The Incredible Shrinking Governor

January 09, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

When Maryland's state legislature gets under way Wednesday, a dramatic change will already be under way. Ironically, two of the prime movers responsible for creating this change won't be there: Jack Kent Cooke and R. Clayton Mitchell.

Mr. Cooke's contribution isn't as obvious as Mr. Mitchell's. By moving ahead on building his own football stadium in Laurel, the Redskins owner highlighted the lame-duck status of Governor Schaefer and set in motion a bald strategy to usurp some of the governor's power.

This was not the intent of Mr. Cooke's action, but it was the result. Mr. Schaefer's inability to stop the Laurel stadium from proceeding is painfully clear. He was outmaneuvered by the billionaire sportsman, who spotted an easy mark in the political hierarchy, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and then used his considerable charm to win over Mr. Miller as an important ally eager to shrink the governor's power and increase his own.

Now Mr. Miller is Mr. Cooke's man in Annapolis. He is a sports fanatic and is avid to pave the way for the Laurel stadium. If that means giving the back of the hand to Baltimore, so be it. If he can embarrass the governor and flex his political clout, all the better. The Senate, not the House, is the active participant in these discussions, and Mr. Miller is the lead power broker and head cheerleader.

This dispute throws a disturbing element of parochialism and regionalism into the Annapolis scene. Mr. Miller's moves are fostering a ''get Baltimore'' attitude among some lawmakers, especially among those from the Washington suburbs.

Not only is a move afoot to give Mr. Cooke all the state support he wants for roads and infrastructure (plus a related move to underwrite a new arena in Prince George's County for sports owner Abe Pollin) but there's a parallel movement to strip the Maryland Stadium Authority of its power to build a football stadium or an arena in Baltimore. In other words, let Baltimore rot while Mr. Miller's Prince George's County flourishes.

The governor seems powerless to prevent this -- unless he yields Mr. Cooke's demands or stands by while Mr. Miller wrecks the administration's legislative package in retribution. The weak position of the governor is only encouraging lawmakers to chart their own courses independent of Mr. Schaefer on other legislative issues. By session's end, he could be a very lame governor.

This enhances Mr. Miller's power, especially in light of the shake-up across the hall in the House of Delegates, where Clay Mitchell stepped down suddenly as House speaker last month. The new House leader, Casper R. Taylor of Cumberland, is still feeling his way. He's even uncertain how much voting support he will have on pivotal issues.

By throwing in the political towel last month, Mr. Mitchell created a quiet revolution in the House. The Eastern Shoreman had ruled for seven years with an iron hand that often wasn't appreciated by younger delegates. Once Mr. Taylor took over, the atmosphere changed. The new speaker believes in consensus-building and a more open discussion of issues. This has pleased members.

The new speaker also won support for his quick decision to add a sixth standing committee. Mr. Mitchell had eliminated one committee a few years ago in part to punish delegates who had opposed him on budget-cutting and tax-raising votes. This resulted in a lopsided inequity within leadership ranks, with Prince George's and rural lawmakers predominating. It also vastly increased the workload of the five remaining committees.

Not only did Mr. Taylor re-establish a sixth committee; he gave it enough substantive responsibility that it won't become the dumping ground for incompetents and troublemakers. Nearly two dozen delegates volunteered to shift over to the new Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

Mr. Taylor also had the good sense to spread leadership posts around. The list of chairmen contains two from Baltimore (one white, one black) and one each from Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and one from the Eastern Shore.

The speaker, of course, comes from Western Maryland, his majority leader is from Baltimore County and the vice chairman of the new sixth committee hails from Southern Maryland.

Ironically, this tilts the leadership group in the direction of the Baltimore region and away from the Washington suburbs (especially Prince George's) as it was under Mr. Mitchell. That could position Mr. Taylor to negotiate with Mr. Miller, who picked colleagues from suburban Washington to run the Senate's two money committees.

At the moment, Mr. Miller has the upper hand. His exploitation of the Cooke-Schaefer clash can only expand his influence. It also sends a loud message to the next governor -- be it his bete noire Parris Glendening or the ornery Helen Delich Bentley, the two current front-runners -- that Mike Miller and his Senate have staked a strong claim as the dominant force in the General Assembly. The next governor has been put on notice.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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