Baltimore's delegation tries to regain its influence

Loss of key lawmakers, seats cut Assembly power

April 15, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

When the governor stepped to the microphones to say he was reluctantly extending a loan to the city schools, which he said had mismanaged their previous state aid, the booming baritone of Del. Howard P. Rawlings wasn't there to set him straight.

And when a Prince George's County lawmaker made it a point to cut the city's share of the historic tax-credit program - which had financed the redevelopment of dozens of important projects in Baltimore - the lawmaker knew she didn't have to worry about Barbara A. Hoffman holding up funding of her bills in the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Several times in the 90-day session just ended, Baltimore received a lesson on its diminished influence. The absence of influential figures such as Rawlings and Hoffman at the helms of powerful committees - one by death and the other by election loss - and the reduced number of seats brought on by redistricting, left the delegation scrambling.

In matters as important as a threatened takeover of city schools, and as symbolic as the chairmanship of the Legislative Black Caucus, Baltimore's influence clearly wasn't what it used to be.

"We have to rebuild from the losses we had," said Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat tutored by Rawlings. "We had some real stars down here that we've lost."

Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, who replaced another respected city lawmaker, the late Sen. Clarence W. Blount, as Senate majority leader, said he and the other five city senators "really had to work harder" to protect the city's interest.

"I would always say, `What would Blount do?'" he said. "I think about him all the time."

Thirty years ago, Baltimore, with the largest population and the greatest representation in the legislature, was in the driver's seat. Raw numbers gave the city power.

But a population decline of 300,000 has cost the city much of its financial and political standing, and turned it into the neediest of Maryland's 24 subdivisions.

Compounding the city's troubles was a drastic reduction in legislative representation after the 2002 redistricting plan. The city lost four Senate seats and 11 delegate seats, some of which were shared with Baltimore County.

With a smaller delegation, Baltimore then relied on positions of power to ensure it achieved its goals.

But during the past three months, the loss of people and power meant a younger and less politically influential team in Annapolis had to broker the political deals needed to help Baltimore at a time of shrinking state resources. And a perceived leadership vacuum has given rise to challenges of the delegation's leaders and their agendas.

"The one thing the city delegation has always had is a tremendous amount of cohesion," said Herbert C. Smith, professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster. "It's always been one of the city's major bargaining chips. That broke down somewhat this session."

Political observers say several rising stars within the delegation will need to play larger roles for the city to regain the kind of stature it once had, though it becomes difficult as political power shifts to the Washington suburbs and division within the delegation intensifies.

The signs of weakness in the delegation were crystallized when Del. Clarence Davis was defeated by Eastern Shore Del. Rudolph C. Cane for the chairmanship of the Legislative Black Caucus in a vote of 20-17.

Until this year, as an unwritten rule, the chairmanship of the black caucus alternated between the city and Prince George's County, where the majority of the state's African-Americans live. This was supposed to be Baltimore's year, but Davis didn't receive the votes.

Sen. Verna L. Jones was elected as first vice chairwoman of the caucus, but Annapolis - especially as it relates to Baltimore - is changing.

"Baltimore is in a rebuilding mode," Jones said. "It's about doing things differently."

The changing times also meant the mayor's role would be redefined.

As forecast, Mayor Martin O'Malley spent more time in Annapolis because of the loss of power the delegation suffered. And it became even more critical for him as the city school system's fiscal crisis peaked in the middle of the legislative session.

Instead of O'Malley leaning on Rawlings, who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, or Hoffman, who was Rawlings' counterpart in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, to handle things in Annapolis, he took the issue on himself.

At first, it appeared that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had the upper hand when O'Malley went to the State House asking for a $42 million loan to bail out the school system.

But lawmakers from across the state breathed easier after the mayor announced that he would provide the loan from the city's rainy-day fund.

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