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November 26, 2003

Where Has All The Power Gone?

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings (D., Baltimore) died of cancer nearly two weeks ago. Mr. Rawlings served as the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the House of Delegates for over a decade. In his years as the chairman, Delegate Rawlings developed a reputation for integrity, dedication to his city, and a detailed knowledge of the state budget. He was arguably the most powerful political personality in Baltimore, due in large part to the fact that Mayor Martin O'Malley might not have won his first race had it not been for an endorsement from Delegate Rawlings.

The Rawlings influence was not limited to Marty O. Sen. Lisa Gladden (D., Baltimore) occupies an office in the Miller Senate Office Building in large part due to a Rawlings endorsement. She found herself in a primary war with former Sen. Barbara Hoffman following the court redistricting. Pete waved his hand over that race, and Senator Gladden walked away with it.

Charm City has been losing influence in Annapolis for years. That's one of the downsides of a representative government. Seats in the legislature are tied to population. The population of inner city Baltimore has been in decline for many years. Over the last 20 years, the outward flight of the upwardly mobile contributed to the heavy traffic on I-95.

The 10-year census cycle should have sent a warning to those who defend Baltimore's stature. Fewer residents mean collapsing delegate/senatorial districts, and fewer floor votes in Annapolis.

While the powers to be and status quo defenders saw this coming, having Pete Rawlings in the chairman's seat on the Appropriations Committee eased the pain. Pete could foster the necessary votes for Charm City's pet projects by holding sway over other legislators’ wants and needs.

In my limited dealings with Chairman Rawlings, I found him to be courteous without being overly friendly, professorial without being condescending, and impatient with debate on things he didn't worry about. The House Chamber will be quieter and less impressive without Chairman Rawlings.

The decision to replace this legislative giant was one of the most difficult choices facing Speaker of the House Mike Busch (D., Anne Arundel).

Del. Maggie McIntosh (D., Baltimore), chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, and Del. Norman Conway (D., Salisbury), Vice chairman of Appropriations, were the leading contenders.

I know them both, and they couldn't be any more different. Delegate McIntosh is a VERY liberal Democrat from Baltimore. She is closely aligned with Mayor O'Malley, and is one of two openly gay members of the House of Delegates. The last comment is not meant to define who she is, because my deeply held personal belief is that it shouldn't matter in the least.

I mention it solely because of her main competitor, Delegate Conway. Delegate Conway is one of the more conservative Democrats in the House. Norm is a classic Eastern Shore Democrat, seeing a limited, well-defined role for state government in people's lives. Delegate Conway has been known to occasionally vote with the Republican minority on social issues.

So what of their qualifications? Delegate McIntosh served for four years on the Appropriations Committee. She was on the Commerce and Government Matters Committee until its demise, and has served as chairman on the Environmental Matters Committee. She is a tough fighter and expert vote-counter, and she wields influence with Speaker Busch. I've seen tough-guy legislators wither under her pressure, and not too many can beat her on knowledge of issues that matter to her constituents.

Delegate Conway has served for many years as Chairman Rawlings’ right hand on Appropriations. That position gave him the gavel on the Capital Budget Subcommittee, the gang that doles out local bond projects.

Norm made a lot of friends over the years. He has also been a vocal advocate for rural Maryland, putting aside party in the interests of farmers, small businesses, and watermen. I was very impressed by how he handled the floor debate on the budget last year. Chairman Rawlings was ill (the cancer that claimed his life was impacting him last winter), so Delegate Conway had to take the hot seat. He did a great job!

This one falls squarely on Speaker Busch's desk. He had to decide who becomes Appropriations chair. He was inundated with calls and email lobbying for one or the other. Strategy figured prominently, and the old adage about strange bedfellows and politics was on full display.

The Republican Caucus strongly supported Delegate Conway. Having him in the chairman's seat means that rural legislator's (mostly Republicans) can at least get his ear. His hot button issues track surprisingly with the minority caucus.

The urban Democrats and Marty O were clamoring for Delegate McIntosh's promotion. You heard them cite the importance of keeping a focus on Charm City through the budget process. In fact, the weekly Gazette suggested that Baltimore was "due" the chairmanship. Imagine that!

Speaker Busch deferred to experience and appointed Delegate Conway, and now the urban Democrats are disappointed. Mr. Busch had to make some kind of accommodation, but he'll be damaged regardless. Speaker Busch appointed Del. Talmadge Branch (D., Baltimore) as vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee. In addition to Delegate. Branch, and in a demonstration of how much the Speaker was concerned, he has appointed Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D., Prince George’s) to head the Capital Budget Subcommittee. This keeps a Busch loyalist close to the purse strings, and he'll take full advantage of that.

On the other side, Republicans already view Delegate Conway's seat as vulnerable in the next election. If he has to cozy up to the liberal leadership as the chair of Appropriations, a strong Republican challenger will go after his voting record. Speaker Busch made rural Republicans and Democrats happy with Conway's appointment, but only time will tell what deals he has to strike to keep the urban legislators from revolting.

The most compelling question in all of this takes us back to the headline. I borrowed and modified the title of a popular sixties hippie anthem, but my point is that Mayor O'Malley just doesn't have the "juice" that former Baltimore chief executives used to have. Comptroller/Governor/Mayor William Donald Schaffer calls O'Malley "Banjo Joe", a poke at Mr. O'Malley's sidelight as a singer in an Irish band. Banjo Joe is probably strumming a blues tune right about now.

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