Sabatini to step down as health secretary

He is leaving state post voluntarily

two names surface as successors

May 28, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

State Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini is poised to become the first Ehrlich Cabinet secretary to depart voluntarily when he resigns in the next few months, and the search for a replacement includes a conservative General Assembly member who is an outspoken abortion opponent.

The governor's office said yesterday that state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a medical doctor from Baltimore County and the Senate minority whip, has been interviewed for the high-ranking post. Another candidate is Robert R. Neall, the former state senator and Anne Arundel County executive who is a finance director at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health Systems.

"Those names are on the short list," said Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary. "Nelson is going to have a lot of influence on who comes in, and will remain in a consulting position no matter who winds up joining us."

Harris confirmed his interest in the job, while Neall was less enthusiastic, saying he would consider it if asked.

"To someone who is interested in health policy and government, the epitome of that is leading the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene," Harris said. "I would hope that, given my credentials, I would be given some consideration."

First elected to the Senate in 1998, Harris is an obstetric anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and holds a master's degree in health policy from the university, a background that gives him firsthand knowledge of medicine and government.

But his reputation as one of the Senate's most conservative and polarizing members could work against him. Harris is known for staunch anti-abortion views, and opponents worry that he would use the secretary's job to advance that position. The health department provides Medicaid funding for abortions, for example, and Harris has led the legislative effort to strip the funding from the state budget.

"Senator Harris' voting record is so out of step on women's issues and reproductive rights that the choice community would go to war against this appointment," said Daniel M. Clements, a Baltimore attorney and chairman of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

Harris said in an interview that he would not seek to alter state abortion policies if he were selected, noting that Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is considered a supporter of abortion rights. "The policy will go in the way the governor directs," he said.

Neall is well-regarded in Annapolis for his fiscal prowess and no-nonsense budgeting approach, which could be assets in dealing with ballooning Medicaid spending. But he made enemies in GOP circles after switching from Republican to Democrat in 1999, and was defeated in 2002.

"People have whispered in my ear from time to time that I might be a serviceable candidate," Neall said. "It's not something I'm seeking."

Asked his views on abortion, Neall said: "I think abortion should be legal, but discouraged. ... I consider myself on the pro-life side of pro-choice."

The abortion positions of candidates are not a factor in the appointment, Massoni said.

Clements of Planned Parenthood noted that Harris sponsored legislation this year requiring stricter licensing requirements for abortion clinics. As health secretary, Harris could push for such rules through regulations rather than laws, he added.

But Clare McGrath-Merkle, executive director of Pro-Life Maryland, said Harris would better help the cause she supports if he stayed in the legislature. "We know he would be on the payroll of a pro-choice governor, who we don't think would give him any leeway," she said.

Sabatini, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, is expected to conclude his second stint as head of the department this fall. Retired and on the verge of moving to Hawaii, Sabatini, 64, reluctantly returned to state government last year. He also served under former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

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