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The Tentacle


April 18, 2006

Slow Death of Bipartisanship

Roy Meachum

Coming out of the most fractious General Assembly in recent history, Gov. Robert Ehrlich's re-election chances look less than bright. And the blame does not rest, not entirely, on the opposition party.

Mr. Ehrlich scarcely took over Annapolis' top chair when he began, in the best American political custom, replacing Democrats with loyalists from his campaign. This created schism with some who had put him into office.

>From the outside, every party may seem united, which is why critics can frequently get away with labels: liberal Democrats or right-wing Republicans, for example.

The GOP has a better history of demonstrating unity, while the other party has never really tried, in Will Roger's words: "I belong to no organized political party, I'm a Democrat."

Mr. Roger's observation was more than proved four years ago, when retiring Democrat Gov. Parris Glendening went out his way to torpedo his lieutenant governor's chances to succeed him.

Among her party's other leaders, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer was first and foremost in letting his followers know they couldn't count on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. For their own reasons, other Democrats opted to slip under Mr. Ehrlich's tent.

Finding Republicans slots in the new administration inevitably involved ousting Democrats who owed their slots not to their party, but to people like state Sen. Mike Miller (D., Calvert/PG), probably his party's most influential bigwig.

Since each of the fired employees had been appointed by Mr. Miller or another patron, the wholesale removal of so many and down to a low level naturally weakened Mr. Ehrlich's support among Democrats, which was never really strong.

Having denied the latest woman candidate Maryland's highest office, 2002's Grand Coalition had no further reason to exist; only Don Schaefer remains behind, the sole Democratic poobah on the governor's side.

Handled differently, the partnership might have remained in business, for no other reason than to bar Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley from Annapolis. The hinterlands have little to say positive about the place that long dominated the state.

Among the Grand Coalition, Mr. O'Malley had the clearest motive for turning against Mrs. Townsend; her 2002 election would have meant hanging around City Hall for at least eight years, a prospect that could not be abided by the ambitious politician.

It has been said Baltimore's ex-Mayor Schaefer remains in Mr. Ehrlich's camp because he so detests his successor; the source of that feud has never been explained.

In the event, the partnership seemed to me to flounder earlier than needed because of the administration's early display of cut-throat partisanship, as exemplified by the speedy handing out the state's patronage jobs.

Picking a quarrel with Baltimore's Sun didn't contribute to the governor's hope of holding onto the semblance of non-partisanship, not when most politicians remain at least cautious of Maryland's most influential medium.

Although tucked in with Senator Miller on the push to bring slots to the state's racing tracks, the several attempts' defeats rest squarely on Mr. Ehrlich's shoulders, where it remains a burden going into the fall's elections.

After all, the governor could not rally enough votes for his signature campaign promise, even given the backing of Maryland's most powerful Democrat. That pattern continued last week in the most acrimonious General Assembly's ending in recent memory. In those last days, Mr. Ehrlich suffered the ignominy of watching his vetoes whiz by. I lost count.

Republicans can charge Democrats for ganging up; in the long run the likely lesson the electorate retains will be the governor's losing feud with the legislature. The basic rule applies: between elections voters only want to hear good news from officials.

This year Mr. Ehrlich has presented little to cheer up the public's mood. Certainly, Mr. Bush's embattled White House has offered nothing to convince independents to vote Republican.

When the governor and his staff's strategy of attacking the Democrats first surfaced, I wished in print they would hold off. With Republicans still vastly outnumbered in the state, I encouraged finesse; it didn't happen.

What figured to be the most partisan elections in many a year has taken shape as a bloody shoot-out. And Gov. Robert Ehrlich has contributed his full share.

What a pity!



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