Baltimore education bill bested regional divide Electioneering: Politicians from Prince George's and Montgomery counties played to the voters back home'

April 13, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron

The three green votes were hard to miss when the landmark Baltimore school legislation came up for a roll call in the House of Delegates. Among the red "nay" votes from the delegates from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the three "yeas" on the electronic tally board flashed like a trio of comets across the Maryland political skyline.

Only three Montgomery delegates - John Adams Hurson, Michael R. Gordon and Leon G. Billings - broke ranks with their 42 colleagues from the two suburban Washington counties to support the Baltimore bill.

The three votes were important as the bill passed the House with 78 votes April 5 - only seven more than required. Three days later, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed it into law.

It may take years for the children of Baltimore to see real results from the landmark legislation, which will overhaul the system's top layer of management and send an extra $254 million in state aid over five years.

But Hurson, Gordon and Billings will find out what it meant for them much sooner - when they run for re-election next year.

In some parts of Montgomery County, it is an article of faith that the General Assembly routinely sends too much state money to Baltimore - the two stadiums, a light rail line and convention center expansion being three of the most recent, costly examples.

Elections can be won or lost on the electorate's judgment of how well a Montgomery politician stands up to Charm City.

"A few local leaders...may be tempted to cave in to Baltimore's demands. If they do, electoral consequences surely will follow," the Montgomery Journal thundered two weeks ago.

Such warnings don't seem to rattle Hurson, a second-term Democrat. His home base, District 18, is a liberal enclave abutting the District of Columbia, encompassing Chevy Chase, Kensington and other affluent suburban communities.

"My district is unique," Hurson says. "It's a lot of very progressive government workers who believe strongly in the issue of education, and providing services for the people.

"The kids in the city are not getting what they deserve," adds Hurson. "That transcends the issue of 'What am I getting?' "

Tell that to the 42 lawmakers from Prince George's and Montgomery who voted red.

Liberals who would normally be sympathetic to the city's struggling school system refused to vote for the Baltimore bill, and aggressively demanded their "fair" share.

"We have poor kids in Montgomery County, too," said lawmakers from some of the state's richest areas.

For people familiar with the dire problems in most of Baltimore's 179 schools, those concerns - while well intentioned - seemed almost comical. ("They finally discovered there are poor black kids in their districts," chuckled one black delegate from East Baltimore.)

The Baltimore school system is in a crisis, cried Nancy S. Grasmick, the state schools superintendent who has led a crusade of several years for the reform-aid package.

Even so, State House leaders could not bring together the necessary majorities, and the issue languished.

It finally came unstuck a few weeks ago when Baltimore County legislators followed the lead of their executive, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and signed on to the bill. While the counties wouldn't get as much new money as Baltimore, the aid package on the table from the governor was fair, they reasoned.

In the end, it was a solid bloc of 44 votes from Baltimore County and Baltimore City that led the passage of the school bill - with crucial help from delegates from rural areas, Anne Arundel County and elsewhere.

The final tally showed the House of Delegates more divided on regional lines than on any issue in recent memory.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who has fashioned a long State House career on consensus-building, lamented the division in his chamber.

"We should all say a little prayer that we will not be as divided again," Taylor said after the climactic vote.

It will probably take more than divine intervention. With the session barely over last week, the county executives from Montgomery and Prince George's - backed by 15 legislators from their areas - all but declared war on Baltimore at a news conference amid the crab apple trees in front of the State House.

While their counties walked away with significant increases in state education aid, the aid wasn't enough.

Even though the counties lost, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan declared that the balance of power in the state was shifting southward.

"We won the most important battle, the battle for respect," Duncan said. "And that will pay dividends for years to come."

Thomas W. Waldron is The Sun's State House bureau chief.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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