Governor aims high with agenda

Glendening enjoys strong support as he pushes liberal issues

56% approval, poll shows

January 17, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Entering the homestretch of his tenure as governor, Parris N. Glendening is feeling rather pleased with himself.

He's winning national plaudits for his environmental record. His poll numbers are up. And the state is awash in money.

"I just feel really good about where I am as governor and how the state is doing," Glendening said as he munched on pistachios during an interview in his State House office this week. "I feel like I'm `in the zone.'"

Yesterday, the governor unapologetically proposed a $21.3 billion state budget that far exceeds the General Assembly's spending limits.

Today at noon, he will use his State of the State address to outline an ambitious liberal agenda that focuses on collective bargaining, gay rights and environmental protection.

And aides say he will back a significant expansion of the state's minority business set-aside program - at a time when such affirmative action programs are under fire legally and politically.

Glendening says nobody should be surprised by his continuing focus on such issues. "This is the agenda on which I ran," he said. "These are the things I care strongly about."

Although some conservative critics say the governor is moving the state too far left, Glendening was buoyed last week by a statewide poll showing that a majority of Marylanders are with him on key issues, as are many Democratic lawmakers.

"I'm saying, `Wow,'" said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Democrat from North Baltimore, of his legislative package. "This is good stuff."

Perhaps most satisfying for Glendening, a highly political animal, is his improved standing in the polls.

Fifty-six percent of those asked in The Maryland Poll said they approve of the job he's doing - a solid figure, up measurably since the 1998 election.

The political beating Glendening endured during his first two years in office - after a razor-thin victory and stinging disputes over fund raising and other matters - is little more than a distant memory.

"Given his slow start, he's grown into the job," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "He's entitled to a pat on the back, although he could have done this a lot sooner."

Glendening says he is confident he will leave a lasting legacy.

In his view, it is a legacy built on newfound state support of higher education and new state laws in the areas of gun control and environmental protection and, should he prevail in the Assembly, on gay rights.

"I think his poll numbers going up really gave him the chance to flex the muscle of his governorship," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat who gives Glendening high marks.

The state's Republicans seem demoralized by the gains made by Glendening and his fellow Democrats the past few years.

Given poll results showing strong support for liberal causes, Republicans are having trouble latching onto issues that will appeal to the public.

This year, for instance, they are not pushing for major tax cuts and are even calling for more state spending, at least in areas such as public safety, which they contend Glendening has neglected. At the same time, Republican leaders are critical of the enormous growth in Glendening's proposed budget for next year, which they say is too big to be sustained during an economic downturn.

"He really needs to wake up to the fact that he's responsible for the future care of Maryland's citizens," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House Republican whip. "And he really isn't being very responsible."

Glendening is paying little attention to such criticism. He contends that the state can afford his budget proposal. As he tries to build support for it in an Assembly that is certain to make some cuts, he is concentrating on his strongest base - environmentalists, unions and minorities.

Consider his schedule Monday.

In early afternoon, the governor received a warm welcome from a gathering of environmental activists, who listened avidly as he described his plan for a $40 million program to purchase ecologically important open space.

Moments later, he was announcing significant new spending on drug treatment around the state, particularly in Baltimore.

Then came a speech to a gathering of more than 100 union members from the service industry, during which the governor promoted his legislation to give collective bargaining rights to thousands of state college employees.

He went on to side with the union in its effort to win bargaining rights for workers at University of Maryland Medical Center.

"I believe you have the right to organize," Glendening told the cheering group. "Yes, it's going to cost a few dollars, but I think you ought to be able to support your families."

In recent weeks, the governor's office has generated a whirlwind of activity - a sharp contrast from the relative quiet that characterized much of last year.

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