Senate Democrats derail Ehrlich's environment pick

Buhl nomination rejected

some see her as victim of partisan showdown

March 12, 2003|By Tim Craig and Stephanie Desmon | Tim Craig and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

After a fierce debate, the state Senate rejected Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s choice for environmental secretary yesterday - the first time in Maryland's modern history that the chamber has refused to approve a governor's nominee to head an agency.

The 26-21 vote against Lynn Y. Buhl followed a week of furious backroom negotiations and aggressive lobbying by the governor as he tried to avert a public and embarrassing setback.

The outcome strained relations between Ehrlich and the Senate, and left some senators angry, even as others said it was a natural consequence of a Republican executive and a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Buhl supporters - and a few of her Democratic foes - say she was the victim of a partisan showdown between Ehrlich and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"This wasn't about Lynn Buhl," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who voted against Buhl. "This was about power and a standoff between the governor and president."

Miller declined to say he pressured his caucus to oppose Buhl but lambasted the way Ehrlich handled the nomination. "He has imported right-wing partisans from Capitol Hill. They all want to make war instead of trying to broker an honest settlement," Miller said.

But Ehrlich accused Senate Democrats of being the ones who brought Washington-style politics to Annapolis. "Do I think it's the first hiccup in a partisan road, the Capitol Hill politics we tried not to bring here? Of course," he said.

The dispute follows Miller's unsuccessful efforts over the weekend to orchestrate a deal between Ehrlich and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who led the effort to defeat Buhl.

After Ehrlich rejected Frosh's offer - which included keeping Buhl as a temporary Cabinet secretary until next year - Democrats set out to derail the nomination yesterday morning.

Buhl will remain acting secretary until she leaves or another nominee is named, which "is not going to happen in the near future," said Paul E. Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman.

When Buhl leaves or transfers to another state job, Deputy Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick will probably run the department.

Buhl would not comment after the vote but issued a brief statement thanking her supporters. A department spokesman said she is "going to take a few days off" while she decides what to do next.

Seven Democrats joined the entire Republican caucus in voting to confirm Buhl. But Buhl's nomination suffered a critical blow after three Democrats who supported her March 3 - when the Senate Executive Nomination's Committee voted 10-9 to oppose her - switched their votes yesterday.

Middleton, one of the three senators who turned against Buhl, said he switched his vote at Miller's urging. "There is a war going on, and when the chiefs go to war they call on the braves," the Finance Committee chairman said.

Two Anne Arundel County Democrats - Sens. James E. DeGrange Sr. and Philip C. Jimeno - also switched their votes to oppose Buhl.

On the other side, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, voted against Buhl in committee but supported her yesterday.

Kelley said she was demonstrating her frustration with how Senate leaders handled the fight. "This is just a whole lot of foolishness going on. It is being done to show the strength of the Senate and to leverage other deals," Kelley said.

The Buhl nomination has consumed much of the administration and Senate for the past week as the governor and environmentalists fought over her selection.

Frosh and environmentalists argued that Buhl was not qualified to lead Maryland's agency because she had been a mid-level administrator in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. That department has been criticized for its lax enforcement of environmental laws and its ties to business.

But the governor has maintained that he has the right to appoint his own people and that Buhl is qualified to lead an agency charged with protecting the state's air and water.

In a two-hour debate yesterday, senators hurled accusations of partisanship back and forth and argued over whether Buhl was the right choice to oversee Maryland's environment.

Buhl and her family sat in the Senate gallery as one Democratic senator after another stood up to punch holes in her resume and her commitment to environmental protection. She began the morning wearing a fixed smile, which seemed to fade as the debate progressed.

"This nomination has gotten off on the wrong foot, and it has limped, staggered and lurched ever since," Frosh said.

Frosh argued that Buhl had failed to adequately prove she would not bring Michigan's environmental policies to Maryland

"It reminds me if you were looking for a baby sitter ... [and] her immediate past employer was the Addams Family," Frosh said.

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