Rare sightings of Glendening

January 14, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

TO MANY Marylanders, this state's governor is an invisible man, rarely seen and seldom heard.

Parris N. Glendening's drab personality and demeanor blend in with the woodwork. He's not a backslapper. He lacks charisma, so he's not on TV news often, either.

And he's spent so much time running around the country promoting his Smart Growth land-use programs that Maryland seems to have become an afterthought.

That changes this week. Indeed, it happens this time every year: The General Assembly is in session, but the governor always gets top billing.

Come Wednesday, Mr. Glendening takes center stage with his State of the State address and budget. His agenda serves as a focal point for the lawmakers' 90-day session.

The invisible man will be much in evidence through April.

Parris Glendening is a curious blend of policy wonk and crass politician. He can be an innovative thinker (Smart Growth) or a promoter of special interests (labor unions). He can work diligently to make government more efficient or shamelessly strong-arm politicians and business leaders for political funds.

His goals are usually commendable, but he makes few lasting friends along the way.

Many politicians distrust him. They say he tells them what they want to hear, then later denies he had made a commitment to them.

Other politicians say they hardly know the Democratic governor. The Republicans' House leader, Robert Kittleman of Howard County, says he's never been invited to Mr. Glendening's office.

No one in the legislature claims to be a close friend. Mr. Glendening is an ambitious fellow, but he keeps his ultimate objectives a tightly guarded secret.

The governor is single-minded. He sets a course and sticks with it. His legislative goals remain the same as when he ran for the office in 1994 -- education, crime prevention, the environment.

Yet some pressing matters barely make his radar screen. Two economic development secretaries quit after concluding Mr. Glendening didn't really care about making this a burning priority.

He refuses to confront several big-ticket problems, such as the $27 billion long-term deficit in transportation or the enormous task of rewriting the state education-aid formula.

Legislators and advocacy groups say he has sidestepped a burgeoning budgetary threat posed by ballooning Medicaid costs, as well as the need to expand low-income health insurance.

A top legislator said he once asked the governor to get involved in solving health-care problems but was told: "I've got friends on both sides of the health-care issue, and on this one I'm with my friends."

What you can expect from Parris Glendening this legislative session is more of the same.

There aren't any monumental issues on his agenda, no revolutionary proposals. Instead, he offers incremental changes that, over time, can have far-reaching impact. Smart Growth is the most prominent illustration.

He has pieced together a program that is slowly changing the way Marylanders use the land. A decade from now, Mr. Glendening could look like a visionary. That's how long it will take to see the ramifications of his policies.

Or take education. By the time he leaves office, Mr. Glendening will have committed $1.3 billion to higher-education construction and $1.6 billion to K-12 buildings. The payoff from these investments won't be evident for years.

Critics claim Mr. Glendening's big-spending ways are bankrupting the state.

They note that while Bill Clinton used Washington's surplus to pay down the federal debt, Mr. Glendening has done the opposite: He's using surplus funds to expand programs and increase Maryland's long-term debt.

When the state finally runs into an economic recession, the impact of this policy could be painful, according to naysayers.

But that could be far in the future, after Mr. Glendening has left the Maryland scene. Then it will he his successor's problem.

For now, Mr. Glendening appears quite content to keep to his nondescript, button-down ways, using the surplus to get what he wants from the legislature, and then once again slipping into anonymity once spring and the Preakness return to Maryland.

Wednesday's column reference to a failed coup attempt against Senate President Mike Miller named lobbyist Bruce Bereano as a participant. Mr. Bereano loudly protests. Those who claim he had a role "are lying through their teeth," he said. "I stayed as far away from it as possible."

Lobbyist-lawyer John A. Pica Jr. protests, too. "I wasn't rounding up votes," he said. "People have axes to grind down there. I never contacted a single senator or a friend. I just wasn't part of it at all."

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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