Watermelon in the window serves as sweet reminder of juicy rivalries

GOP revives storefront for its political soapbox

General Assembly

January 17, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson and David Nitkin | Kimberly A.C. Wilson and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The wind whips up West Street like a fury, stabbing through gloved fingers and forcing out tears. So the watermelon leaning in a storefront window, green, out-of-season, has to mean something.

It sits in prime political advertising space, in the bay window of the Maryland Republican Party in Annapolis - within sight of the State House and on a busy thoroughfare. The window used to be a dusty, forgotten spot with faded posters from failed campaigns.

But since a Republican moved into the governor's mansion, it's become a feisty glass soapbox.

Party managers have cycled behind the glass a series of placards exhorting passing lobbyists, lawmakers and voters to blame gridlocked legislation, tax increases and other complaints on House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat.

Now the watermelon, tagged with a recent State House quote, is center stage as a sly reminder of the short shelf life of partisan politesse.

It is there not only because a part-time party staffer scoured grocery produce shelves within an hour of the Capitol for a whole - not sliced - melon, but also to memorialize a remark that drew applause and chuckles at a Democratic Party luncheon the day before the session opened.

Like coaches in a locker room, Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other party leaders delivered rousing speeches that bashed their opponent - Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - and warmed the party coals for another 90-day session.

Then Miller, who once dubbed the speaker "timid and gutless" for opposing him on the issue of slots, made a surprising pledge to work side-by-side with Busch toward common goals.

"How close are we going to be?" Miller asked the crowd. "He's going to eat the watermelon; I'm going to spit out the seeds." Then the State House rivals grasped hands and the room roared with applause.

It was a vow that resonated with skeptics in the state GOP, including party Chairman John M. Kane, a Montgomery County moving and storage company executive.

Kane was the one who enlivened the display window shortly after Ehrlich's election in 2002.

He removed the faded banners and had the glass cleaned and the area dusted.

"It usually looked like a tired old party," Kane said. "But we are no longer a tired old party. We are relevant, and people are looking for us to express our opinions on current matters of the day."

In April, after Busch killed the governor's slots plan, the Republican Party responded with a series of "Blame Speaker Busch" posters in the storefront. Because Busch represents Annapolis, his constituents saw them daily.

For the watermelon idea, Kane dispatched a party staffer to five local supermarkets before locating a whole melon. "I wanted to get a big one - to represent their egos," Kane quipped.

The Democrats think the display is silly.

Housed below ground level on Main Street, downstairs from a boutique that sells pink- and green-colored Lilly Pulitzer dresses and preppy pocketbooks, Democratic Party headquarters is easy to miss.

"Why would you put watermelon in the window?" wondered Josh White, the Democrats' executive director. "When Kane was explaining that to me with great glee, I looked at him and said, `I don't quite understand.'

"I'm sure that there's some kind of joke that no one gets, but the president's message was clear: The Senate and the House leadership are going to be working together ... looking out for the citizens of Maryland."

That's what Miller said he had in mind when he tweaked a saltier version of the watermelon expression that his father liked to repeat. "Sometimes if you say enough things, different things will happen," Miller said.

Others doubt the relationship will improve. Kane said he'll remove the watermelon when the well-documented leadership squabbling resumes.

Probably, he added, "before it rots."

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