Curt Anderson's tempest in the tea party

Our view: Nobody looks good after a Democrat joins and quits the conservative cause

February 10, 2011

If there is any lesson to be drawn from Baltimore City Democratic Del. Curt Anderson's quixotic foray into the House of Delegates Tea Party Caucus, it is this: Cynicism and the pursuit of political self-interest are alive and well in Annapolis. Veteran lawmakers like to talk about a time when Republicans and Democrats fought ferociously during the election season but then put partisan politics behind them when the time came to govern. If that was ever really true, it is certainly not now.

Mr. Anderson has something of a point in his explanation for why he, a fairly liberal Democrat and head of the city's very liberal House delegation, would join a group that takes its name from the strongest force in contemporary conservative politics. The leaders of the Tea Party Caucus say they want to focus solely on fiscal issues — cutting the budget and reducing taxes — but leaving social issues alone. Mr. Anderson says that fits in with what he hears from his constituents, who struggle under the highest property tax rate in the state. (Though, of course, the state legislature has nothing to do with that.) So, if the Tea Party Caucus just represents a group of individuals who want to work on a specific set of issues, like the Veterans Caucus or the Women's Caucus, why should it be a big deal if a Democrat joins?

In reality, though, both Mr. Anderson and Del. Michael Smigiel, the Cecil County Republican who chairs the Tea Party Caucus, are being a bit disingenuous in their profession of shock that the move caused such an uproar. Mr. Anderson has always been something of a good-natured gadfly, and it's hard to discount the notion that his flirtation with the caucus might have something to do with the fact that he said this week that he's considering a run for City Council president. With little effort, he suddenly leapfrogged over all the other city candidates talking about property tax reduction.

As for Mr. Smigiel and the other Republican members of the caucus, it's hard to see their decision to name Mr. Anderson vice chairman of the group as more than a publicity stunt. After all, it would be hard to point to anything in his record as evidence of a belief in lower taxes or fiscal conservatism; he voted for the tax increases during the 2007 special legislative session, and this fall, he signed on to a pledge to support increasing alcohol taxes. The only reason he warranted a leadership role was so the other members of the caucus could dispel the notion that theirs are purely partisan, Republican aims.

And although the members of the caucus couch their aims in philosophical, not political, terms, the track records on fiscal matters of those who were in the legislature while a Republican occupied the governor's mansion are not entirely pristine. Mr. Smigiel has the most moral authority in the group, in that he voted against former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s flush tax and against Mr. Ehrlich's final budget, in which spending grew at a higher rate than any time in at least the previous dozen years. But he did vote for Mr. Ehrlich's second-to-last budget, which exceeded the recommendations of the legislature's Spending Affordability Committee, and for the massive increase in vehicle registration fees proposed by the Ehrlich administration.

Moreover, the caucus has aligned itself with Americans for Prosperity, a political group that was a major force in the effort to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats in the 2010 election. According to The Washington Post, the group spent $1.3 million nationwide in October alone, 96 percent of it in support of Republican candidates.

The Baltimore Democrats who reacted harshly to Mr. Anderson's dalliance, though, went completely over the top. Del. Cheryl Glenn referred to the tea party as "the Antichrist to the Democratic Party." Del. Melvin Stukes said Mr. Anderson had "disrespected the city delegation." It appears likely that the incident will ultimately cost Mr. Anderson his role as the delegation's chairman. They were objecting not to anything Mr. Anderson said about tax and fiscal policy but because he had betrayed the notion that the point of public office is to do whatever is necessary to get more members of your party elected.

This is the kind of story that causes people to lose faith in their elected leaders — not, as Dels. Anderson and Smigiel would have it, because it shows that the two parties can't work together, but because it confirms the cynical view that elected officials are concerned about their political futures, not with making good public policy.

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