Marylanders, keep your eye on the bouncing ball

June 11, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

It's a lucky candidate who can choose a strategy and stay with it through the course of a long campaign.

Problem is, stuff happens.

Take the campaign of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. With considerable dexterity, Mr. Duncan's brain trust has asked Maryland Democrats to see the Democratic and Republican front runners as towel-snapping adolescents more interested in fighting with each other than governing. They offer Mr. Duncan as the seasoned adult leader.

Until recently, that formulation seemed inspired.

But then came the utility rate issue that put a premium on scrapping. Mr. Duncan's Democratic opponent - Mayor Martin O'Malley - has donned the cape of populist crusader.

Last week, the Baltimore mayor began airing television commercials that present him as a governor who would represent the consumers. The corporate interests have their governor, the mayor's advertisement says. It's time for the people to have theirs.

That message is directed to the angry voters fearful of a 72 percent increase in electricity rates. Mr. O'Malley's combative style seems exactly what the circumstances demand: a good Pier Six brawl, a take-no-prisoners attack on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his Public Service Commission.

Overnight, with the ratepayers sputtering and other leaders holding back, Mr. O'Malley took the regulators to court and won a dramatic ruling, which is widely credited with moving the issue back to the legislative arena. The General Assembly is expected to meet this week and may produce a new answer: a 15 percent rate increase for a year, for example.

The political story is right there in the numbers: 15 percent vs. 72 percent. The equation could change, but scorekeepers would have to say for the moment, "Advantage O'Malley."

There seems no doubt that the Assembly will fire PSC members - and do it as part of a package that includes the easier payment terms. Governor Ehrlich may wish to defend his commissioners, but if he does, he might have to veto the better rates. If that scenario plays out - and holds up in court - Mr. Ehrlich will be checkmated.

The governor made an attempt to salvage some leverage last week, issuing his own call for a special legislative session, apparently having been told that Assembly leaders were about to do that themselves. Mr. Ehrlich suggested that the session was now needed because Mr. O'Malley's "interference" - his breakthrough lawsuit - had swept the governor's remedy off the table.

It seems more accurate to say that the lawsuit and the special legislative session make it possible to find out if a more thorough review of the increase might yield lower rates.

With the 15 percent increase in place temporarily - and a new PSC in office - new hearings presumably would be held to determine if the 72 percent increase was justified. Legislative leaders say the new hearing process could uncover factors that should have allowed lower rates.

Mr. Duncan has been reduced by circumstances to a "me too" role.

But this contest has produced a new set of goats - no certifiable heroes yet - at every turn.

The Assembly and the governor worked together to find an increase-easing plan, only to see it collapse in the last hours of the recent 90-day session.

Governor Ehrlich then cobbled together a time payment plan - but no real relief.

The governor continued to point out that the whole mess was created by the Democrat-controlled Assembly in 1999 when it deregulated the utility industry.

He's right, up to a point. He's also responsible for offering himself, yet again, as the unapologetic champion of the utilities. He had run as a foe of regulation and a promoter of business, he said. What did anyone expect?

Mr. Duncan, too, has urged a special session. He's having his way, you might say, but he has not been the prime mover.

Mr. O'Malley's day in court has resulted in hope for the consumer. If a new PSC can uncover a legitimate new deal for the ratepayers, Mr. Duncan may have to go back to the drawing board.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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