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April 12, 2005

Bloody Partisan Politics

Roy Meachum

Pushkin'’s Sunday stroll brought a sidewalk encounter with Patrick Hogan. In a brief conversation the first-term delegate expressed himself very tired as the General Assembly's annual session headed for its final scheduled day.

Much of his fatigue stemmed from frustration at how partisan politics had thwarted and frustrated the legislative process. I agree. But not for the reason held by my Republican friends, including Patrick.

Bob Ehrlich and his chief advisors, like longtime Gov. William Donald Schaefer associate Paul Schurick, misread the 2002 elections as a mandate from voters dissatisfied with the Democratic domination over Annapolis that has lasted for generations.

They set out immediately to consolidate their power by borrowing a tradition instituted by a great Democratic patron saint. Andrew Jackson was the first president to install the principle: To the victor go the spoils of victory. (Not Thomas Jefferson, as Frederick’s local daily claimed.)

General Jackson’s successors pursued the practice with great ferocity, shoving out incumbent employees so they could be replaced by supporters, family and assorted friends. The result was the creation of the federal civil service, which did not entirely eliminate but curtailed the opportunities.

The worst – in the sense of the dumbest – practitioner in modern times was Newt Gingrich, who had the chance to reform the Congress but settled instead for a combination of personal enrichment and tossing out elevator operators, beauticians and the like, so the jobs could go to good Republicans.

While there’s been no reason to suspect Gov. Robert Ehrlich has lined his personal pocket, he has frittered away much sympathy within the general public by playing Newt Gingrich; the most notorious example was in appointments to the Baltimore harbor commission, which brought lambasting from GOP stalwarts, notably former Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley.

Governor Ehrlich has, if anything “out-dumbed” old Newt.

In the first place: the former Republican U.S. representative beat Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend only with the support of powerful Democrats, notably former Governor Schaefer and more importantly, in this context, Senate President Mike Miller (D., Calvert).

Neither gentleman welcomed the notion of a woman with Mrs. Townsend’s powerful (Kennedy) connections and independence into State House. Retiring Gov. Parris Glendening did his share to piddle all over the lady’s campaign. (On the record; my opinion of Mr. Glendening was so low I supported his Republican challenger Ellen Sauerbrey.)

But backing the Republican over their party’s candidate meant neither subversiveness nor even a willingness to coordinate agendas. Quite the opposite.

Precisely because his opposition to Mrs. Townsend was so obvious, Senator Miller had to demonstrate his independence and clearly signal his party loyalty by standing up publicly to Mr. Ehrlich. When the new governor and his henchman deliberately set about “playing Gingrich,” they forced General Assembly leaders to fight back, which they were duty-bound to do anyway.

Given Maryland’s political history, had Bobby Ehrlich and his benighted crew been a great deal more intelligent, oozing with diplomacy and willingness to accommodate Democrats’ patronage choices, these four years would still have been marked by increasingly strident partisanship.

But the governor and his stalwarts made it easy for General Assembly leaders to rally their Democratic troops and enforce their majority rule over both houses.

By strident partisanship and exercising “tough nose” political muscle, the State House Republicans guaranteed significant losses in proposed legislation. That makes life in Annapolis heavy and wearisome for conscientious lawmakers like my young friend Patrick Hogan.

Picking a totally unnecessary fight with The (Baltimore) Sun was a way of assuring whatever good comes out of the administration will be overshadowed by reporting on its failures in the state’s most powerful medium. That was plain stupid.

Most of all, politics is the art of the pragmatic; that’s what we mean when we use the word independently of public officials.

As someone who has known the young man for most of his life, I can only hope my friend Patrick learns lessons from the rampaging and bloody partisan politics that made him so tired on Sunday.

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