State Democratic Party left in shambles

November 17, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

GOV. WILLIAM DONALD SCHAEFER is leaving behind a living will. In his political afterlife he'd like to witness the rebuilding of the state's Democratic Party and he believes that Sen. Barbara Mikulski is the person who can do the job.

Say what? Isn't this the very same pilgrim who boycotted the 1984 Democratic convention in favor of a visit to the San Diego Zoo? And didn't Mr. Schaefer endorse Republican George Bush for president in 1992? And wasn't Rep. Helen Bentley in the primary race for governor with Mr. Schaefer's imprimatur?

And in his quirky quest of Anybody But Mickey (Lt. Gov. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg), Mr. Schaefer almost helped to elect the Republican candidate, Del. Ellen Sauerbrey, who, in effect, was running against his administration and his policies. But for 5,400 votes, she'd have been the antidote to the Schaefer years.

What Mr. Schaefer said is one thing. What he has in mind is another that only he and God share. (If he even bothered to inform God.)

As every political hobbyist knows, Mr. Schaefer's a pro-business fanatic who has a soft center like a Twinkie, a bleeding-heart conservative if you will. So it's safe to assume that he'd like to reshape Maryland's Democrats into a centrist organization that would satisfy the conservative yearnings of his businessmen buddies, sort of a businessmen's round table with an attitude.

But Barbara Mikulski? She enjoys the best of both worlds: She's a populist back home and a liberal in Washington. While there's no question about her survival skills and her organizational ability, there is some hesitation as to whether she'd be acceptable to Mr. Schaefer's boardroom constituents. Besides, Ms. Mikulski's protege and former staff member, Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore, was recently appointed a vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

What ails the Maryland Democratic Party, though, has little to do with who heads it. The fact is, the party has been listless and drifting for a dozen years and virtually brain dead during Mr. Schaefer's eight years as its titular head. Right now it lacks a central intelligence.

Mr. Schaefer bounced his own hand-picked chairman, the blowhard Nathan Landow, in a protocol standoff over who would cast Maryland's votes at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York. The party's leadership eventually fell into the hands of Vera Hall, who was more absorbed with her duties as Baltimore City Council vice president than with the eccentricities and ego-jerking of party politics. It now reposes in the caretaker hands of former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who held the position briefly from 1969-70.

While Maryland has been one of the most staunchly Democratic states in the country, the party's registration has remained pancake flat at 1.4 million over the past decade. During the same period of mainly Reagan-Bush years, however, Republican Party registration has surged from 474,000 to 670,000.

The truth is that there are really four Democratic parties -- the Baltimore City Democratic Party and the suburban Democratic Party, the white Democratic Party and the black Democratic Party.

That a Republican candidate for governor, Mrs. Sauerbrey, carried 21 of 24 jurisdictions is empirical evidence enough that something's broke and needs fixing. Mr. Schaefer has that part right. But that's only a piece of the story. Republicans now control county councils or commissions in 10 counties, adding six to the four they dominated going into the elections.

And the GOP increased its population in the 188-member General Assembly from 25 to 40 in the House of Delegates and from 9 to 15 in the Senate.

The state's Democratic Party, in its present state of decay, represents "The Bell Curve" of politics, kind of a permanent class of voters up against a party of elitists and ideological moralists hell-bent on undoing the liberal culture of the past 30 years.

What's worse is that the Democrats' base is narrowing. It was confined in this election to only three jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Mrs. Sauerbrey came mighty close to proving that it's possible to win the governorship without the state's three most populous subdivisions.

And it was unquestionably the black vote (80 percent) that propped up Parris Glendening's dime-thin victory (victory?). So in a sense he's an ancient metaphor, a royal governor of three crown colonies, the duchy of Glendening, with a popularity quotient of 5,400 votes. Go get 'em, tiger.

So it's all right out there in plain view. Whites, especially white males, are peeling away from the Democratic Party in battalions while many women are sticking with the party mainly because of the abortion issue. The 21-county vote was as much against Mr. Glendening and Baltimore City as it was for Mrs. Sauerbrey.

The cohort of the so-called religious right, conservative and anti-Democrat, is vastly under-counted. It brackets not only Bible-thumping Baptists but also Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics and Muslims who oppose abortion.

And legislative reapportionment and congressional redistricting are doing the devil's work as well. By following the legal prescription of stacking blacks in predominantly black districts, legislative mapmakers are creating competing districts that are as white as Wonder Bread as well as haute Republican and conservative to the core.

The flight (flight, heck, people are breaking the 4-minute mile to get out of the city) to the suburbs, even to other states, is causing a further breakdown of the Democratic Party, leaving it virtually a single-race party in Baltimore City.

Face it. The Democratic Party as we've known it is deader than a pterodactyl.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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