Brown works for veto-proof vote on rates

June 14, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

With his handy, pocket-sized "whip cards," which list those members to woo about a given bill, Del. Anthony G. Brown is leading the effort during this week's special legislative session to corral votes for the Democrats' proposal for electricity rate relief.

Brown, of Prince George's County, is working to score support from 85 of 98 House Democrats to ensure that a veto from the governor could be overridden. "If you lose 14, you might as well lose all 98," he said.

Vote counting has never been so potentially fruitful for Brown, who stands to benefit doubly should a Democratic plan win approval from the House and Senate.

With a victory for his party's proposal, his stock would undoubtedly continue its rise in Annapolis.

But Brown, 44, is also running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who wants to replace Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And if the Democrats pass a plan that lessens the immediate financial blow to more than a million BGE customers who otherwise face a 72 percent increase in their utility bills in July, Brown and O'Malley will gain a key talking point on the campaign trail - about how they helped working families while their opponents were more interested in aiding big business.

Cue the applause.

The rate debate has become the - capital T-H-E - issue of the 2006 Maryland campaign season. Jockeying for political position on the issue is the only pastime for politicians in Annapolis these days.

The special session, which lawmakers called after the city of Baltimore successfully challenged the Public Service Commission's approval of Ehrlich's rate proposal in court, gives the Democrats a potential advantage - countering the governor's claim that he alone developed a measure to help ratepayers after lawmakers left town in April without approving a plan.

"We're talking about immediate rate relief and a long-term plan," Brown said yesterday during a break from a public hearing on the proposal. "That's a good news story for Marylanders - in contrast to a governor who provided no leadership on the issue during the regular legislative session, after the legislative session and even today, when he failed to send any representatives from the administration to the public hearing."

But Ehrlich has said the Democrats' plan to cap rate increases at 15 percent for 11 months beginning July 1 and fire the PSC in favor of a new board only postpones the pain for ratepayers. Ehrlich is looking for a win, too, that will translate into votes toward his re-election. He'll do what it takes to convince voters the Democratic proposal is flawed.

"My reaction would be: same old stuff, same crowd, same solution," Ehrlich told reporters Monday.

With the game back on State House turf, the Democrats - who hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers - are sensing an advantage. Still, the details of this rate proposal, like the versions that proceeded it, are complicated. So complicated that members want their extensive questions answered before they have to return to their districts, and their re-election bids, to explain their votes.

Enter Brown, and his team of 14 whips.

"Anthony's very persuasive," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves as majority leader. "He's very persistent. He knows how to make an argument."

To do his job, Brown is employing a system he tweaked after meeting last fall with staffers in U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's office. With his first session as whip on the horizon, Brown said he looked to the minority leader from Southern Maryland for guidance about how to run an efficient operation.

Hence the whip cards, dandy tools that on one side provide a list of members who still need to be courted. Flip each over to find talking points about the bill.

It's a fittingly regimented approach for a Harvard-educated Army lawyer who describes a recent expedition to airborne training school - and his five solo jumps from a plane - in excruciating detail.

Digressions about his fortitude aside, Brown brags that he has missed his vote counts by no more than two this session.

In the past, convincing wavering lawmakers has taken different forms. Sometimes a personal call from the speaker will win a vote. In other cases, members hold their vote hostage in exchange for committee assignments. This week's task has so far turned on matters of substance.

Brown's whipping is affected by one sometimes significant outside factor: the lengths to which his Republican counterparts will go. With the numbers against them, they often aim to affect a final vote by changing details of a measure, he said.

Still, Brown said he has his eye on that magic number: 85. "Success here means the ability to override a veto from the outset," he said.

And by the end of this week, with luck, Brown can pocket his cards and move on to the gubernatorial campaign - with the addition to every stump speech of that precious line about rate relief. And he'll bring with him a hope that the votes and applause flow from there. No cues necessary.

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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