Timing may aid Dixon in his run of bad publicity

The Political Game

Position: Revelations about his work as head of pension fund do not seem enough to threaten his job as treasurer.

November 20, 2001|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

SOME HOLLYWOOD and Madison Avenue types might argue that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but the adage doesn't apply in the political world. (Ask Gary Condit, for one.)

Politicians work hard -- and spend a lot of money -- to cultivate their image. The perception of their performance and skills is often as important as reality.

That's why Maryland Treasurer Richard N. Dixon can't be happy about a spate of articles in this newspaper raising questions about his record as chairman of the state pension board.

A national ranking of public pension funds scored the Maryland system dead last for fiscal 2001. Dixon said he didn't know about the ranking until it was in The Sun. Later reporting showed that he led an effort to steer system investments more heavily into stocks at the wrong time.

The pension trustees will decide if Dixon remains their chairman. However, the revelations do not appear serious enough to threaten his position as treasurer.

"There is no grounds to remove him as treasurer," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who heads the budget committee. "He's been a good treasurer. The problem is, he bragged a lot."

The opinion of Hoffman and other legislative leaders matters greatly, because they decide who holds the job. Under the Maryland Constitution, the General Assembly chooses a treasurer to serve a four-year term concurrent with the governor.

That means Dixon could benefit from timing. No immediate move will be made to oust him. If he were to seek re-election in 2003, the furor might have died down. It's uncertain if Dixon wants the job again -- or if he'd get it if he did seek re-election.

Rumors have swirled for years that House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. is interested in the post. Taylor would provide formidable opposition: Because of the many House leadership vacancies that would be triggered if Taylor moved on, he'd get plenty of support for a bid to be treasurer. For now, lawmakers are working on containing the public relations disaster.

About 10 days ago, top legislators sat with Dixon and delivered a stern message. Rather than ducking the press, they said, you need to work harder to defend yourself. And consider hiring outside investment advisers.

"We had a good discussion about public perception and fund performance," said Hoffman, who participated in the meeting.

Dixon is also protected because of his position on the powerful Board of Public Works, which doles out millions for land purchases and construction projects.

Meetings have become a forum for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer to criticize Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Glendening has been able to ignore the blows, largely because Dixon almost always votes his way -- with Schaefer the lone dissenting vote on many projects.

So Glendening won't be actively working to oust Dixon, either. If he did, his slim 2-1 advantage on the public works board could be in jeopardy.

New Assembly publication provides party information

If you're looking for a party to crash or food to mooch, a new publication of the Maryland General Assembly Department of General Services provides just the ticket.

Beginning this month, the department is printing a thin pamphlet, "Notice of Legislative Unit Invitations to Meals and Receptions." In reality, the document is a roadmap to parties where lawmakers are being wined and dined.

The state's last crack at lobbying reform prohibited politicians from accepting individual meals from patrons. They can attend shindigs only where a committee or county legislative delegation has been invited. And the invitations have to be publicized.

For now, pickings are slim.

John B. Neil, a lobbyist for Anne Arundel Medical Center, earned the dubious distinction of registering the first soiree. Lawmakers from Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and the Upper Eastern Shore were invited to a opening ceremony Nov. 10 at the medical center's new home.

"The irony is, we did not have one RSVP from a legislator," he said. "It just happened that we had food and drink there. That's what kicks [the reporting rules] in."

Other early festivities include a Nov. 13 event at the Park Heights-Pimlico Health Facility sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Sinai Hospital. The Baltimore legislative delegation was invited. The House Economic Matters Committee got an invitation from the Maryland Chamber of Commerce for a meal Dec. 4 at Harry Browne's Restaurant in Annapolis.

Look for the listings to thicken -- along with the waistlines of lawmakers -- when the session gets under way early next year.

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