Despite competition from Maryland, Christie's Bridgegate takes the pettiness prize

January 11, 2014|Dan Rodricks

I have been scratching around for something from the annals of Maryland politics that matches that bizarre story out of New Jersey, but I just don't have it.

Nothing beats Republican Gov. Chris Christie's aides conspiring to cause a four-day traffic jam on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, in the town whose Democratic mayor did not endorse Christie in the last election.

I compared notes with numerous connoisseurs of Maryland political history, and we just can't find anything that comes close, in scale and strangeness, to Bridgegate.

It's not that we're a dull, third-class state for political antics — far from it. It's that, when it comes to examples of payback, we don't have anything Christie-size.

"New Jersey takes the prize," concedes Herb Smith, longtime professor at McDaniel College and an expert in Maryland politics. "Traffic gridlock as political punishment? What's next, airstrikes?"

Smith correctly puts the New Jersey scandal in a class by itself. It doesn't involve sex or money, at least so far. It's all about retribution, but retribution that affected thousands of innocent bystanders — the people of Fort Lee, for starters — who had nothing to do with the perceived affront.

Usually, when politicians get spiteful, it's one-on-one, and they find relatively subtle ways of getting back at each other — someone gets skipped over for a judgeship, or a legislator loses a choice committee assignment in Annapolis. That kind of thing is common and, in politics, expected.

But before you think Maryland has only run-of-the-mill payback, let me drop the name of William Donald Schaefer. His was a golden age of puerile politics. When it came to pettiness, he was an artist.

First as mayor of Baltimore, then as governor of Maryland, and later as state comptroller, Schaefer was prolific in dissing people he did not like, mostly fellow Democrats.

When he was mayor, Schaefer resented Kurt Schmoke, the young state's attorney who would eventually succeed him at City Hall, and Schaefer didn't mind that everyone knew about it, though most of us never understood why.

When he became governor, Schaefer found various ways of ostracizing his own lieutenant governor, Mickey Steinberg, a popular legislator and former Senate president whose help Schaefer needed in Annapolis, especially in his second term.

The thin-skinned Schaefer was unforgiving of those who disagreed with him.

In 1990, when he won re-election, he was angry that he only got 60 percent of the vote, and he referred to the Republican-leaning Eastern Shore as one big (insert nine-letter word for outhouse).

The memory of that episode perhaps highlights the difference between Maryland and New Jersey.

Think about it: Given his feelings toward the voters over there, Schaefer could have ordered lanes of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge closed to get back at the Eastern Shore. But he didn't. Nor did his aides conceive and contrive a traffic jam on Kent Island as payback.

Knowing what we do about Bridgegate today, that seems like an opportunity missed.

Still, Schaefer cranked the pettiness up as he got older and took the job of state comptroller. He chided his successor, Gov. Parris Glendening, at every opportunity, including meetings of the state Board of Public Works.

Things reached a boiling point in 2001, during an episode that I call Fountaingate.

Brief back story: When Schaefer was governor, his longtime companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, supervised the redecorating of the governor's mansion — a needless act that many saw as a slap in the face of the previous occupants, Gov. Harry Hughes and First Lady Patricia Hughes.

One of Snoops' proudest achievements was the 1990 installation of a bronze, Victorian-style fountain on the mansion lawn.

Years later, when Glendening was in his second term as governor, he ordered the fountain shut off and drained, on the premise that it wasted water.

Schaefer went nuts; he thought Glendening was being spiteful. "It was the most chicken thing I have ever known in my life," Schaefer said, clucking at Glendening, who was seated next to him at a public works meeting.

A few months later, Schaefer publicly made suggestive remarks about Glendening's personal life to embarrass him.

As I said, the Maryland record doesn't offer anything on the scale of Bridgegate, but we've had some memorable moments.

In 2002, when he was required by law to offer a new legislative district map to reflect the latest census, Glendening tried to put a conservative Baltimore County senator out of business. The way the governor drew the new map, Norman Stone's district would have been erased and split among four other districts.

Stone, who claimed he was paying the price for having opposed the governor's legislation, took him to court and won. Stone then went on to win re-election to the Senate, where he still sits, the longest-serving legislator in Annapolis.

There are numerous other examples of political retribution in Maryland history. But alas, nothing as big and as bizarre as Christie's Bridgegate. This might be the only time in life I envy the people of New Jersey.

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