High stakes for Glendening in the new legislature

January 07, 1996|By BARRY RASCOVAR

THIS IS A make-or-break legislative session for Parris Glendening. When the opening gavel sounds Wednesday, Maryland's governor takes center stage. If he delivers a bravura performance, he could be on his way to re-election; if he falters, the governor risks political unemployment.

That's heady stuff three years from his next election. But Mr. Glendening is in such a weak public posture that he's got to use this legislative session to recoup.

Overcoming an initial bad impression is tough. Psychologists say it takes multiple good deeds to erase an early, negative imprint. That helps explain why Mr. Glendening still stands so low in polls.

His narrow election victory was deemed a fraud by angry Republicans, who tried to win the race in court. Thus, a considerable segment of the public never gave him a chance to prove his bona fides.

Then he stumbled miserably in his first few months. Controversy erupted over a $100 million deficit he left behind in Prince George's County; worse, the new P.G. officials discovered that Glendening & Co. had set up an extremely generous pension plan for themselves, one that would pay them six-figure amounts almost immediately. So much for the governor's well cultivated image of public integrity.

Then he named the two men who engineered the pension deal to his cabinet. That meant spending valuable political capital getting the two confirmed. Yet within months, both men had been forced out for new lapses in ethics.

As an outsider, Mr. Glendening didn't know Annapolis and had never dealt with a large legislative body. Thus, his first session was a series of missteps. Little of far-reaching substance was achieved; most hot issues were shelved. Legislative leaders had few good words for the governor.

The truth is that most Marylanders still don't feel comfortable with Mr. Glendening. He remains largely unknown; his accent hints of Florida, not Maryland. He doesn't act or talk like Schaefer, Hughes, Mandel, Agnew, Tawes, McKeldin or Lane. He comes from a part of the state that looks to the nation's capital for its news and direction, not toward the state capital.

An aloof outsider

Most voters still have little affinity with their governor. He remains an outsider. He has an aloof personality. He comes across as stiff and programmed. He doesn't hail from their community and doesn't seem to understand their concerns.

The best way to change that impression is to establish a solid record in the legislature -- not only a blockbuster package of bills that defines the Glendening administration, but a display of political skills that leads to success.

That's no easy task, especially for a governor with few friends in the legislature and a staff that lacks expertise in dealing with the highly politicized and exceedingly complex General Assembly operation.

There will be, for sure, a number of symbolic proposals in the governor's package -- political sops to special interests, such as bills on gun control, liberalized state-funded abortions, collective bargaining for state workers and a new teacher-certification plan putting the teachers in charge of their own credentialing. These are measures that the governor can afford to lose.

But on other issues, he must win. His economic-development program is an essential element in shaping this administration. Losing a big part of this centerpiece would be devastating.

It could be, though, that Mr. Glendening's biggest obstacle lies in overcoming opposition to new football stadiums. He has staked his prestige on bringing the Redskins to Landover and Art Modell's NFL team to a state-built stadium in Baltimore. The governor thought he'd be a hero. Instead, he will have a devil of a time getting both proposals approved.

Only a politician with finely honed negotiating skills can win this one. It is a delicate situation, requiring deal-making with the NFL owners, local officials and state legislative delegations who have vastly different objections to the stadiums. He's got to win this one -- or look like a fool.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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