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January 12, 2006

The Kool-Aid Acid Test

Kevin E. Dayhoff

As this column is being written, the opening session of the Maryland General Assembly is still a couple of days away. It is looking increasingly like “Open Season” rather than “Opening Day.”

Maybe it is time that we ask for all the delegates and senators to go down several days early for group therapy in problem identification and conflict negotiation counseling? Or arrange for a guest appearance of Barney, the Purple Dinosaur, to lead the opening session in a rousing chorus of “I Love You – You Love Me.”

It’s a doggone shame. For many legislators, if they haven’t said it publicly, they have remarked privately that they look forward to going to Annapolis this year with dread.

Many elected officials simply love public service but have come to abhor the unpleasant personal bickering that has pervaded the 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly, in the last year or so.

Who can blame them?

Under the leadership of Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch (D., Anne Arundel) it’s all hardball personal and partisan politics. It’s not about the merits of a particular piece of legislation; it’s about sticking it to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich; it’s about the many Democrats, who otherwise want to represent their districts well – either drink the Speaker’s Kool-Aid or suffer the consequences. Many suffer in silence.

By the way, according to Word Spy, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” was first used in print in a Washington Post article on July 17, 1987: "Being Stood Up by Mayor Leaves Radio Host Fuming,” It is attributed to Cathy Hughes: “You don't follow anyone blindly, my brothers and sisters… We love Marion Barry. He is the mayor… But if Marion Barry disrespects us, we will cry out… We will not blindly drink the Kool-Aid any longer…”

Sorta paints a picture, doesn’t it?

Apparently, Speaker Busch read the Cliffs Notes version of Chapter 17 of Nicolo Machiavelli’s 1505 often misunderstood classic “The Prince.” The chapter entitled: “Concerning Cruelty And Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared.” Speaker Busch, who can often present in person as mild mannered and well-spoken, can speak for himself; however, it would seem that he has chosen to be feared – or disliked. Whatever!

Then again, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves? One of the first items of business in the opening session is electing the legislature’s leadership.

There was a great deal of discussion in the Republican Caucus as to how to handle the election of the Speaker, in as dignified a manner as possible, in the 2005 session; according to Del. Richard Weldon’s (R., Frederick-Washington) column in The Tentacle January 17: “General Assembly Journal 2005 - Part 1.”

For those of you following along in your books at home – there are 141 delegates in the Maryland General Assembly. Ninety-eight are Democrats – so I guess there is a good chance that the Democrats will elect ah, let’s think about this – a Democrat to be the Speaker of the House. Gee, brilliant deduction, eh?

Conventional wisdom is that Delegate Busch is the frontrunner for the position. This in spite of the many Democrats who have quietly expressed increased dissatisfaction with his leadership. That said, a thinking Democrat must pick their poison. Vote for Delegate Busch or find oneself in the deep freeze for the rest of the session.

Last year, the course chosen was:

“… to tell the Speaker about our plan, to seek a recorded vote, to abstain from voting, and to follow-up with a letter from the caucus to the Speaker explaining the basis for our collective action passed unanimously. In the end, we did call for the recorded vote, and we (all 43 Republicans, along with one Democrat (Del. Nathaniel Oaks (D., Baltimore) abstained from voting.” (Weldon, The Tentacle, January 17, 2005.)

After the leadership is elected, the Kool-Aid Acid Test will really kick in. After the last legislative session, Governor Ehrlich vetoed 26 legislative initiatives. Word is that the House will vote on whether or not to override or sustain those vetoes on Friday. The Senate will vote on Thursday.

Of particular interest are: the “Fair Share Health Care Fund Act” – Wal-Mart Senate Bill 790 and House Bill 1284; House Bill 391 – minimum wage; Senate Bill 478 - early voting; Senate Bill 287 - voter rights protection act, Senate Bill 796 - medical decision making act; and House Bill 622 - absentee voting on demand.

In order to override the governor’s veto, 29 senators and 85 delegates have to vote “yes.” Every bill up for a vote later this week was passed last year with enough votes to override the governor’s veto.

However, the November 2006 election is a lot closer to this Thursday and Friday, than last year’s vote. On the House side, word is that the Speaker has aggressively suggested that any “nay” votes will have immediate negative consequences in the 2006 legislative session. This leaves many delegates in a pickle. Demise at the hands of Speaker Busch or by the voters this fall.

Whispers in the hallway are that the Speaker doesn’t have the 85 votes needed on the Wal-Mart bill. The November election is looming and much needed economic development, and too many jobs, hang in the balance. Those same whispers suggest that the Wal-Mart bill will be special ordered. This is a floor action which postpones a vote until a definite future date or time. Or until the proper amount of Kool-Aid is administered to the correct number of delegates.

The difficult votes in the next several days may very well set the tone and atmospherics for the rest of the 90 days; or at a minimum, determine the flavor and color of the Kool-Aid. Of course, we love Speaker Busch. He is the speaker… But if Speaker Busch disrespects us, we will cry out… We will not blindly drink the Kool-Aid any longer.

Pray for our legislators this session – all of them.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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