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June 21, 2006

Mr. Smith: Back to Gaithersburg

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On June 11, Robert J. Smith referred to homosexuality as ‘‘social deviancy” during a political round-table discussion on a Montgomery County Channel 21 cable show.

Mr. Smith, an architect from Gaithersburg, has been a regular panelist for 12 years on the Access Montgomery cable show, “21 This Week.” The show’s producer, Rodney Bryant, identified him as the “Republican activist” representative on the program.

Okay. Yawn. So what. He’s entitled to his views. It’s a free country and goodness only knows that some of the best reality TV is on the cable access channels. Anything goes.

But then again, that is our “Montgomery,” as in a Maryland County and not Montgomery, Alabama.

In the cracked mirror by which much of the media views its navel, I’m trying to remember why I don't really care about this...

Oh, I know. I get it. Mr. Smith, no relation to Ann Coulter or Howard Dean, is also a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board member.

What in the world? What does any of this have to do with keeping the trains running on time? What was this man thinking?

What’s that you say? He’s entitled to his opinion; and he was not appearing on the show as a Metro Board representative? So, where’s the beef?

Well, for those of us who do not have to deal with Metro transit issues, the Metro transit authority board is a really big deal in Washington, land of uber-sensitivities and navel gazing.

The Maryland and Virginia governors and the Washington mayor each get to appoint two voting members to the Metro board. Board members are paid $21,000 a year.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., appointed Mr. Smith to the board in 2003.

Last Thursday, Governor Ehrlich fired him. File this under stupid career moves for Mr. Smith, who, according to published accounts, has – in the past – been an “unsuccessful Republican candidate for the General Assembly.”

The governor is to be applauded for swiftly taking action. Hopefully, this moment of dyspepsia will have the shelf-life of a carton of milk.

In an era when many major political figures conveniently lose their voice when intolerant views are expressed publicly, Governor Ehrlich earns high marks for “calling out” Mr. Smith and bestowing upon him consequences for his behavior. Not anything new to this governor.

Baltimore’s Sun noted, “In May of last year, the governor fired the head of an Eastern Shore judicial nominating committee after the official used a derogatory term for Mexicans in his personal Web log.”

Maryland Moment,” a blog on the Washington Post’s web site, notes Governor Ehrlich’s quick response, less than five hours after the controversy erupted during a Metro board meeting days after Mr. Smith’s impertinent remarks; “Robert Smith's comments were highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable… They are in direct conflict to my administration's commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and opportunity," the governor emphasized.

The comments section of Maryland Moment provides many interesting insights into the deeper meaning of this incident, when considered as part of the larger Kabuki Morals Play that is currently part of public discourse concerning folks expressing unpopular views in a particularly unpleasant manner.

Certainly the “Coultermania” that has ensued after the recent release of Ann Coulter’s number one best selling diatribe about liberals, “Godless,” is another good example.

The challenge is that Ms. Coulter works for herself and her shtick is to sell books.

To be sure, if Ms. Coulter engaged the issues as opposed to personally attacking the folks with whom she disagrees, then perhaps there would not be a problem. But part of her approach to selling lots of books, is to say things that many have considered, but have the restraint to keep to ourselves. She says terrible things, ipso facto, she sells books – Okay, we get it.

With respect to Mr. Smith, many of us who cherish our right to free speech certainly have conflicting feelings over what could be argued as the utterances of a private individual in a setting in which he was representing neither the governor nor the Metro Board.

It has been suggested that “political correctness” has run amuck over folks who suffer consequences when they express views that are not necessarily the “current standard for social tolerance.”

But, Mr. Smith works for the governor of the State of Maryland and therefore his views, stated privately or publicly, are a reflection upon the current administration.

Said best in the Maryland Moments comment section: “As a representative of the government, he must exercise some restraint, since his speech doesn't simply count as his own opinion.”

Restraint? Responsibility? Oh, my, what strange concepts in today’s political dialogue. Fortunately these aren’t strange concepts for Governor Ehrlich. Yes, folks, we all have a right to free speech. Now let’s talk about the responsibilities that come along with this right.

Mr. Smith’s rights to free speech have not been trampled. The governor merely afforded Mr. Smith the chance to spew his venom as a private citizen, free from the encumbrances of public office.

Mr. Smith should have shut-up and run the trains.

Considering the racist remarks about Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and the subsequent profound silence of the Democratic leadership, it’s good to see this governor stand up for the right thing and state that Mr. Smith’s comments are unacceptable in his administration.

So far, it doesn’t look as if historians are going to mistaken the first decade of the 21st century as the “Age of Civility.”

Between the Internet, the drive-by media, and a whole generation of politicians who never had their mouths washed out with soap, things aren’t looking good. Then again, we’re only half-way through the year 2006.

Considering that this fall’s elections may be some of the most important in an era of volatile shifts in the political discourse of Maryland and our nation, things could get better and our leaders may yet focus on policy issues and what’s best for citizens.

Don’t count on it. Keep your bar of soap at the ready.

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

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