Perils of the state's angry politics

The tone in Annapolis has gotten downright vicious in recent years, as once-collegial Maryland catches the national infection

June 04, 2006|By DAVID NITKIN | DAVID NITKIN,SUN REPORTER

Americans have come to despise politicians - Democrats and Republicans - recent polling shows.

In Maryland, it's easy to see why.

Faced with issues ranging from a proposed 72 percent electricity rate increase to challenges involving education, health care, taxes, slots and horse-racing, the state's politicians frequently seem more interested in scoring points against their opponents than in finding the right policies.

Venom fills the room at legislative hearings, where angry state executive-branch agency officials are peppered with hostile questions from Democrats during meetings of a select committee investigating the Ehrlich administration's hiring and firing practices.

It flows from the floor of the state Senate, where Democratic lawmakers passed a bill that effectively forced the governor's campaign fundraising chief off of the state university system's Board of Regents.

The political feuding has even been seized on as a principal campaign plank by Democrat gubernatorial candidate Douglas M. Duncan in a wave of TV ads in which the Montgomery County executive presents himself as more interested in the people's business than the squabbling Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., his two main rivals.

Of course, Duncan has given his share of personal shots too.

Experts say it is understandable that political tensions are at an all-time high. Ehrlich is Maryland's first Republican governor in more than a generation. Democrats don't like sharing power, and Ehrlich is playing tough because he is seeking re-election in a state where his party remains outnumbered by Democrats by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

What's more, the national political atmosphere has grown increasingly polarized and toxic in recent years, in part because of passions raised by two closely fought presidential races.

With the most competitive election season in more than a decade under way - in Maryland and nationally - the friction will only increase in the months ahead, most political experts agree.

But in Maryland, where politics have long been pragmatic, regardless of party affiliation, some in both parties wish it weren't so.

They long for the days - not that long ago, they say - when debate in the General Assembly was driven more by policy considerations than by politics. Just a few years ago, they say, it was hard to find differences between conservative-leaning Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans.

But moderates in both parties seem to be a vanishing breed.

"I think partisanship knows no limit," said John N. Bambacus, a former Republican state senator representing Allegany and Garrett counties. "There should be a sharing of power, more than a separation of power."

As chairman of the political science department at Frostburg State University, Bambacus is a student of politics as well as a practitioner. He recently concluded that Maryland's political system is not working.

Late last year, Bambacus wrote to his county election board and requested a form to change his registration. He is no longer a Republican. He has no party affiliation now, having joined the growing number of independent-minded voters in the state.

As of March, 15.3 percent of the state's 3 million registered voters were either unaffiliated with a political party or enrolled in a minor party. That's up from 13.4 percent of 2.7 million voters in 2000.

The choice comes with consequences: Unaffiliated voters can't cast ballots in party primaries. In many areas of the state, primary winners are all but assured election.

"I don't like party politics, because they are always extreme," Bambacus said during an interview this year at his home on the edge of campus. "The extreme wings run the party."

Bambacus entered the political world as a campaign staff aide for former U.S. Sen. Charles M. Mathias, whom he called "a liberal Republican and a decent man and one of the brightest men I ever met in life."

Bambacus maintained the tradition when he went to the state Senate, joining a coterie of respected moderate Republicans that included John A. Cade of Anne Arundel County, John W. Derr of Frederick and F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County.

None of the four are still in office. Cade died in 1996. Derr and Boozer were defeated in primaries in 1998, ousted by challengers who came at them from the right.

Bambacus, who did not seek re-election in 1990 and later became mayor of Frostburg, says that when he visits Annapolis now, he barely recognizes the place. The tone of debate has shifted even more strongly with Ehrlich as governor, Bambacus said, and events of the past year or so have turned his stomach. He was angry and saddened, he said, by accounts of the activities of Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the longtime Ehrlich aide who acknowledged that he looked for employees to fire in state agencies.

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