Comeback for Democrats' old guard

December 24, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

It's a post-election New Year, so our theme should be "Out with the old, in with the new."

But, in the case of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley, it's "Out with the old, in with the old." Or, "In with the tried and true," he would say, no doubt.

It's about the Democrats' long-term supremacy in Maryland politics. It's also about the Democrats' zeal for government service as a positive force in our lives, an attitude not always associated with Republicans.

Two O'Malley appointees are reportedly taking sizable pay cuts to get back into harness. Why? Democrats crave the adrenaline rush, the hurly-burly and feeling of accomplishment. Republicans seem to believe that government action is more often to be feared than praised.

All three of Mr. O'Malley's Cabinet-level appointments are old Democratic hands - two men and a woman who illustrate an undervalued asset of being the majority party: You have seasoned governmental talent because your party has won so often, and you're in a position to reward the faithful.

Some Republicans, to be sure, are lamenting the loss of young party members - state workers - whose opportunity to grow in governmental expertise has been terminated by the Democrat's recent win. If there are dim prospects for winning major state offices again in the near future, young Republicans will be diverted to other careers.

Mr. O'Malley has named John D. Porcari to run the huge Department of Transportation, one of the most politically important positions in any administration. In Mr. Porcari, the governor had a uniquely qualified candidate - Mr. Porcari was transportation secretary from 1999 to 2003 under then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The job involves oversight of a dizzying array of functions: highway, mass transit, the port of Baltimore, aviation, motor vehicles, bridges and tunnels. These responsibilities demand competent administration in service to the maxim that all politics is local, touching people's lives every day. Almost everything the department handles - bus schedules, bridge repairs, service at Motor Vehicle Administration offices and highway construction in the midst of population growth - amounts to daily report cards.

Mr. Porcari will have an advantage over his predecessor (who was also his successor), Robert L. Flanagan. Mr. Flanagan came to the office from the Maryland General Assembly. A lawyer and a talented opposition leader in the House of Delegates, he knew some aspects of the vast transportation enterprise, but he was not an administrator. He had a steep learning curve to traverse.

The old-new secretary, Mr. Porcari, moved from the Glendening administration to an administrative post at the University of Maryland. But even in the interim job, he had unusual opportunities. He could sharpen his skills in a different environment, controlling a $1.3 billion budget, dealing with the needs of 35,000 students and managing several large departments.

Another seasoned product of government who returns, with Mr. O'Malley, to a position he held in the past is Joseph C. Bryce, an aide to University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who will be Mr. O'Malley's legislative chief. Mr. Bryce, widely respected in the legislative and university worlds, also comes to the job with considerable experience in Annapolis.

As manager of the O'Malley administration's legislative package, he can rely on his previous experience as right-hand man to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. That relationship alone gives him a significant advantage over those who held the job under Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Mr. Ehrlich's team did not bridge the partisan divide. But critics thought its members were not up to the job - a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that Republicans have not had to find or develop such talent since 1968, when Maryland had its last GOP governor.

The third O'Malley Cabinet appointment, budget secretary T. Eloise Foster, was announced at week's end. Hers will be as important as any role in this new, revenue-challenged government.

Like Jeanne D. Hitchcock, Mr. O'Malley's appointments chief, she's African-American. Both women bring an important political dimension - as well as expertise - to their posts. With the Democratic Party looking to bolster relationships with the critically important African-American voting bloc, these choices achieve complete overlap between governmental and political.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

Columnist Leonard Pitts is on vacation.

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