Party ready to get the word out

The Political Game

Democrats: Some in the House of Delegates want the party's chairman to deliver stronger opposition to Ehrlich's no-new-taxes pledge.

The Political Game

December 23, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

DEMOCRATS in the House of Delegates didn't shoot the messenger, but they want him to work on his message.

In a strategy meeting last week, some delegates expressed concern about the state of the Maryland Democratic Party under the chairmanship of Isiah Leggett, the former Montgomery County councilman.

Attending the closed-door session, Leggett briefed lawmakers on his party-building travels and fund raising. Some delegates said they were troubled that the party has not developed a stronger message to counter Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his popular no-new-taxes pledge.

Leggett's thoughtful speaking style and consensus-building demeanor differ greatly from the bull-in-a-china-shop approach used by his counterpart, state Republican Party Chairman John Kane. Kane seems to say whatever is on his mind, and his statements frequently grab headlines.

After discussion about who should be carrying the banner, Democratic lawmakers agreed that Leggett should play a more active role in articulating the party's positions.

In an interview yesterday, Leggett said he is fine with that. "They want me to be that spokesperson," he said. "We should be much more visible and consistent with the message."

But he acknowledged that the message is hard to develop, and that his job is much more difficult than Kane's. Democrats are a diverse group, he said. The party's legislative leaders, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, are divided over the need to legalize slot machine gambling, whether to raise taxes and how much to cut the budget.

And the party is trying to develop positions without holding the governorship for the first time in more than 30 years. "The governor's office sets the message for [Republicans], and sets the tone," Leggett said.

Josh White, executive director of the state party, said he left the meeting with an upbeat feeling that Democrats were united in the desire to hold Ehrlich accountable for his pledges to fund education and transportation.

"It was really about the legislature and the governor," White said of the meeting. "The big question is where the governor is taking [the state,] and is he fulfilling his campaign promises. And what are Democrats going to do to keep him to his campaign promises."

Leggett isn't sure that everyone wants him to be more vocal. His next stop is with Democratic senators, where he'll see if they agree.

It's tough knowing who friends are in budget talks

More differences between the House and Senate were evident last week during a key budget meeting that must have left Ehrlich puzzled about who his true friends are.

Again, the drama occurred behind closed doors, when senators and delegates met in private before emerging to set an advisory budget figure for next year.

Even as he was saying he would help Ehrlich push a slots-at-racetracks bill through the legislature, Miller was advocating a far lower budget growth figure than the administration wanted. Miller's suggestion would have forced the governor to make at least $100 million more in cuts to programs than his aides anticipated.

"It's ironic," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, the budget committee chairman, that Ehrlich's budget chief James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. was pushing for a bigger budget than the Senate. "We felt strongly that it's best to err on the side of caution, rather than set it too high," Currie said.

But Busch - the governor's chief opponent on slots - pushed through a higher budget growth target than the Senate proposed, though not quite as big as the administration wanted.

Busch said a lower figure would have obliterated pay raises for state employees, and may have forced more cuts to higher education.

So Ehrlich is probably cursing Busch on slots, but thanking him for the budget vote. And while the governor may be grateful for Miller's slots stand, he is no doubt wondering why the president is giving him budget grief.

No matter what you read, Larson says he's undecided

Retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, the former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, was surprised to see his name in The New York Times last week as a supporter and policy adviser to Howard Dean's presidential campaign. Larson said he has made no such decision.

Larson met privately with Dean about three months ago to talk about national security issues, and has also spoken with former Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. "I haven't signed on to support or endorse any of them," he said.

The Times included Larson's name on a list of foreign policy and national security advisers that Dean was to release the next day. When the list came out, Larson's name wasn't on it.

"They sent the speech," he said. "I told them I would give them a couple of comments on the speech, but I was not signing on."

The day before Larson's name was in the newspaper, he appeared at a fund-raising event in Annapolis for Clark.

"I've known Wes Clark since he was a major," Larson said, adding that he isn't sure who he will support. "Even though Dean appears to be the front-runner, the race is still volatile."

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