Serious in the role of gadfly

Activist: The UM student body president needles the governor over tuition increases as he prepares for law school and a career in politics.

November 18, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Anyone who is surprised at the stir Tim Daly has caused at the University of Maryland and in the halls of power in Annapolis probably doesn't know about the flag football team.

Daly, the UM student body president who has been hounding the governor about skyrocketing tuition, was captain of an intramural football team his freshman year. He took the job very seriously - he videotaped practice from an eighth-floor window and strode the sideline in a suit during games to call out plays.

"My mentality is, if you do it, do it right, do it to win," said the 22-year-old senior. "I'm a very competitive person. Whether that's a good or bad thing, I don't know."

That is a question now being weighed in the upper echelons of the University System of Maryland and of state government, where Daly has, in a very short time, emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

In the six months since his election as president, Daly has:

Organized a protest in Annapolis of higher-education funding cuts where another student dressed as "Bahama Bob" - in sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt, shorts, sandals and black wig - to draw attention to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Caribbean vacation in a time of budget woes.

Towed a rusty 1980 Pinto station wagon to the State House to protest Ehrlich's remark that "if you can afford the Cadillac, that's terrific, but for some folks, you need to start out with the Pinto." The governor was talking about health insurance for the poor, but Daly charged that Ehrlich, a Princeton graduate, also was forcing public university students to settle for less.

Formed a student-based political action committee, believed to be the first of its kind, that he says will raise $50,000 to launch media blitzes against lawmakers deemed unfriendly to higher education.

Become a highly visible spokesman for his cause. He has addressed the Board of Regents to oppose tuition increases and has been quoted in, among other places, The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Last week, he appeared at a Capitol Hill news conference alongside Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat.

It would be tempting to write off Daly's bouts of activism as publicity stunts, except for this: They might just be having an effect. One week after the student PAC was created, Ehrlich announced that he was considering a cap on tuition increases - a stance at odds with his most high-profile ally on the regents, who had been arguing for doubling tuition.

"Tuition has become one of the major issues in the state, and I really think it's because of our efforts," said Daly.

Official annoyance

Whether or not Daly has played a role in Ehrlich's shift, he seems to have gotten under the skin of some in the governor's office.

After Daly called Ehrlich higher education's "Public Enemy No. 1" last month, Ehrlich's press secretary, Greg Massoni, called Daly to say that the governor was canceling his planned Oct. 27 appearance on Daly's campus radio show.

When Daly shared this message with the UM newspaper, The Diamondback, he received an e-mail from Massoni: "Those messages are intended only for you in fun. Having a sense of humor and debating facts without name calling are all a part of growing up and being respectful. We'll be happy to do your show when that happens."

Daly's aggressive entry into state politics is notable considering that he's not from Maryland. He grew up near Albany, N.Y., the son of an accountant and a health care staff assistant, and came to UM to be near Washington, the better to land political internships.

He says he has inserted himself into the Maryland political scene because rising college costs are the biggest issue facing his "constituents." Others suspect more is at work: Daly, they say, is a political climber who sees in the tuition debate an easy chance to raise his profile.

Daly doesn't deny that he has political ambitions. As a teen-ager, he served on the Albany County Board of Elections, and he took off a semester last year to work for a firm that does fund raising for Democratic congressional candidates.

He won the campus presidency thanks in part to raising $4,000, far more than his rivals, which he used to hire consultants and commission a poll. He plans to attend law school next year with an eye toward an eventual run for office.

Unexpected aspects

But Daly hardly fits the stereotype of the young politician.

For one thing, he's quite willing to irk powerful elders, where other student leaders might be inclined to curry favor. "If he really wanted to help himself, he'd be more diplomatic and more like a politician," said Nathan Kennedy, a sophomore from Hagerstown and a member of UM's Young Republicans.

Daly has no regrets. "I'm not afraid to say things that get people hot," he said. "I only have one year [as president]. I need to be as effective as possible."

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