Making hay from ethics Fallout: Ethics probes have dominated the General Assembly this session. Republicans are gloating. Democrats are worried. But will voters care?

The Political Game

March 03, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

THERE'S A WHOLE lotta' ethics going on down here in Annapolis, along with a whole lotta paranoia.

Incumbent legislators in the capital city are running for cover, terrified of how recent allegations of ethical breaches by some state lawmakers -- Democrats all -- will play with voters in November.

Democrats are particularly wary. State Republicans are eating it up.

While the GOP would like to label Annapolis as "The Big Sleazy" these days, most folks would be better off calling it "The Big Ugly."

Lobbyists and legislators are dropping dimes -- or 35 cents, as the case may be -- on other lobbyists and legislators.

Rumors about media "hit lists" abound, following press accounts of transgressions that have resulted in the exit of two senior lawmakers from the General Assembly. Legislators and sympathetic lobbyists alike are calling reporters -- at least in the PG versions -- "angels of death" and "part of the lynch mob."

Around the State House campus, the question of "Who's next?" is often asked rhetorically, accompanied by nervous laughter. Their inner response: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls. ..."

The change in atmosphere has resulted in reams of new disclosures being filed this session with the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

And it has helped the GOP stake out an encampment on the high moral ground, hoping for a repeat of its victories more than 100 years ago, when voters were so disgusted with Maryland's Democratic "Ring" that they began throwing the rascals out in the statewide election of 1895.

That was the year the reformers -- an alliance of Republicans and Democratic good-government types -- saw at the polls the beginning of the end of the 20-plus-year reign of the Arthur Pue Gorman and Freeman I. Rasin political machine.

The GOP already had plans this election year to make Gov. Parris N. Glendening the ethically challenged poster child of the Democratic Party.

They intended to remind voters of the Prince George's County pension fiasco -- in which Glendening's top aides assured themselves and him, the former county executive, of getting an enhanced early-age retirement arrangement. Then, of course, there was the gubernatorial jet-set fund-raiser in New York sponsored by a company bidding on a state contract, and the secret slots-for-tots "miscommunication" with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

But Republicans' hopes were bolstered even further by the legislature's ethics probe of former Sen. Larry Young, the Baltimore Democrat who was expelled from the Maryland Senate in January.

"It's like Christmas come early," GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ellen R. Sauerbrey said, after the General Assembly had finished grappling with the Young matter.

But then came the ethics investigation of former Del. Gerald J. Curran, a Baltimore Democrat, and his business dealings. The insurance broker resigned Friday from the House of Delegates, denying any wrongdoing.

The same day, a press report surfaced raising questions about House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.'s involvement in a Western Maryland land deal.

"They're giving us an issue a day," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the Republican Party.

"All this abuse of power, arrogance of power, comes from when one party has been in control too long, and they think they can do these things and get away with it," Terhes said.

"We sure need to return the ethics, integrity and trust to the people of Maryland," she said.

This from the party that brought you such luminaries as Spiro T. Agnew, whose own political lamp was snuffed out while vice president of the United States, based on some simple graft back here at home.

And it was Theodore R. McKeldin, the Republican former governor and Baltimore mayor, who helped propel the late Irvin Kovens years ago into the role of political boss and godfather to two Democratic governors -- Marvin Mandel (his co-defendant in a federal mail fraud and racketeering case) and William Donald Schaefer.

"What makes you think we'd be any better?" asked one high-ranking GOP official.

But questions such as those don't ease fears or tension among Democrats in Annapolis -- or among the party regulars.

The real questions, to be answered in November, are how will all this hoopla over ethics resonate with voters -- and will they realize that abuse has nothing to do with party affiliation.

Democrats clear the air in smoke-filled rooms

Tell us it ain't so.

The end of the era of smoke-filled rooms has arrived -- at least at the Stonewall Democratic Club in South Baltimore, Maryland's oldest surviving Democratic club and the site of many a back-room deal.

In an attempt to attract new members, The Stonewall is becoming politically correct by implementing a smoking ban "while the meeting is in session," according to Del. Brian K. McHale, the Locust Point Democrat.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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