Merdon plays down flap over smoking bill


April 09, 2006|By LARRY CARSON

Is anything a politician does in an election year not political?

Howard County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon says his decision to revive the Robey administration smoking-ban bill after killing it a few months ago is an example, even if he is running for the Republican nomination for county executive.

"It's the introduction of a bill - nothing more than that," Merdon said, playing down the issue. He said he remains opposed to a smoking ban but submitted the bill because he knew County Executive James N. Robey would reintroduce it after a new Democratic member is appointed to fill the council vacancy created when David A. Rakes resigned.

Brian Harlin, county GOP chairman, backs Merdon.

"Chris is more focused on the upcoming budget and wants to get the other stuff out of the way," Harlin said. "It's an issue that's got to be faced."

But others aren't buying the no-politics claim.

"Clearly, he wouldn't be doing this if he didn't figure it would do something in his favor in the campaign for county executive," said Donald F. Norris, public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a county resident. "What that is, I can't fathom."

Democrats and health advocates were happily amazed at Merdon's sudden move, but were quick to toss the dreaded "flip-flop" accusation at the Ellicott City Republican.

"It's unbelievable," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat also running for executive. Ulman co-sponsored the original Robey administration bill that Merdon helped kill.

If Merdon had no political motive, why rush to reintroduce a bill that would not take effect for two years, Ulman wondered.

"This is the kind of flip-flop that actually benefits people," Democratic Councilman Guy Guzzone quipped.

"Chris voted against this bill before. Now he has rushed to re- introduce it, but apparently he intends to vote against it again. It seems like a flip-flop in preparation for a flip-flop," said Tony McGuffin, chairman of the county's Democrats.

Merdon denied that, noting that his position on the smoking ban has not changed.

"I don't put my finger to the wind and make decisions on political fallout. I make decisions on what's right," he said.

Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County, had a theory for Merdon's surprise move.

"He wasn't sure if the exec [Robey] or Ken would wait until September or October to do this," he said.

If they did, Schneider reasoned, smoking would become a campaign issue just as the public began focusing on politics. Merdon's choices then would be to vote for a Democrat-sponsored bill or vote against a popular ban, he said.

This way, Schneider said, the issue will be done and gone by fall, and Merdon can at least claim he initiated action even if he votes against the bill.

Merdon had a question for his critics on that score: If he had done nothing and the Democrats did wait until later in the year to introduce the bill, wouldn't they be playing politics, too?

Progress in legislature

Two pieces of locally approved state legislation that failed to win enactment by the full General Assembly last year have made more progress this year.

With a few days of the 2006 session left, a bill to increase the county's marriage license fee from $35 to $50 to benefit domestic violence programs was approved by the House of Delegates and the state Senate and is awaiting signature by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Howard County's proposed ban on animal leghold traps has been approved by the House, and by a state Senate committee that killed the bill last year, giving sponsor Del. Neil F. Quinter hope that this year his measure will be enacted.

Making it official

Robey and his wife, Janet, have moved to their new condominium near Timbers of Troy golf course in Elkridge, making him an official resident of legislative District 13.

Robey, a Democrat and former Ellicott City resident, is running for state Senate in his new district. The seat is now held by Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, who is running for re-election.

Republicans accuse Robey of moving just to run in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, and they try to paint him as an outsider.

Robey has denied the accusation, insisting that he picked the condominium first and decided to run for the Senate later.

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