Maryland Votes 2006

September 03, 2006

Today The Sun continues its endorsements for the Sept. 12 primary election with races for state comptroller and attorney general.

The Maryland comptroller's office, which collects about $13 billion in taxes annually, is one of the most tightly run operations in state government, as it ought to be. When Democrat William Donald Schaefer was elected comptroller in 1998, he wisely resisted reshaping the professional team he had inherited from his predecessor, Louis L. Goldstein. The office can practically run by itself, except that every other Wednesday, the comptroller sits as one of three members on the Board of Public Works and helps make crucial decisions on the disbursement of the very money his staff collects. That's where the comptroller, on occasion, is one of the most powerful people in state government. And that's where Mr. Schaefer, who is seeking his party's nomination for the seat, has made some of the most flawed decisions of his storied political career.

On important issues such as Program Open Space, he has routinely voted against or abstained from supporting opportunities for the public to acquire land in a state where sprawl is creeping into every jurisdiction. When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed an election-year gimmick to roll back 2 cents of his previous 4.8-cent state property tax increase, Mr. Schaefer, knowing full well the negative impact it would have on the state's projected deficit, threw his tie-breaking vote with the governor.

By the time Mr. Schaefer scored his first of two wins as comptroller, he was a Maryland icon - Baltimore City Council president, four-term mayor, two-term governor - whose larger-than-life persona made him a familiar figure far beyond the state's borders. The man might have his idiosyncrasies, but no one ever doubted that he cared deeply for his city and his state. It is a shame, then, that Mr. Schaefer has increasingly used his board position as a bully pulpit. When he could have been constructive, he chose to embarrass. When he could have been uplifting, he chose to belittle. His supporters argue that he is a man unafraid to speak his mind. We say that if his words are likely to hurt, he should hold his tongue.

Troubling, too, is the appearance, based upon his poor attendance, that Mr. Schaefer does not take seriously his role on the committee that oversees the state's pension system investments. It is true that the comptroller's able chief of staff attends the meetings, but Mr. Schaefer's absences reinforce the notion that his grip on the office is unsteady and tentative. His campaign for re-election has been notably lackluster, and we cannot help but feel Mr. Schaefer is riding his own worn-out coattails.

Mr. Schaefer is a leading figure in modern Maryland political history. He is a giant. But even giants need to stand down eventually. He deserves much praise for his public service. He does not deserve a sinecure position with a state salary and a driver.

Two other Democrats are seeking their party's nomination for the comptroller's office: Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County.

Ms. Owens is a capable local leader, although she has struggled to gain name recognition beyond the Baltimore region. She bills herself as a bridge-builder between the two major parties, but a perceived coziness with the current governor has earned her the enmity of staunch Democrats. Despite her role in acquiring open space and preserving farmland, Ms. Owens has built a reputation as too agreeable to sprawl.

During his 20 years in the General Assembly, Mr. Franchot has risen from an obscure gadfly to a respected and outspoken chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee. He has a strong grasp of budget intricacies and an appetite to shed light on corporate income tax loopholes. Mr. Franchot is no wallflower, and if he can curb his enthusiasm for straying into matters of policy beyond the scope of the comptroller's office, he will be a strong advocate for the interests of the taxpayer both on and off the Board of Public Works. The Sun endorses Mr. Franchot for comptroller in the Democratic primary.

Four Republicans - Stephen N. Abrams, Anne M. McCarthy, Mark M. Spradley and Gene Zarwell - are seeking their party's primary nomination. One of them, Mr. Zarwell of Gambrills, has run for public office six times, including in 2002, when he was the GOP candidate facing the current incumbent. In that race, more than 500,000 voters sided with him. Mr. Zarwell is a businessman with strong and occasionally quirky ideas, which could inject spirited debate in the general election. The Sun endorses Mr. Zarwell for comptroller in the Republican primary.

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