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February 17, 2006

What's At Stake?

Roy Meachum

It's a sign of Republican hopes and Democratic fears. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has raised fresh questions about the fairness of the state's voting system. Senate President Mike Miller charged the GOP chief executive is only playing election year politics.

Who would know better than the man presently in the cat-bird's seat of Maryland's tottering majority party?

The fairness and the reliability of the way the state counts and registers votes, while scarcely a new issue, reached a level of concern, even among independent and bipartisan circles, when Democrat Parris Glendening squeaked by Republican contender Ellen Sauerbrey. The lady's supporters cried "foul;" they persisted in introducing her at public forums as Maryland's "real governor."

What seemed to many at the time as merely lamenting among losers took on a more respectable hue four years later. Taking few chances Ms. Sauerbrey might actually become the state's first GOP chief executive since Spiro "Ted" Agnew and the first woman ever in Annapolis' top job, Democrats staged an all-out blitz. The size of their 1998 victory left no doubt which party ruled Maryland.

While her gender assured the male-dominated conservative wing would not stray and the Republican candidate's right-wing ideology made her anathema to liberals, special attention was paid to African Americans, the steady rock on which the Democratic machinery was based. Mostly away from whites' eyes, including mine, she suffered a vicious crusade based on baseless inferences of bigotry and prejudice.

At her election night headquarters, when the hope faded fast of justice for her previous loss, Ms. Sauerbrey's eyes were filled with tears as she told me: "Roy, they said I'm a racist."

There was no need for protest; we knew each other. Having suffered four years at Mr. Glendening's capricious and self-serving hands, I wanted better for Frederick's citizens. I had supported her.

That was also the occasion on which I met Robert Ehrlich; a congressman at the time, his victory four years later was made more attractive by the presence of Michael S. Steele, who became Maryland's first African American elected to a statewide office. It received the biggest boost, however, when Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend succeeded to the party's nomination, attempting to pick up the laurel kicked out of Ellen Sauerbrey's reach.

Ms. Townsend's failure to become the first woman in the State House's best office, represented less of a success for Republicans than for the Democratic establishment, led by former governor William Donald Schaefer.

More than sexism was involved. Unlikely allies Don Schaefer and Mike Miller united behind Mr. Ehrlich to maintain their party's status quo, which they felt threatened by the possibility of electing Ms. Townsend, whom they knew could not be controlled. Their cause received an immense boost when Mr. Glendening bad mouthed his lieutenant governor, even as he was removing personal effects from the office he had occupied for eight years.

With Mr. Schaefer cinched into the incumbent governor's side, by Mr. Ehrlich's bravado wooing and courtesy, Senator Miller and what's left of the Democratic leadership now face the task of reuniting a party they helped tear apart for largely personal purposes. Understanding their goal, I view their efforts with a highly jaundiced eye.

Having acquired a computer-driven system to count this year's votes, responsible officials should welcome the governor's reversal of his previous rejection of the need for a paper track. Having succeeded in bringing Mr. Ehrlich on "his side," Mr. Miller huffs and puffs the switch as an election year gambit.

While firmly regretting the present administration's ripping Democrats out of at-will positions to benefit loyal Republicans, I very much challenge General Assembly honchos' decision to extend their investigation of potential irregularities into the campaign season.

In my mind, they're attempting to shovel mud while standing chin-deep in the stuff themselves. They would be much better advised to pass Frederick Del. Galen Clagett's legislation that would remove many of the state jobs from either party's patronage list. That done, they should get back to current issues.

Of course, I rate the possibility of that advice being taken somewhere between zero and zilch.

I'm not such an idiot as to expect Maryland to clean up its political act. I have lived with this system most of the years since I cast my first ballot ever, for Dwight David Eisenhower, in 1956's presidential race. I was trying to live and raise children while living in College Park.

Prince George's County, at the time, was ruled by the Greenbelt Gang, Frank Lastner and George Panagoulis, whose police force was dedicated to the proposition of keeping minorities in line. So-called liberals and all outsiders were no more welcome. It was, in short, little different than Frederick when I first moved here, 23 years back. Most African Americans still knew their place, as the saying goes, years after segregation laws were repealed.

While this county has vastly changed, Annapolis' current Democratic gang, having dashed Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's outsider, liberal and, shudder, female attempt to move Maryland beyond its traditional corruption and favoritism, General Assembly leaders mean this election year to re-establish the status quo ante 2002's Republican victory.

Discouragingly, on his part, Gov. Robert Ehrlich has shown little sincere effort the past four years to strike out in a fresher direction; in my view, he has repeated Newt Gingrich's mistake when the Georgia Republican's "revolution" had absolutely no impact on the way Washington conducts the nation's business.

This shapes up as an election year both parties can be dismissed, in favor of who turns out to be the better candidates, whatever political stripes they wear.

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