Labor officials courted at track

Governor's guest list for Preakness party included union heads

May 26, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening courted business executives at taxpayers' expense during last weekend's Preakness Stakes, he also used the occasion to entertain many of the state's top labor leaders, a key political constituency in Maryland elections.

Among those who attended the governor's party in the infield of Pimlico Race Course were the heads of the largest state employees union, the state firefighters union and the state teachers association -- three groups that have backed Glendening, a Democrat.

All three groups will be courted by candidates in the 2002 gubernatorial race, including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who also spent the day at Pimlico.

One Republican critic said Glendening was using the taxpayer-funded event to reward his political friends in labor. But a spokesman for the governor said union officials were invited to help market the state to companies considering doing business in Maryland.

Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said he and his wife, as well as two other MSTA officials, happily accepted the governor's invitation.

"I've always assumed it's part of the governor's way of saying thank you for being a good organization," Pence said. "I'm sure another governor would have another circle of people who would be automatically invited."

Like other labor leaders, Pence said he has attended the governor's Preakness party in past years.

The Preakness entertainment cost the state $140,000, with local economic development agencies chipping in an additional $22,000. The governor invited about 600 people -- including all 188 members of the General Assembly -- with each allowed to bring a guest.

The governor invited the legislature in response to passage last year of a state law that prohibits the owners of Pimlico from giving tickets to lawmakers -- a Preakness tradition for years. Although at least 75 legislators told state officials they would come, fewer than two dozen did, the rest scared off by the rainy weather and unfavorable publicity about the event, officials said.

Guests received tickets to the track, as well as free food and beverages and a goody bag with a program, T-shirt and other gifts.

State officials said they could not say how many of the invited guests attended, but estimated that as many as 2,000 people stopped by the state tent Saturday, including hundreds of people who were officially guests of other tents set up in Pimlico's corporate infield village.

Two dozen labor leaders were invited to attend.

Among those who attended was Donna Edwards, president of a council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents thousands of state workers. She said the Preakness afternoon was an opportunity to talk casually with state officials, but said no real business was conducted.

"It's a way to get to know people at a different level," Edwards said.

Also invited were the leaders of the Baltimore building-trades council, the Baltimore Teachers Union, and a local transit union -- as well as officials of several trade unions.

Although at least one Republican attended the governor's party, Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the GOP leader in the House of Delegates, said it was unseemly for the governor to invite his friends in labor.

"It really points out what's wrong with it. It's a way of rewarding political support," said Kittleman of Howard County. "There's nothing illegal about it, but it sure leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening, defended the invitations to labor officials.

Teachers are responsible for improving the quality of Maryland's work force, a key factor considered by companies looking to do business in the state, he said.

As for public-employee unions, they are part of the state's effort to market itself to businesses, Morrill said.

"All unions are major factors in the partnership we're trying to establish to grow jobs in Maryland," Morrill said.

He played down any political gain the governor may garner from the state-funded entertaining, noting that the guest list included far more business leaders than union officials.

"I'd be willing to bet that in that crowd, there's more people who gave money to his opponent than to him," Morrill said. "This is not based on politics."

The guest list was dominated by corporate executives from Maryland and elsewhere. State officials said the list included some companies that are considering moving to the state or expanding here. Other companies on the list are stalwart Maryland employers.

The state first paid for a party tent in the Preakness infield 12 years ago under Glendening's predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, now Maryland comptroller.

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