How officials play politics with politics

The Political Game

Theory: Maryland's Senate president suggests the governor is setting up a failed special session of the legislature so he can blame Democrats for it.

December 28, 2004|By Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin | Andrew A. Green and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS was in a tizzy last week, trying to figure out the strategy behind Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s unorthodox decision to call a special session of the legislature to enact medical malpractice reforms without a firm deal in place.

Quick with a theory was Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a history buff who relishes explaining current events with tales of the politics of yore. The most relevant antecedent, he has suggested several times, was President Harry Truman's decision in the summer of 1948 to call a hostile Congress back for a special session.

According to an essay on the U.S. Senate Web site, Truman was down in the polls, with his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, appearing sure to win in November.

The Republican Congress was conservative, and Dewey was a moderate who pushed through a progressive platform at his party's convention, calling for expanded civil rights, Social Security and health care programs. Seeking to exploit the rift, Truman made one of the ultimate put-up-or-shut-up moves in modern politics, calling Congress back into session to enact the reforms the Republican platform now endorsed.

Republican senators balked at what they saw as an abuse of presidential power and passed nothing of substance, feeding Truman's campaign rhetoric about the "Do-nothing Eightieth Congress" and helping him win a stunning come-from-behind victory in November.

The current parallel in Maryland would have Ehrlich expecting the Democrat-controlled legislature to fail to pass a meaningful medical malpractice bill. Miller and others have already fretted that Ehrlich, when he runs for re-election, will tar Democrats as obstructionists for blocking legalization of slot machines. In bringing up Truman, Miller is suggesting that Ehrlich is looking to buttress that argument.

Wal-Mart fund-raiser for Ehrlich questioned

A $1,000-per-head fund-raiser hosted by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. last week in Annapolis has raised some eyebrows, especially among groups that don't like the company's business practices.

Wal-Mart is one of the state's 25 largest private-sector employers, and advocacy groups have questioned whether it pays its fair share of taxes. Two-thirds of the 150 largest companies doing business in Maryland pay no corporate taxes at all, according to a report from the comptroller's office. The report does not disclose taxes paid by individual companies.

Ehrlich has shown only tepid support for legislation to close corporate tax loopholes and force companies to pay more. A bill passed by the General Assembly this year is too onerous, he has said, even though the governor has recently acknowledged that the hundreds of millions in taxes generated by the bill is a windfall that could help pay medical malpractice insurance premiums.

The governor is considering asking for changes next year.

"Governor Ehrlich supports Wal-Mart's union-busting, sprawl-inducing agenda, so it is only natural that Wal-Mart would reward him with a fund-raiser," said Sean Dobson of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland. "Ehrlich should refuse to accept Wal-Mart's money until Wal-Mart opens its books to prove that it is not cheating on its taxes."

The governor's office referred calls on the fund-raiser to his campaign office, which did not respond to messages. "The governor's positions on issues are not based on fund-raisers," said Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich.

Wal-Mart's state government relations officials did not return calls for comment.

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