Outsiders relish football tussle Underdogs: State legislators outside the power loop are fighting plans to fund football stadiums, and are enjoying the attention.

February 08, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

In the Maryland State House, where political independence is sometimes punished, a group of relatively unknown legislators is taking on the powers that be.

Republican and Democrat, suburban and rural, they have come together to try to kill Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to spend $273 million in public money on a pair of football stadiums.

And they seem to be having a great time in the process.

"In politics, it doesn't get any better than this," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican stadium opponent from Howard County. "We're on the right side of the issue. We have public support and we're the underdogs."

Said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat: "I love being in the center of it. Right now, it's a battle of sound bite and quote and they are getting their lunches eaten."

Delegates Poole and Flanagan are among several legislators, including Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. of Montgomery County, who have emerged as leaders in the stadium opposition.

Coming from different parts of the state with different political perspectives, they represent a diverse group of lawmakers who have lined up to fight state funding for the ball parks. And as outsiders to the General Assembly's power structure, they also seem to have little to lose.

Governor Glendening has pledged to use all the force of his office to win legislative approval for a $200 million stadium for the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore, and $73 million in roads and infrastructure for a Washington Redskins stadium near Landover. Joining him in support are the legislature's two top leaders and fellow Democrats, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Under ordinary circumstances, such a triple threat of political muscle would ensure victory. But the stadium issue, which has come to dominate the 1996 General Assembly session, is anything but ordinary.

Recent polls show a majority of Marylanders oppose public funding for the stadiums. With opponents waging a guerrilla campaign to strip the funding out of the budget, the governor and legislative leaders appear to be in for a battle.

Delegate Flanagan, the Republican, wants the Maryland government to spend money on an income tax cut instead of stadiums. Senator Van Hollen, who represents a liberal Democratic district in Montgomery, would prefer to spend the money on school construction. And Delegate Poole, from economically struggling Western Maryland, says he can't sell public funding for stadiums when his constituents are worried about pink slips.

For the three men, all ambitious politicians with an eye toward running for Congress or statewide office, the stadium issue is a golden opportunity for public exposure. Little known outside Annapolis and their home districts, they are now quoted widely in the state's major newspapers and on the nightly news in Washington and Baltimore.

Last month, Mr. Flanagan and Mr. Poole even appeared in a photo with other stadium opponents in the New York Times.

"You can't buy that kind of attention," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, another opposition leader from Montgomery County.

Until recently, Chris Van Hollen wasn't particularly well known -- even in the State House. He doesn't speak often on the floor of the Senate, where he was a new member last year.

Since 1994, though, he has been putting in bills to transfer money set aside for stadiums to school construction instead. So, when the Redskins and Browns agreed last fall to move to Maryland, Senator Van Hollen was poised to take a lead role in opposing the stadiums.

The son of a diplomat, Mr. Van Hollen, 37, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in India, Turkey and Sri Lanka. With a master's degree in public policy from Harvard and a law degree from Georgetown University, he is regarded as a smart, articulate advocate.

Although the attention he is receiving could aid him if he ever decides to run for Congress, he seems uncomfortable when asked if the stadium issue is helping his career.

"Am I more recognized? I don't know," the senator said, rubbing his head of red hair nervously. "There are people who call up and say "Good job!" when they see your name in the paper."

Mr. Van Hollen is quick to add, as are Mr. Poole and Mr. Flanagan, that he is only one member of a team of opponents working on the issue.

While Senator Van Hollen is bucking the leadership of his party, Republican Delegate Bob Flanagan has no such problem. Many GOP legislators have come out against the stadium funding as bad economic policy.

Mr. Flanagan, 50, said he began trying to block funding for the Browns deal two weeks after it was announced. With top Democrats supporting the stadiums, it left a leadership vacuum which Mr. Flanagan said he helped fill.

An attorney in Columbia, the delegate served as legal counsel to candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey when she ran for governor against Mr. Glendening in 1994. He has been a frequent critic of the governor's ever since.

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