Six senators walk out on speech

Democrats describe Ehrlich aide's remarks on firings overtly political

General Assembly

February 19, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A venerable State House tradition was marred yesterday when a half-dozen legislators marched out of the Senate chambers to protest what they called an overtly political speech from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s chief of patronage.

Appointments Secretary Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. delivered the remarks while handing the Senate a package of nominees for dozens of state boards and commissions, the "green bag" appointments named after the color of the satchel in which they have been brought down from the governor's office for decades.

Among the appointments are Secretary of State R. Karl Aumann, who will receive a $17,000 yearly pay raise by leaving his current job to join the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission; and former former Baltimore County state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, a Democrat who will serve on the university system Board of Regents. The appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.

In the past week, Hogan has vigorously defended the Republican administration from Democratic charges that he and the governor are reaching deeper than ever into state agencies to replace workers, going beyond policy-making jobs to find positions for relatively low-level GOP loyalists.

One of the Ehrlich staffers accused by current and former workers of overseeing a wave of firings is Joseph F. Steffen Jr., who was forced to resign last week for helping spread Internet rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Just the fact that we're making changes and appointing Republicans for the first time in 40 years has really inflamed some people and made them angry," Hogan said in an unusual speech from the Senate podium yesterday. "Some of them are willing to say and do just about anything to protect the status quo and turn back the clock to the time of one-party domination."

As he neared the end of his remarks - which were promptly distributed by the governor's office in a news release - six Democratic senators rose from their seats and left the chamber.

"It is offensive, it is outrageous, and I think all of my colleagues should have walked off that floor," said Sen. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery County Democrat. "Did they talk about all the fired Democrats? No, they ignored that, and they hope the public will ignore it."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Hogan's speech was a "mistake," and would have been better delivered on the steps of the State House, a common venue for news conferences and political remarks.

"It won't happen again," Miller said. "I consider it with a grain of salt. Let's move on. He went too far."

Miller did not retreat from the central allegations being leveled by many lawmakers about Ehrlich administration personnel decisions.

Those decisions were brought into sharp relief a week ago when the governor demanded the resignation of Steffen, a longtime aide and state employee. Steffen admitted participating in spreading rumors about the family life of O'Malley. Many current and former state workers later raised concern about his presence in several state agencies, compiling lists of workers to be fired.

"These jobs should be civil service jobs," Miller said, referring to low-level workers who have been replaced. "If you look at their hires, they are putting in a farm team to run against Democrats."

Sen. Andrew Harris of Baltimore County, the minority whip, said Hogan's remarks "needed to be said." Hogan noted that the governor's first and only appointment to the state Court of Appeals, Clayton Greene, is a black Democrat and that 40 percent of the governor's Cabinet is Democratic.

"Some folks might not have liked what they heard," Harris said. "But I challenge them to challenge the facts."

Aumann was the director of Ehrlich's district operations when the governor was a congressman. Aumann's wife, Susan, is a state delegate from Baltimore County. Aumann has earned $84,500 as secretary of state, an appointed position. Workers' Compensation Commission members earn $112,252.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the governor will soon name a new secretary of state.

One possible replacement whose name is making the rounds in Annapolis is Mary Kane, currently the deputy secretary of state who is married to John M. Kane, chairman of the state Republican Party.

"I think she would be honored to be considered by the governor and pleased to serve," John Kane said yesterday.

Also yesterday, the governor named two new members to the state Public Service Commission, appointments that pay $98,096 a year: Karen Smith, who currently earns $88,425 as the governor's head of intergovernmental relations; and Del. Charles R. Boutin, a Harford County Republican and former mayor of Aberdeen. Boutin must resign from the Assembly.

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