Running aground politically in Port of Baltimore

March 06, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

COUNT THE dispensing of political patronage among the lost arts.

It was sublimely artful when the bosses could bring on a party plodder and he didn't crash the system. It was art when a few no-shows (or people you hoped wouldn't show) could be managed without threatening the mission. You could still get the streets plowed and the garbage picked up and the meters read. Maybe it's the kind of political and governmental canvas you learn to paint over long periods of one-party rule.

Maybe that's why the Port of Baltimore is foundering and on the verge of losing James J. White, the widely hailed director of the Maryland Port Administration. The port, like all the rest of the state, is in the hands of Maryland's historically Out Party, the Republicans. They've had some trouble with the patronage thing.

Mr. White's boss, the estimable Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, says he and his boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., only sent a few loyalists to Mr. White's domain. Their predecessor had sent just as many, they insist. Under their predecessor, though, the port apparently began to get its sea legs. Stories about how Baltimore lagged behind other ports were less and less necessary. The port wasn't patronage-free, but it avoided patronage-assisted decline.

The new administration may have sent just enough "must" hires to endanger an enterprise that seemed to be operating with great efficiency. And it committed one of the cardinal patronage blunders: It sent someone who seemed not only inexperienced but laughably so: He's no doubt a fine Republican, but his background seemed confined to service in Mr. Ehrlich's congressional office and professional ice skating.

Another cardinal sin was committed in the process: calling attention to what you're doing.

Most Marylanders, including the zealously Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, have no problem with patronage within reason. Every governor wants his own team. It's only fair. It's even OK if some members of the team have to be carried: He ain't heavy, he's my GOP brother.

But it's bad form when the trash doesn't get picked up. It's really bad when big shipping companies say they might not want to do business with you anymore. It's what's happening at the Port of Baltimore. It's a crime, actually, because the port is one of the few remaining economic engines of Baltimore. It almost makes you wonder if letting the port founder isn't part of the Ehrlich administration's sometimes hostile approach to the city.

It's a real embarrassment. It threatens the economic well-being of families. The administration suggests Mr. White was a problem, according to the governor, who said on the radio the other day that he gave Mr. White an ultimatum: shape up or ship out. Mr. White and Mr. Flanagan had some disagreements - troublesome enough, apparently, that Mr. White's actual work product - a newly energized port - couldn't save him.

Administration supporters suggest Mr. White was waging a guerrilla effort to get Mr. Flanagan off his back. That excuse runs into heavy political weather, though, because the GOP's primary port expert, former Republican Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, says Mr. White is absolutely the best port director in the country. Ms. Bentley occasionally has taken positions unpopular with her Republican mates, but here the onus is on the party to show why losing Mr. White made sense.

Ms. Bentley has been assigned the unenviable job of finding a replacement. She begins with the conclusion that no one out there in the world of port directors is as good as Jim White. And she knows attracting someone else will be difficult, given the political atmosphere.

If Baltimore is a good place to do business, the port may continue its renaissance. But leadership in jobs like this - the ability to get along with a variety of demanding forces - means everything. If Baltimore doesn't weather this storm, the Ehrlich administration will have a self-made failure on its hands. It will have squandered something of value. Many jobs and millions of dollars in "economic activity," spreading out in concentric waves from the Baltimore harbor, could be lost.

That would be heartless as well as artless.

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

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