City House delegation in dispute on issues

Fulton, Oaks break ranks on tax, housing, election

April 08, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

At a time when Baltimore's delegation in the House would seem to need a united front as important deals are cut on everything from budgets to taxes in the legislature's waning days, there is instead a growing divide.

Democratic Dels. Tony E. Fulton and Nathaniel T. Oaks -- who are close friends of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- have found themselves at odds with members of their delegation and even their party on some issues.

They broke ranks with Democrats and their delegation to vote against House Speaker Michael E. Busch's tax package. They upset Mayor Martin O'Malley with an unsuccessful bill this session to change the date of the city's local elections.

And now they are in a dispute with the city administration and the delegation's leadership because they say Baltimore leaders refuse to allow them to meet with the city's housing commissioner on projects that could include development of Pimlico Race Course, which is surrounded by communities they represent.

The latest issue has angered Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the city delegation. Marriott said she would like to see solidarity among the delegation's 18 members, particularly if the General Assembly passes a slot-machines bill that could affect the district she and Fulton share.

Marriott said the last thing she wants, with just days left in the session, is to be locked in an argument over a meeting with the housing commissioner that she believes has more to do with a proposed parking lot for the church Fulton attends.

"We have more pressing issues with the budget, slots and taxes," Marriott said.

But Fulton and Oaks see it differently: They said they believe they are fighting forcefully for their constituents -- just not in "lock step" with the Democratic Party or the mayor.

"There are three of us or more that are independent," Fulton said about the city delegation.

Fulton, a member of the House since 1987, and Oaks, who was first elected to the House in 1982, said meeting with the housing commissioner has everything to do with slots and taxes because they are concerned about the effect these policies would have on their neighborhoods.

But their independence has drawn accusations from some in their delegation that they are combative and that their close, personal relationship with the governor has made matters worse.

Fulton and Oaks praise Ehrlich for his efforts at reaching out to African-Americans, while criticizing the Democratic Party for trailing behind the GOP or ignoring issues of concern to people of color and low-income residents in the city.

Fulton said Baltimoreans are overtaxed, so he could not support Busch's plan to increase taxes. "If you pass a sales tax, that's a regressive tax that will hurt the people of Baltimore," he said.

Oaks said he tried to act in the best interest of the voters by proposing the change in the date of the city election. Currently, the municipal primary and general elections are 14 months apart because of a dispute between city and state leaders on the timing of the elections.

Oaks proposed aligning the mayoral primary and general elections with state races in the even years that don't feature presidential races. The move would have saved the city about $1 million, but it would have shortened O'Malley's next term from four years to two and forced him to choose between a run for re-election or for governor.

City delegates killed the bill. Fixing the 14-month gap is again in the hands of voters, who will consider the election issue in another referendum in November.

Oaks said he believes the city's refusal to allow them to meet with the housing commissioner stems from his proposal to change the city election date and the continual challenges he and Fulton pose for the mayor. "This is retribution because we don't go along to get along," he said.

Marriott and Deputy Mayor Jeanne Hitchcock said they believe Oaks and Fulton wanted to talk with housing officials about a proposed parking lot for New Psalmist Baptist Church, which is in the 44th District and represented by other delegates.

"There are a number of issues that the commissioner is perfectly happy to meet on and discuss regarding his district and on other district issues as long as it is coordinated with the people who represent the district," Hitchcock said.

The tension between Marriott and the other two lawmakers began brewing before the session. Fulton and Oaks campaigned against Marriott, their delegation chairwoman, in choosing a successor to the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings.

Marriott wanted Rawlings' son, Wendell Rawlings to replace the delegate for the post in her district, but Oaks and Fulton backed winner Marshall T. Goodwin. The move to elect Goodwin strained the relationship between Marriott and Fulton -- who both represent the 40th District -- and she later had his Annapolis office moved from her suite.

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