The role of fate in O'Malley's march to the State House

January 21, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

When Martin Joseph O'Malley became Maryland's 61st governor Wednesday, he offered the usual round of thanks to family, friends and fellow Democrats. But Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., an important contributor to his victory last November, got no recognition.

Without the campaign efforts of Mr. Myers, a member of the House of Delegates from Western Maryland, Governor O'Malley might still be mayor of Baltimore and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. might be starting his second term.

LeRoy Myers was a small-scale giant killer - and the Democratic giant he killed figuratively would have been a big help to Mr. Ehrlich.

In the 2002 election, he defeated House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a powerful supporter of slot machines at racetracks. Mr. Taylor would have helped Mr. Ehrlich maneuver slots legislation through the House, where, without him, it subsequently died. He might have made slots happen in the first year of the Ehrlich governorship. The tone would have been much different. Slots were the new GOP governor's signature initiative, the one he most wanted and couldn't get through the House in a form he would accept. Instead of failure on that issue, Mr. Ehrlich would have had the slots initiative passed and more money pouring into the state treasury. He would have looked effective in an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly. He would have had more revenue to deal with big problems.

But Casper Taylor lost to LeRoy Myers, and many in Annapolis believe the governor's slots bill died with him. Some voters in Western Maryland apparently thought they were electing a speaker and not just another delegate doomed to the back benches. But speakers are elected on the basis of political acumen and standing built over many years.

There were, of course, many other reasons for Governor O'Malley's success. He ran a good campaign in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1. He had campaign money and a party hungry for success, and he ran in a big Democratic year.

But there was another factor, the factor of fortune and unpredictability. The quirky kaleidoscope of politics turned several times, and Delegate Myers, a Republican, inadvertently helped Mr. O'Malley by making life much more difficult for Mr. Ehrlich.

Mr. Myers' success grew from a court decision that reshaped the district in which he ran against Mr. Taylor. There were those who said Mr. Taylor's voting record made him more liberal than the voters in his district. But he probably would have survived if so many voters new to him had not been drawn into the district by the court's boundaries.

The court intervened to correct excesses it thought were overly political. Those corrections imperiled Speaker Taylor, who might otherwise still be standing on the podium. The margin of defeat was narrow. The consequences may have altered the entire state - and the political lives of Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich.

Mr. Taylor 's successor as speaker was Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County. Mr. Busch opposes slots vehemently. He became a resolute player on slots and other important issues, few of them congruent with positions taken by Mr. Ehrlich. He was willing to compromise - even on slots - but the governor chose not to accept a House bill that would have allowed a smaller version of the governor's plan.

Some Assembly Democrats could decide now to pass a slots bill of their own just to prove Democrats can make things happen. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants them. He will argue, once again, that Maryland needs the revenue to meet its many obligations. He will say it's silly to see all that revenue leaving the state for Delaware and West Virginia. Mr. Busch and the House are likely to stand firm - for the moment, at least.

Mr. O'Malley has been ambivalent on the issue, arguing that more gambling is not the way to pay for important government services. At the same time, he has said he would support slots at the tracks.

Democrats, we are assured, don't want a contentious session for their new leader. So almost everyone expects little action on the issue this year.

No one knows, of course, if something like the Myers factor will intervene.

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

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