Rewarding friends, punishing enemies: Not a lost art

September 04, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

WHY DO patronage plums fall often to the least able? And why do the powerful insist on a pinch or two of bravado when they hand out the loot?

It's more satisfying when the beneficiaries are unqualified. Anyone can appoint qualified people. You're rewarding the faithful. You're building the party. You're triggering spasms of pain in your opponents. What's not to like?

Thus do Maryland Democrats plan hearings into patronage outrages they allege against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose approach to the distribution of government jobs would make the old Baltimore bosses blush.

GOP enforcers - one of whom the governor referred to approvingly as a "prince of darkness" - have run rampant through the halls of government rooting out workers who might be in the way.

It's beyond political business as usual, says state Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County, who wonders if the firing of talented people with no political affiliation compromised the integrity of public agencies. He says the Public Service Commission was "lobotomized" - stripped of expertise and institutional memory important in rate-setting, a matter of great financial consequence to the regulated industries.

A whistleblower in another agency - a Republican appointee, of all things - allegedly was fired for uncovering potentially dangerous practices involving the supervision of foster children. It's worth knowing the truth, though Democrats have a problem: The practices may have begun under Democratic administrations.

Some Democrats approach the investigation with trepidation for other reasons. They fear a no-win situation. If gross outrages are not uncovered, Republicans will win. If there are further outrages, the Republicans may still win by calling the whole thing a festival of anti-Ehrlich whiners. The administration's defenders have started that drumbeat already.

Other Democrats say the hearings are worth the risk because they believe Mr. Ehrlich and his former helper, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., went far beyond what Marylanders will accept. Mr. Steffen seemed to get way too much pleasure from the bloodletting. The Ehrlich administration seemed to agree, dismissing him or accepting his gallant resignation after he was discovered in a dirty tricks attack on Mayor Martin O'Malley, who hopes to be the Democratic candidate for governor next year.

The hearings could also be an opportunity to quiet the roiling patronage waters by restricting the number of state jobs a governor of either party could distribute "at will" - to reward the faithful, in other words.

Democrats are howling about patronage now because, as Republicans know, it's about all you can do when you're out of power. It's a troublesome turnabout for them because it was Democrats who expanded the patronage pool to many thousands, apparently in the belief they were the permanent rulers of a Democratic kingdom.

"We screwed up," says Senator Frosh. Obscure legislation doubling the number of positions that could be controlled by a governor passed without much notice, he says. The flagrant expansion of "at will" or purely political jobs extended way beyond appropriate boundaries. That number should be reduced.

The out party also hopes the hearings will highlight another patronage move by the governor. For this one, there is little, if any, cover.

Mr. Ehrlich has allowed a District Court vacancy to remain unfilled in Allegany County for many months, creating a backlog of cases. He appears determined to appoint a friend, Del. Kevin Kelly, a Western Maryland Democrat. Moreover, if Mr. Kelly is on the bench, a GOP candidate might have a better shot at winning his seat and the governor would have another vote in the House of Delegates. But there's an annoying little problem.

The nominating panel did not include Mr. Kelly in a list of applicants it sent to the governor. The local selection panels were formed years ago in an effort to send talented lawyers to the courts and to reduce purely political influence in appointments.

Other contenders for the Allegany seat, including a prominent Republican, are more qualified, the panel found. The governor is unmoved. This situation may be outside the impending inquiry, but it sounds like a political lobotomy in the making.

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

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