congressional factor.

The victory of a young, up-and-coming state legislator, Albert Wynn, in the new, minority-dominated 4th Congressional District creates a legislative opening of importance. Mr. Wynn was one of Senate President Mike Miller's top lieutenants and a member of the all-important Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. There would have been additional turnover, but Democratic Del. Thomas Hattery, vying for a seat in the 6th District, lost to the new congressional delegation's most stridently ideological member, Republican Roscoe Bartlett. Mr. Hattery, the House Ways and Means subcommittee chairman on transportation, failed in the state's only congressional district with a Republican registration advantage. He waged primary and general election campaigns so negative that they turned off voters.

The campaign's biggest development, though, was the governor's 11th-hour trip to Missouri to throw his hat in George Bush's ring. Mr. Schaefer thus became the only big Democratic office-holder in the nation to split from his party. The governor also departed from past practice. In 1980, 1984 and 1988, for example, when Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush were heavily favored, Mr. Schaefer did little or nothing to help the Democratic nominees.

This year, though, when he received an endorsement request from Bush-Quayle chairman Robert Teeter, Mr. Schaefer did not respond as other, restless Democrats did: "Bob, you know I like President Bush. I'm sure he'll understand, though, that by staying neutral in the race, I've done as much as I can for him." Instead, declaring that Mr. Bush had been good to him and to the state, Mr. Schaefer put personal loyalty ahead of party loyalty. Ironically, if Mr. Schaefer had been a lifelong Republican rather than a lifelong Democrat, he'd probably still be a title lawyer in a Baltimore law firm.

One of the first things Bill Clinton will do as president is propose a prime-the-pump program to build up the states' public works. If Mr. Schaefer dares to step into line for those federal grants, Mr. Clinton may not even recognize him. To get its share, Maryland will have to rely on its powerful Democrats in the House and Senate or on Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a likely member of Mr. Clinton's "kitchen cabinet," if not a candidate for a top job in his administration (though the mayor denies it).

The legislative implications of Mr. Schaefer's endorsement are potentially even more serious. This General Assembly is made up mostly of Clinton-supporting Democrats. Up through get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day, the national ticket tied itself closely to local Democratic office-holders and their political organizations.

Legislators' furious retaliation against Governor Schaefer may first become evident during this month's scheduled special legislative session on the budget. The governor successfully mediated budget disputes between the House and Senate during the 1992 session. But his Bush endorsement squanders what peacemaker credibility he attained. Throughout Mr. Schaefer's successful first term, Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg artfully played that same man-in-the-middle role. Now that Steinberg has been banished to legislative oblivion by the governor (and the governor seems hell-bent on joining him there), the executive branch is all but removed from the mix, and legislative impasses are all the more likely.

In the days ahead, irate Democratic Party leaders in Maryland may seek a Schaefer apology or retraction for his misguided endorsement gambit. But it's a betrayed public that should be most concerned. It elected a single man -- Mr. Schaefer -- to govern the state. The job requires getting along with the legislature and with Washington. When looking at Mr. Schaefer's Bush endorsement, it's hard to imagine a single other move (short of resignation) that better demonstrates the governor's inability, or maybe his unwillingness, to carry out the wishes of those who elected him governor in 1990.

Bruce L. Bortz is editor of the Maryland Report newsletter, as well as political analyst for Channel 45 News.

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