Putting appointees in the (green) bag

Politics: Yesterday was "green bag" day, when the governor sends his list of state appointments to the Senate for approval.

February 19, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The presentation took a couple of minutes, long enough for a few quick words and a grip-and-grin photo.

But behind the perfunctory moment in the Maryland Senate chamber yesterday lay a world of politics and history.

It was "green bag" day, the 40th day of the legislative session, the day the governor sends his list of appointments for the Senate's approval. It's an annual event, Christmas in February at the State House.

Each year, the appointments arrive like thank-you notes. This year, 197 names were in the green bag. The appointments included positions on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, the state Board of Well Drillers, the Maryland Racing Commission and the Amusement Ride Safety Advisory Board.

Prominent business leaders such as William L. Jews, president of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman and chief executive officer of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., were appointed or reappointed to state posts.

The green bag brings together political friendships and obligations. It balances competing geographical interests, ethnicity, gender and power. Though only a small percentage of the hundreds of gubernatorial appointments are in the green bag, a sense of drama and anticipation used to swirl around its arrival.

"Everybody would be joking about it: `Has the governor lied, or has he kept his word?' So, there would be a little suspense about it," says former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

"It's like having a lottery," he says. "Until they pull the last number, you don't know who won. So, that kept the anxiety and the excitement alive, and that's why the green bag coming down has always been a special day."

To a large degree, the world of the green bag's heyday is gone. Once it was a veritable feed bag for "muldoons" and loyal foot soldiers gorging themselves at the trough of patronage.

One mid-century columnist wrote: "The thing to remember is that in these Greenbag appointments the governor is rewarding his political friends in the classical fashion. Sometimes the name of a really able man finds its way into the bag. But ability and fitness are not the prime considerations."

"It was always raw politics. Any appointment of any substance was in the green bag," says Judge Edgar P. Silver, a longtime State House watcher. "That was machine politics at its best."

Those days have disappeared. The powerful political machines that ruled wards, districts and chunks of the state are a memory. Commissions and boards that provided a small check are opportunities for public service.

"During the recession, we eliminated the salaries for nine-tenths of those boards," says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "And you know when you eliminate the stipend that goes with those boards, there's another reason for a lack of enthusiasm for these assignments."

Jennifer Crawford, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's appointments secretary, says people ask her if a position comes with a check. Some opt out when they learn the appointment is volunteer work. Others want the prestige or the professional recognition.

The green bag, it turns out, really is green. It is made of leather and embossed with the state seal. It is kept in the special collections section of the Hall of Records, where it is wrapped in muslin and placed in an acid-free box that is then placed in a cardboard box.

The phrase "green bag" dates to 17th-century England, when lawyers carried their important papers in green bags. By 1845, green bag had become so closely linked with patronage in Baltimore that The Sun could note the "anxiety of expectation" accompanying appointment of the trustees for the almshouse or the deputy high constable.

That's history.

"Actually the origin was that this is the way governors could take care of their supporters," says Mandel. "The guy that raised the green -- the greenbacks, the money -- was the guy who got in the green bag."

You could thank President Andrew Jackson for that wrinkle.

"He opened up democracy, but he also said, `To the victor the spoils,' " says Miller. "Everybody who held public office was ousted, and people who helped to elect the chief executive got the plum assignments."

Different times bring different plums. Liquor boards and election boards are perennial favorites, as is the Board of Regents. Even seemingly obscure jobs can be the subject of intense lobbying.

"You can't laugh them off because the minute you think you've got an easy one, guess what?" says Louise Keelty, appointments secretary during Gov. Harry Hughes' tenure.

A favorite during the Mandel years was a $50-a-day job as a urine tester at the racetracks.

"Guys who were retired would want to give their wives an excuse for why they would be at the racetrack," says Maurice R. "Mo" Wyatt, appointments secretary and patronage boss during Mandel's tenure. "We would always have people calling to see if we had a vacancy or not."

One of the biggest "green bag" battles occurred in 1967, when Gov. J. Millard Tawes tried to slip in one last favor before leaving office. George Hocker, a notorious political strongman, fund-raiser, confidant and right-hand man, wanted to be on the Board of Regents.

"That is a green bag appointment," says Wyatt. "And here's a guy who probably had more influence over who went into that green bag and put himself in, and he got knocked off."

Hocker, who had had his way with the Senate for eight years, lost by one vote. It was a politically humiliating defeat for him and for Tawes.

With yesterday's exchange made and the crunch leading to the green bag over, Crawford told the Senate that "the phones in my office will be out of order until the end of the session." Still, the politicking continues.

"Patronage. It's never going to end," says Sen. George W. Della Jr. "It might not be as blatant as it was years ago, but I don't see how you could do away with it."

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