Backstopping and living dangerously in Annapolis

May 02, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

AN AGING jock, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says he's tired of playing backstop for business when the boys of winter (aka state legislators) convene in Annapolis.

For those less steeped in the argot of the locker room, let us define our terms. The human backstop in baseball is the catcher. He puts on pads and a big glove and squats behind the batter to catch balls thrown at high speed. His mask and chest protector are sometimes referred to as "the tools of ignorance" because they don't always protect all that well.

The political backstop, on the other hand, controls the game entirely if he's the governor. He can actually nullify the equivalent of home runs by his opponents. He can turn fair balls into fouls. He has the veto, a tool of power most politicians would never relinquish or share.

But Backstop Ehrlich had a serious point and, ahem, we wish to consider it in that light. At the risk of overdoing the sports metaphor, he wants businessmen to step up to the plate. Aren't they Republicans? Don't they want to support him, the first GOP governor in more than three decades? Do they know what support means after all those years in the wilderness?

In a recent speech, Mr. Ehrlich urged his reluctant allies to become "dangerous." By that he meant business should handle the legislative high heat (baseball for fast pitches thrown near the head) before it hurts them - and him.

More translation: According to the governor, those who propose or even vote for such measures as a "living wage" of $10.50 per hour or an addition to the corporate tax to keep college tuition down should have to pay with their political lives. Businessmen should threaten to work against such a person, as unions and trial lawyers have been known to do.

The truly dangerous businessman would threaten to withhold campaign contributions from legislators who think outside the batter's box (sorry, couldn't help it). There should be a penalty for voting against the Chamber of Commerce. So, under this scenario, business would behave like unions and lawyers.

Here, as you can see, we are witnessing the limits of the bully pulpit. You may rest assured the businessmen will not become dangerous. Those who make contributions believe they must make them to guarantee "access," to be at the table - or to protect themselves from the possibility that candidates really do scan the contribution lists to see who gave and who didn't. Not for retaliation or anything, not for tiebreakers in the award of contracts, but to make sure you know who your friends are.

Over the years, givers have perfected their approach to check-writing: They write for both sides, Republican and Democrat. They do it even in Maryland, where the Democratic incumbents are almost always re-elected. Habits like this are dangerous to break.

Lobbyists must have loved the governor's speech. Businessmen typically have no idea what might harm or help them in Annapolis unless their lobbyist tells them. So, maybe the governor was actually blowing the whistle on the tassel loafer set, many of whom were in the Baltimore Convention Center room when he spoke. Maybe those guys should be teaching their clients how to be dangerous.

Or not. You can bet that the savvy Annapolis practitioners were whispering contrary advice into their Palm Pilots and BlackBerries before the governor had completed his rant. A CEO typically has many issues in play every legislative session. Legislators vote on all of them. If the gentleman from Halethorpe opposes you on Bill A, he may support you on Bill B or C. How dangerous do you want to be when you're vulnerable? Do you want an enemy who may win despite the danger you pose?

In the annual Annapolis ballgame, thousands of bills are thrown at whatever speed might help to ensure their passage. Those a governor finds objectionable - to him, to his party or to the people of Maryland - he can stop. Properly so. The veto is a tool of democracy.

A governor is the ultimate backstop. That idea, though not the word, is in the state constitution. As Backstop Yogi would say, You could look it up.

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

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