Old political grudges impart a stench to Lamone fiasco

September 12, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

THERE CAME a point, in that sorry waste of precious time Friday morning in his Annapolis courtroom, when the judge, Ronald Silkworth, looked over to the witness stand and asked Maryland's top elections official, Linda Lamone, if she considered the witch hunt to remove her from office - my characterization of it, not the judge's - a "personnel matter or a public matter."

And Lamone, as serious as her black suit and as brassy as her jewelry, said, "Oh, I think it's a very public and political matter."

Trust me, it's a personal matter, too.

One can whiff the unmistakable odor of it as various pals of the governor - not all of them registered Republicans, either - try to remove Lamone, a Democrat appointed by Parris Glendening, from a job she's carried out, apparently without major blunder, since 1997. Mark my words: When they finally spray away the mud to see what brought this whole thing on, they'll discover the fine hands of sour, old Glendening-haters, and a young governor, given to squandering political capital, only too willing to go along with this goofy attempted coup.

Robert Ehrlich might deny he had anything to do with the Dump Lamone effort - he may go on avoiding reporters, refusing to answer questions about it, trying to distance himself from it - but he could put a stop to the whole affair with one phone call. Kinda like W. and the Swift Boat Vets.

Instead, he lets it play out.

Too bad Ehrlich was not in court Friday to answer the question Silkworth put to one of the two assistant attorney generals representing the Ehrlich-appointees who now control the State Board of Elections: "How is all of this in the public interest?"

And furthermore - my question, not the judge's - isn't it completely asinine to be trying to Dump Lamone two months before the presidential election? Isn't she in charge of certifying ballots, ensuring that polling places are open, staffed and secure, and checking campaign finance reports? Has she done anything so awful it can't wait until after Nov. 2?

The answer to that question is probably no.

The charges against her, leaked to The Washington Post, sound like a list of petty slights and gripes, and certainly nothing approaching incompetence or misconduct. (She didn't communicate well with some local officials apparently, and she told someone who'd come in for a job interview that Ehrlich was out to get her. Big whoop.)

And yet, here we have the Republican-led Board of Elections trying to unseat this woman, knowing full well that her job is supposed to be protected from partisan politics under a law that Republicans clamored for after the controversial and closely contested 1994 election of Glendening over Ellen Sauerbrey.

Important fact: The law passed by the General Assembly in 1998 made it more difficult to remove the state elections chief from office. As it should be. The elections board can remove Lamone only with a vote of four of the five members, and only then if it can show "incompetence, misconduct or other good cause."

If it's absolutely essential that the public trust in the results of elections, then what you want in an elections chief is a professional administrator who takes an oath to discharge her duties, as the commission on Lamone's office wall says, "with fidelity and zeal."

What you don't want is a political hack.

What you don't want is a governor - Republican or Democrat - firing an elections administrator and replacing her with some bootlicker who sold a lot of tickets to bull roasts.

Here's one place where you don't want politics stinking up the joint.

That's why the reforms. It's why the Board of Elections doesn't even have the power to suspend Lamone from her office - as it did last week, demanding she clear out and hand in her key, a flagrant disregard of the spirit of the law.

Lamone came fighting back, and she appears to have the law on her side.

That's why it was almost laughable Friday to hear an assistant attorney general stand in court and, grasping for something negative, point out that, in August, Lamone had announced a staff appointment in an internal memo before she had secured approval for the hire and submitted a "hiring freeze waiver form" to the state. (The horror! It's amazing they didn't have her arrested on the spot!)

And then the fellow suggested, in a soft and jittery voice, that Lamone's position might be overrated and overstated. She didn't personally check campaign-finance reports, did she? Or answer voter complaints. Or track voter registration. Others on staff to do that work, right?

So if Lamone suddenly were to "suffer some misfortune" - the assistant AG's words, not mine - her office would continue to function, and elections would be held as expected.

Probably all true. But for the time being Linda Lamone looks and sounds healthy, confident and strong. The only misfortune she's suffering is the one being inflicted by petty people who wouldn't know the spirit of the law if it poked them in the rear.

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