Political rancor a threat to success story of state

August 08, 2006|By ZACH MESSITTE

The 2006 Maryland elections are shaping up to be the most important and contentious in the past half-century. Candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general, comptroller, the State House, and a variety of county offices and judgeships have already begun slinging mud, running the first of countless television ads, pounding yard signs, and glad-handing at county fairs.

In the modern political era, (save perhaps the famous election of 1950), there have never been so many competitive, emotionally charged statewide races. The old era of Maryland politics, where candidates were often anointed by a courthouse crowd or the big-city machine, is gone.

This year, there is real competition, a diverse group of candidates and a more rancorous policy debate. One need not look further than the backgrounds of those seeking statewide office to understand how the democratic process has started to open up. Until 2002, Maryland had never elected an African-American to a statewide position. This year, African-Americans are among the leading contenders for U.S. Senate (Michael S. Steele and Kweisi Mfume), lieutenant governor (Anthony G. Brown), and attorney general (Stuart O. Simms). Maryland has only elected two women to statewide office, but this year Maryland's Republicans will nominate Kristen Cox to be their candidate for lieutenant governor. Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens is running to be the Democratic nominee for comptroller, and Thomas Perez, who is Hispanic, is running for attorney general.

Although Maryland's Democrats still hold an almost 2-to-1 lead in voter registration, the trends are far more nuanced. Much like the national red-blue distribution, high concentrations of Democratic voters cluster in the populous suburban counties of Washington and in Baltimore. The more rural parts of the state tend to vote Republican. However, there is a growing number of "purple" battleground areas that include Charles, Frederick, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, where voters more readily cross party lines..

Historically, this kind of political ticket-splitting has served the state well. Throughout the 20th century, much of the leadership - from both parties - chose common sense over ideology, focusing on making Maryland one of the wealthiest, best-educated, and most business-friendly states in the country. Republican and Democratic governors alike - Harry R. Hughes, Theodore McKeldin, Harry Nice and Albert Ritchie - were guided by the practicalities of good governance.

The increasing political rancor over the past decade has the potential to undo the Maryland success story. After three consecutive acrimonious gubernatorial campaigns (1994, 1998 and 2002), the ill will from negative politicking has started to poison the policy arena.

The Democratic legislature and the Republican governor battled to a standstill over a host of issues the past four years. Vetoes, veto overrides, special legislative sessions and political posturing trumped problem-solving. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who served in the legislature in the 1980s, noted the change in his 2005 State of the State speech, when he said the rhetoric "is becoming more personal. ... It hurts everything, and it hurts everybody."

Maryland has survived bitter political cycles before. The 2006 campaign still has a long way to go before it resembles the spiteful 1950 elections. Then, U.S. Sen. Millard Tydings, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and critic of Joseph McCarthy, lost a bitter race that one observer called "the most deplorable resort to mudslinging and character assassination this state has witnessed in many years." It included a fake photo of Mr. Tydings with the leader of the American Communist Party. The same year, the incumbent governor, William Preston Lane, tried to defend a sales tax through a rough primary and was eventually defeated in the general election by the Republican, Mr. McKeldin.

The 2006 Maryland elections mark a pivotal point in the state's political history. Throughout the 20th century, most of Maryland's political leadership tackled problems with an eye toward creating better opportunities for its citizens instead of aligning with political movements. As Marylanders go to the polls this fall, it is important to remember the kind of cooperative political spirit that has helped make the state a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

Zach Messitte is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His e-mail is zpmessitte@smcm.edu.

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