Glendening's summer of political discontent With controversies, governor creates mess of his own making

September 09, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Those who know him well, friend and foe alike, say Gov. Parris N. Glendening's summer of controversy flows from a style in which promises, easily made, are easily broken, from arrogance and from poor political instincts.

He has presented himself as a man committed to pursuit of the public good, an unswerving traveler of the political high road.

Yet, from the beginning of his administration 20 months ago, he has had to explain embarrassing disclosures: generous and secret pension allowances for himself and his aides, a legal defense fund amassed in secret by special interests, questionable fund-raising expeditions and disputes with other public officials who doubt his word.

As a result, some Democrats have begun an unusual midterm canvass for a challenger to oppose his re-election in 1998. Three county executives and two leading Maryland businessmen, who represent significant opposition among opinion leaders across the state, met last week in Chevy Chase to consider ways of arresting what one Democrat calls a "meltdown."

The Democratic governor dismisses it all.

He says disappointed favor seekers, wealthy special interests and jealous political competitors are responsible for his predicament, aided and abetted by news media interested only in "Gotcha!" stories.

His defenses hold some truth -- but he leaves aside his own role.

"County executives feel they can't trust the guy," says Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has a list of complaints about Glendening -- beginning with what Schmoke calls a broken promise to support introduction of slot machines at racetracks to produce new revenue for the city. Glendening insists that he made no such promise.

It is another measure of the governor's standing that many Democrats have accepted Schmoke's account.

Opponents in both major parties have been comparing Glendening, unfavorably, to President Clinton. The governor has all the president's widely alleged character flaws, they say -- no core values and no moral compass. Some say it is the president who suffers by this comparison.

Glendening and his aides insist that he is fulfilling promises to the Marylanders who matter -- the voters. He has never wavered, they say, from his vision for the state: superior public education, a job-rich economy and safe streets. Voters would see his accomplishments, they say, if the news media were willing to write about programs and policies.

"People need to go back to the issues that matter," says his press secretary, Judi Scioli. "Look at the resources he's put into education. People get upset with little things, but look at the big picture -- his agreement with environmentalists and others on oyster propagation and dredge spoil disposal. Those sorts of agreements are hard to achieve, and he's getting it done."

Still, his differences with Schmoke and others across a wide spectrum of Maryland business and politics amount to what Lanny Davis, a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from Maryland, calls a "meltdown." Usually a reflexive defender of anything Democratic, Davis is sharply critical of Glendening's fund-raising trip to New York on a corporate jet in July. The governor's host was, at the time, pursuing a lucrative state contract here.

Glendening's slide seems precipitous because so many had high expectations of a man driven to implement progressive policies. With only a 5,993-vote victory margin, he needed to establish a broader base -- but he often seems to conclude that his future will be guaranteed if he raises a massive campaign fund.

"People are perplexed that he's in the situation he's in," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who has been a supporter as well as a critic.

A range of Glendening watchers, opponents and supporters say his problems are rooted in three interrelated aspects of his personal and political style.

"Consensus building": This is the term Glendening chooses for the process of reaching agreement on complicated issues. Those who deal with him instead call this approach over-promising, promise-breaking or worse.

Last year, for instance, Baltimore County officials thought they had a personal commitment from the governor to provide $2 million for extending Red Run Boulevard in Owings Mills, an important project for that community and for the county. But the money was not provided in Glendening's supplementary budget. The funding materialized only after pressure from an influential Democratic county legislator, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell.

Business leaders, too, have felt abandoned. They cite, among other things, his position on a "punitive damages" bill during this year's legislative session. That bill would have made it easier to win additional cash awards from corporations involved in lawsuits. They say he promised to oppose it -- and eventually he did, but only after flirting with supporters of the bill, which failed.

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