Glendening set to bask in new political light

As second term nears, prospects have turned from weak to strong

January 17, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Seen scant months ago as the weakest of U.S. governors, Parris N. Glendening will be sworn in for a second term Wednesday with the potential to become one of the nation's strongest.

Glendening has created some potential problems for himself by backing away from a series of campaign promises, but his backers say his decisions were prudent and based on the best interests of the state.

Now, with his wide victory margin in November, pockets jammed with tax dollars and a wealth of political power, Glendening could hardly be better situated to succeed in his second term as Maryland's chief executive.

If the governor's objectives are to leave Maryland a record of unprecedented improvements in education and groundbreaking regulations to control sprawl, he can probably achieve both with ease.

His power flows from all points of the political compass:

Though some would say he won in spite of himself, Glendening fairly claims that his 12-point victory in November is an undeniable endorsement of his policies.

The economy continues to hum, affording him a surplus of $250 million and counting.

After the census of 2000, Glendening and Democratic Party officials will redraw the state's election districts, a chore that gives him nearly life-and-death power over virtually every member of the General Assembly. Lines drawn to favor -- or harm -- senators or delegates can boost or end their careers.

In recent weeks, his stature has been elevated further by discussion that he would become vice chairman and then chairman of the National Governors' Association, a position filled by a vote of the other governors. His name was mentioned favorably after a recent association conclave in Delaware.

Glendening has made clear his intention to focus on education and Smart Growth, but he has spoken expansively as well about his broader mandate and about the solemnity of governing Maryland into the new millennium.

`Compassionate society'

"It's humbling," he said at a luncheon meeting of euphoric Democrats last week. "We Democrats have the unique privilege of setting the agenda for the next century. It's about setting the agenda for the next century. It's about creating a truly caring and compassionate society.

"We have a mandate to do good things," he said.

If he can avoid missteps -- by not overstating his new status while steering around the inevitable hazards of politics -- Glendening may well accomplish most of his objectives.

"When historians ask who was the education leader of the 20th century," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., "the clear answer is going to be Parris N. Glendening. Our governor already has developed a legacy, and he still has four years to go."

Glendening's associates say he has no interest in further elected office, but he will need public support for his legislative agendas over the remaining years of his governorship. To become the education or the growth-control governor, he will need the approbation of the General Assembly -- and of the electorate.

"Whatever his downsides," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, alluding to Glendening's low approval ratings last year, "people liked what he did with the basics."

But some people have not liked what he has done since the election, walking away from promises so quickly he seemed anxious to prove all over again that politicians in search of re-election cannot be trusted.

Glendening delayed fulfilling his promise to provide more teachers until next year because, his press secretary Ray Feldmann said, $17 million in federal money will be available then and a system of accountability needs to be in place first.

He delayed an effort to require child-proof guns, explaining that the technology to do what he had promised has not been perfected. He delayed, according to Feldmann, because moving prematurely would endanger the legislation's success.

He proposed legislation under which the state would take over circuit courts as he had promised -- but provided no money for that takeover. "It's a complex takeover," Feldmann said. "You need a mechanism to phase it in systematically.

And Glendening decided not to accelerate the 1997 income-tax cut, choosing instead to spend every nickel of a $250 million surplus -- sending none of it back to the taxpayers.

"He did say if the economy stayed strong and growing, he would accelerate the cut," Feldmann said. But in the budget-making process, the governor saw that what he wanted to accomplish in education could not be done if an additional 5 percent income-tax cut had to be paid for as well.

That, according to budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester, would have cost another $250 million, which would have come from the state's $700 million rainy day fund. Or he might have kept his commitment -- and cut other spending.

Hazard on the landscape

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