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As Long as We Remember...

November 7, 2006

Not the Same

Roy Meachum

Thanksgiving brings the 22nd anniversary of my first column's appearance in the Frederick News-Post; there had been no elections that year.

But the voting taking place today marks the 10th time I've set out for the polling place, which was then in the armory. I must confess I've never found right those other varied structures: North Frederick Middle School, an unfinished part of the new library and in a Sagner housing office may all be very well in their place.

But none serves bean soup.

If you read the last line as frivolous, you fail to understand the rigors of participating in this first crucial step of democracy. The problem is not the voting itself, but all those choices to be made. Unlike standing in a bakery selecting pastries, behind each politician there stands a human being who "bleeds when pricked," as a poet once said.

The first time I voted here, several weeks before the first column appeared, I knew nothing and nobody; my choices were dictated by whose name was most familiar. I suspect that many people still operate on that system.

But two years later, I knew the players. It helped that John Dallavalle and I did cable programs on the politicians. "Ask the Candidates" hardly lived up to its name; few forums do. Maybe fascination with the tube helped, I don't know: but I can't recall any candidate who turned us down. Delegate Tom Hattery was, however, less than polite or cooperative.

In 1992's autumn, Mr. Hattery lost the battle to succeed Beverly Byron. Against all odds, Roscoe Bartlett climbed into her congressional seat. He's still there. He figures to gain two more years today, although Andrew Duck is the most worthy opponent Dr. Bartlett has faced.

You will see on today's ballot Galen Clagett's name; he's running for re-election to the House of Delegates. The keyword in that sentence is "reelection." In 1986, he was a prime example of "how the mighty have fallen."

The previous election he had gathered the most votes of any commissioner candidate, which made him eligible to become president of the Board of County Commissioners; he did and with a Democratic majority. The man who "couldn't lose" watched his ambition disappear as precinct after precinct reported to Winchester Hall.

The next municipal elections thrust me into the middle of a huge controversy. Years after the fact, Ron Young admitted his last term in office was not his hour of glory. In my view, he had assumed a Louis XIV attitude; he acted like he was mayor by divine appointment. A relationship I valued bit the dust; Ron and I are friends again. But it took years for us to get back to that status.

As you know, city races are held every four years but a year before state and national offices are decided. Why? I don't know. The oddity guarantees a very low turnout. That could be the key. In the days when the county was still run by good ol' boys, there was no rush to bring the municipal elections on line with state and national voting; this guaranteed most people would stay home. The smaller the turnout, the more the bosses had to say about who got which office, without any outside interference.

It stays that way. Why? I don't have a clue. But, in the best of years, turnout never quite reaches 30 percent. What we need is someone who really cares to get in motion a charter measure to make the change. It's not too late. Baltimore recently did.

Regrettably, today's ballot will not include a proposal to switch the county's one-horse system of government to charter home rule. That's the only way to hold Winchester Hall and its officeholders truly accountable. That famous Nash cartoon that shows Tammany Hall politicos, standing in a circle and fingering the next guy, could have been drawn for the county commissioners.

If voting today conforms to the historical pattern, it will bring into office the "no-growth" crowd; it's happened every four years. That may be citizens' way of maintaining a balance. As a system, this in-and-out, down-and-up plays havoc with efforts to plan where the county should go. Everything gets jerked around, posing potential lawsuits, as the majority changes from voting to voting. That costs taxpayers thousands if not millions. Charter home rule would reduce the see-saw and save big bucks.

Today's lollapalooza, on the local level, shapes up as the stand-off between Charlie Smith and Bill Poffenbarger. One will succeed Scott Rolle who's running an underdog challenge to Doug Gansler. According to the story, Mr. Rolle was talked into trying for the state's attorney general job by his good friend, Gov. Robert Ehrlich. That may or may not be true.

But Republican Rolle managed to alienate a sizeable segment of the local GOP by the move two years ago to kick out Roscoe Bartlett. All the apologies in the world would not sway the congressman's household. In the event, Frederick's state's attorney had placed himself on other enemies' list, for differing reasons. Much of that negative baggage was passed along to his deputy Charlie Smith.

This is Mr. Poffenbarger's first political effort, but the lawyer has been around the courthouse for years and years. He's received money less because he is a Democrat than on the basis of kindness and favors he's spread around the entire county. He has no public record to defend or attack. I know of several groups who are working for Mr. Poffenbarger's victory.

In politics it's very much a matter of the sins of a parent/mentor descending to the next he puts in line.

These are the hours of discontent when wild predictions jostle and bounce wildly. Before going off to your designated place, it might be best to take two Motrin and lie down. Maybe in sleep the list of perfect candidates will appear. I've had no such luck.

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