In search of a new culture in Annapolis

September 08, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

CHANGE: IT ought to be Issue One in Maryland's Election 2002.

Why? Because something needs to replace the arrogance that comes with unchallenged power. Maryland has had enough of gaudy self-aggrandizement and reflexive self-dealing. I could go on. I will go on.

A federal judge said Annapolis marinates in a "culture of corruption." What did he mean? Two General Assembly lobbyists went to jail. A state senator was expelled. Another was reprimanded by the Assembly's ethics committee. The state Court of Appeals threw out the governor's overly political redistricting plan.

Anybody care?

We could get some clues in Tuesday's primary elections.

A decent turnout would be one indication, but one senses a fair amount of confusion as a result of the new district maps, which leave many voters even more confused than usual about what district they live in and who represents them.

Democratic leaders are to blame. They altered the political landscape profoundly, and not in a positive way, via gross self-indulgence. Gov. Parris N. Glendening engineered a new legislative district map that literally invited the Court of Appeals to intervene on behalf of the state constitution.

The court took the dare. It trashed the Glendening map and drew its own, proving that poor political judgment can be damaging. The court's map erased egregious gerrymandering. It also reversed progressive steps taken in 1992 to link Baltimore and Baltimore County. Good public policy was erased by gross politics.

Nor did the overreaching end there. State Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller telephoned to "yell" at the high court judges even as they were deciding if Mr. Glendening's map should be approved. The judges quickly rejected the governor's proposal. They had no choice. Any other action would have made the court seem subservient to Senator Miller.

That decision, along with population loss, left Baltimore with two fewer senators. City voters now face wrenching choices that could obliterate the city's power in Annapolis: Three or four important legislators could lose. At least the decision is in the voters' hands.

Will they choose the further evolution of black leadership or the power accumulated by a veteran white senator in the 41st Senatorial District. Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a black freshman legislator, presents herself as the city's future. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman says her experience and power are critical now.

Change of another sort could occur in the 44th District, where Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV tries to hold off a challenge from Del. Verna L. Jones. Mr. Mitchell's re-election hopes are weakened by his censure for an ethical lapse: He accepted and did not report a loan from businesses with interests before the Assembly. Change will come here if voters step away from Mr. Mitchell, heretofore untouchable as the grandson of civil rights hero Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.

In a statewide race, voters will decide between an icon with a career of unprecedented accomplishment -- whose style can offend -- and a never-elected technocrat with no record. Could Comptroller William Donald Schaefer lose to a virtual no-name, Secretary of State John T. Willis?

An upset win by Mr. Willis would be a sad example of how the more things change the more they stay the same. He helped to draw the laughably political redistricting map thrown out by the Court of Appeals. A protM-igM-i and friend of Governor Glendening's, Mr. Willis, too, is part of the entrenched Democratic apparatus.

His otherwise admirable willingness to test another Democrat might have represented welcome change -- were it aimed at someone else. Mr. Schaefer's has been the only reliable and independent Democratic voice in Annapolis.

A drive for change in other offices, though, should pulse on through the General Election.

It could carry Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to the state house over Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has been, until recently, a silent partner in the Democratic clubhouse.

But can Mr. Ehrlich convince voters that his new political persona is more than election season disguise? Is he a changed man, a moderate now? Or is he still the unbending conservative who went along with the "Contract With America"?

Of course, a Democrat could be a change agent, too.

Ms. Townsend showed an admirable determination to stand up for her allies last week. Some advised her to stay out of the Willis-Schaefer fight to avoid offending supporters of either man. She rejected that counsel, condemning a series of radio ads paid for by Mr. Glendening to support Mr. Willis. The suggestion in these ads that Mr. Schaefer is anti-woman and anti-black, she said, is wrong and offensive.

Her choice of a running mate has been criticized in some quarters, but retired Adm. Charles R. Larson could be seen eventually as a movement away from the mess in Annapolis. Democrats were pained doubly by this choice: One of them was not chosen, and the admiral had been a Republican until mere weeks before he was selected.

May voters have some serious stock taking: brutally honest assessments of where we stand financially, for example. May we have more leadership, more new ideas ... more change.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears on Sunday.

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