Muddling through in this new age of partisanship

December 21, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr. has changed the culture of Annapolis. His arrival has made it a far more partisan place, a more divided and more contentious place.

His determination to assert GOP values - and why not, after 36 years out of the governor's mansion? - makes him the change agent. In some ways, the adjustment will be therapeutic; in others, less so.

When Democrats were in complete control of both houses and the governor's office, they could concentrate on problem-solving with no political concerns. So what if they were busting the budget. Democratic incumbents usually won. Cooperation between the Democratic executive and legislative branches raised all political boats. With notable exceptions, Republicans weren't even afterthoughts. They cast protest votes, hurled rhetorical grenades and lamented the absence of depth in their candidate pools.

Then Mr. Ehrlich won. Even that didn't immediately disturb the Democrats. Before last year's General Assembly session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. told businessmen, legislators and lobbyists that the Assembly would work with Mr. Ehrlich - because, Mr. Miller said, the new governor had run as a Democrat.

It was a clever, slightly barbed shot at Mr. Ehrlich's moderate campaign spin. But it reflected the Assembly's traditional desire to do well without controversy, to cooperate, declare victory and go home with the pork.

But campaigns aren't always good predictors of governing style, tone or philosophy. The Republican governor turned out to be a Republican.

And he quickly found himself in the vortex of the new partisan climate. The Assembly scotched his slot machine gambling bill, a feat turned by the House. His nominee for secretary of the environment was scuttled by a Senate committee.

Mr. Ehrlich fired back at the end of the session, vetoing a handful of bills, including two or three tax measures. He had promised to be a bipartisan executive, but that promise ignored an important fact: The Assembly had seldom been partisan. It didn't have to be. Democrats were invulnerable, and they were always more conservative than party labels indicated: They could be more like Republicans when that suited them.

As a result, Maryland enjoyed a government more fully devoted to pure problem-solving than many realized. That was usually a good thing, but over time, that luxury became a liability, as when a ponderous new commitment to public education put $1.3 billion on the shoulders of taxpayers. That big commitment came after income taxes were cut 10 percent. When fiscal leaders were asked how they would pay the bills, Democrats said cheerily, "Don't worry. Be happy. We'll figure it out."

Then suddenly some of these leaders, including Baltimore's Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, were gone, voted out in a changing of the guard driven by the aspirations of black voters and by the politicization of redistricting. As they had done with the education aid, the Democrats went too far. The courts took over and drew districts that were actually a challenge for many, including Ms. Hoffman and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. Both lost.

Democrats also handed their gubernatorial nomination to someone who had never won a race for anything. So certain were they of victory, they ended up squandering a huge voter-registration edge and giving the State House to Mr. Ehrlich.

Neither side has fully adjusted to the new reality. Republicans have to learn how to govern. Democrats have to learn about life outside the executive suite.

The loss of a more constructive atmosphere is lamentable. Though a wealthy state - capable of solving many pressing problems - Maryland faces enormous challenges: a more than $700 million budget deficit, for example. That problem should pull the sides into the conference room, but so far it has not.

Because he has ruled out increasing the sales or income taxes, Mr. Ehrlich cannot offer the kinds of blandishments that governors wield to get their way. Many will say that's a very good thing. But it increases the likelihood of hardened political lines: If politicians can't bargain for stuff to take home to their constituents, the cost of playing gross political games comes down. Mr. Ehrlich's own GOP stalwarts in the Assembly make things difficult for him because they fear attacks from the anti-tax cabal and resist even a critically important boost in the gas tax.

Another campaign could actually help with all of this. Before it arrives, Mr. Ehrlich will rummage through the campaign closet for his moderate political wardrobe. He'll have to move back toward the Democratic positions referred to so wryly by Mr. Miller.

So, in this holiday season, we can contemplate gridlock and hope for a brighter new year - in 2006.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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