Reality bites

January 12, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

DEMOCRATIC legislators cooed collegially Wednesday morning, recalling the heady days of a decade ago when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was one of them.

Bonding aside, of course, Bob Ehrlich is now governor-elect, and Democrats will try to break his kneecaps - civilly, of course.

They hold majorities in both houses, but governors have the power.

Yet even that reality minimizes the change that comes now to Annapolis, a place dominated by Democrats since the "nattering nabobs of negativism" - the famous alliterative slur on liberals from Spiro T. Agnew, governor of Maryland 36 years ago and later vice president of the United States.

At a breakfast conclave with Maryland businessmen last week, the new chief executive and his lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, fenced with some of their old colleagues, producing an exchange that illustrates the new day.

Mr. Steele declared that he, an African-American Republican, would embrace minority set-asides of state contracts on the order of 50 percent. The Democrats leapt at the prospect: As a party, Republicans haven't liked set-asides, so if they were willing to adopt this most Democratic of social strategies at a far higher level than the current 25 percent, why, go for it, said Del. Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, and after we've fainted we'll vote along with you!

But Mr. Steele's point was that the numbers - 25 percent, 50 percent or 100 percent - don't matter if minorities can't find the capital to become contractors and take advantage of the contracts set aside for them. The new Ehrlich-Steele team promises something more than rhetoric or campaign promises.

This brave new GOP world springs from the new team's evolving definition of itself. It's something like Republican populism, Mr. Ehrlich said later that morning. It's a refinement of their campaign's useful distillation: "the opportunity team," the blue-collar guy from Arbutus and the African-American lawyer from Prince George's, working their way up.

If they can pull it off even in a time of alarming deficits, they'll be more than on their way to a Republican renaissance in Maryland. Mr. Steele will work on minority enterprise, job development, pedagogical improvement in schools - not just on building them. For the last eight years, under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who owed much to unions, classrooms were virtually off limits for policymakers. No more.

But won't the deficit derail the new gang? These would be terrible times for a governor like William Donald Schaefer, a spender and builder. But for a Republican like Mr. Ehrlich, it might be a perfect time. He wants to make government smaller.

The trick will be selling the leaner machine to a suspicious, Democrat-dominated General Assembly and to Marylanders who may not realize how devoted they are to government.

As much as we resent and resist taxes, we want roads and schools and safe streets. Slot machine gambling, if approved, would help ease the financial pain, but slots probably wouldn't eliminate all the revenue needs. Here the new team will have to sell slots as an opportunity we can't refuse. Democrats will be asked to buy it - or cut services.

In that regard and others, the selling part of the campaign continues.

Mr. Steele spoke recently to a group of Democrats in Baltimore, drawing enthusiastic applause. One man stopped himself in mid-clap to say, "Wait a minute. This is a Republican I'm applauding." Yes, indeed.

"He's a very inconvenient guy," says Mr. Ehrlich, meaning that having an African-American partner makes it harder to attack him on issues like set-asides.

But Mr. Steele could become inconvenient for the new governor as well. Mr. Ehrlich renewed his campaign promise to resume executing convicted murderers even as a commission found significant racial imbalances in Maryland's meting out of death. The governor-elect, who favors capital punishment, can be quite unyielding. Mr. Steele, who opposes the death penalty, can be quite persuasive. Talk about inconvenient.

So, all they must do is prevail over death, taxes and the odd disagreement.

If they succeed, they could inconvenience Democrats for a decade or more - on into the first and second Steele administrations.

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

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