Governor Stumblebum

June 11, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

For a guy who has been in hard-nosed politics for two decades, Gov. Parris Glendening has made some dumb moves recently.

Instead of erasing the early negative impression he gave Marylanders -- of a county executive who set up a lucrative pension-severance plan for himself and his aides, initially took the money and then left the county deep in debt -- Mr. Glendening continues to stumble.

It's not all bad. The governor had a good first legislative session, thanks to help from General Assembly leaders. He has lowered the decibel level and reduced the hype. His name isn't plastered on every park bench and construction sign. He has some good ideas about how to make government more effective.

But too often Mr. Glendening has looked like an amateur, as though those 20 years in training in Prince George's County hadn't taught him anything.

Take the Wallace Stephens affair. Mr. Stephens owns a troubled engineering firm in Prince George's. His federal contracts have dried up. He's laid off 80 percent of his workers. All revenue goes to pay off creditors. He's in default to the tune of $900,000. He was rejected for a state small-business loan.

But Mr. Stephens has been a consistent supporter of Mr. Glendening over the years. He's also a well-known minority entrepreneur in Prince George's. He heads the local chamber of commerce.

The governor tried to get him a $1.5 million bailout from the state's ''sunny-day'' fund. It had quid pro quo written all over it.

The shock waves are still being felt. The sunny-day fund wasn't created to rescue failing small businesses.

It is a pot of money ($20 million come July 1) to help entice big companies -- and jobs -- to Maryland. Or to keep jobs in Maryland, such as the deal to locate McCormick's spice-distribution plant here.

Mr. Glendening's move left lawmakers flabbergasted. It was so openly political and so wrongheaded from a fiscal standpoint. It was a bad deal for the state.

And yet the administration tried to fob this transparent proposal off on the Legislative Policy Committee. Not surprisingly, it self-destructed.

The repercussions will be with the governor for years. Legislators are demanding detailed fiscal and economic explanations for future sunny-day withdrawals. They are going to be very skeptical. You can bet that next year's request for additional sunny-day funds will be trimmed or eviscerated. Clearly, the governor shot himself in the foot.

He had a chance to partially redeem his public image by serving as a peacemaker in a bitter dispute between Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Crown Central Petroleum owner Henry Rosenberg over tourism development. The two men are at war over who should appoint members of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. It's a petty squabble that Mr. Schmoke has escalated into a major clash with city business leaders.

Mr. Glendening stepped in and talked with the mayor and Mr. Rosenberg. He asked them to resolve their differences. He repeatedly spoke about ways to compromise the matter. But nothing worked.

So what did the governor do? Did he set up a group to resolve the spat? Did he read the riot act to both men? Did he use the power of his office to impose a compromise that might give both men face-saving victories? No, he simply threw up his hands and walked away.

As a result, the governor missed a golden opportunity to gain a reputation as a leader who can unravel knotty conflicts and resolve a government dispute with the business community. He missed a chance to demonstrate his commitment to tourism as economic development. And he missed a chance to appear on every local media outlet explaining how he rode to the rescue for the good of Baltimore and Maryland.

Instead, Mr. Rosenberg is now angry at the mayor and the governor. This could mean big campaign contributions for their opponents -- and a black eye for Mr. Glendening among the city's business leaders.

Annapolis isn't Prince George's County. You can't co-opt the legislative branch. You operate in a media fishbowl. Doling out grants or favors to allies can't be hushed up. Failure to wield power effectively makes you look weak and inept.

As an ex-professor, Mr. Glendening knows about cramming for exams and accelerating the learning curve. He'd better start applying those lessons to the governorship before public patience wears thin.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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