Patronage has its perils

February 16, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

NOW COMES former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV to claim a $92,000- a-year patronage plum from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Mr. Mitchell's salary and job attract attention, because he comes to the work enshrouded by ethical lapses and because Governor Ehrlich ran against what has been called a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis. How deep is the governor's commitment to change if he's hiring someone recently censured by the Assembly's ethics panel?

Seems the former senator took a loan from bail bond interests who had various bills pending. Such monetary relationships must be reported to the ethics police as a kind of cleansing operation. Of course, if you don't report - as Mr. Mitchell did not - the assumption is that a report would have exposed, not explained, a blatant conflict of interest. If you take money from Mr. Jones and then you have to vote on legislation he wants passed, your judgment could be clouded. The issue gets more troubling when you learn that the loan wasn't repaid. When does a loan become a gift? Or a bribe?

Nevertheless, politics being what it is, every one remotely interested in Maryland politics expected to see the former senator on the state payroll. The only questions were where and for how much.

And how would the governor explain himself? He campaigned on a promise to change the culture of corruption in Annapolis. Could he give a job to someone who's been put on the carpet by the ethics panel?

Well of course he can. He's the governor.

Ehrlich administration insiders say the matter is easily if not satisfactorily explained. One word and one figure suffice, they say.

The word: Loyalty.

Loyalty is a prime virtue for the new governor. In this case, he's putting loyalty ahead of the possible perception that he's got an ethical blind spot where his friends are concerned.

The number: 15 percent.

That's how much of the black vote Mr. Ehrlich got in his victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. For a generation, African-Americans have been the exclusive preserve of Democrats. In 1998, Ellen R. Sauerbrey got less than 10 percent of the black vote. President Bush got about 8 percent in his election. Nothing seemed to dent that solid front, but the Ehrlich camp knew it had no chance at all if he didn't do better - and he did, 50 percent better than Ms. Sauerbrey.

No one thinks Clarence Mitchell, despite the importance of his family name in the history of civil rights in Maryland, was wholly responsible for that gain. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele gets most of the credit. But Mr. Mitchell was there from the start, visible and taking risks.

So, the new governor's political calculation goes something like this: Better to absorb the blows of those who wonder if he's violated a campaign promise on corruption. Better to take on those who deplore rank patronage. Better politically to endure all of that than to look as if you're willing to dump your friends and allies.

It's a precept with undeniable appeal. It's been the credo of those the new governor looks up to in the political firmament.

When former Gov. Marvin Mandel returned from a stint in federal prison, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer of Baltimore met him with the offer of a job. Hadn't Mr. Mandel listened when Mayor Schaefer needed help on virtually everything? Weren't they members of the same Northwest Baltimore political clubhouse? Weren't they friends? Yes to all. Hence a very public job offer. To have ducked and hidden and ignored Mr. Mandel would have been noticed and condemned with more ferocity than any scorn he might have felt from the good-government types.

Also, Mr. Schaefer knew he could make this offer because he'd been in public life for a quarter-century with no suggestion of self-dealing. He could do it because he had such a record of accomplishment - had become something of a folk hero, with stratospheric popularity ratings.

Nothing in Mr. Ehrlich's background suggests he would do anything unethical or align himself with others who would - until now. But loyalty has put him at risk.

Past can be prologue. It need not be, of course. Mr. Mitchell is not without redeeming qualities, but he has found ways to make those qualities obscure at best. His appointment makes him a kind of reclamation project for the new governor.

It won't be easy. One of the old saws of politics goes like this: If you give one out of 10 friends a job, you make all 10 of them angry - the nine who didn't get hired and the one who did because someone may expect him to actually work.

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

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