- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

As the Maryland General Assembly prepares to begin its new session next month, Democrats are making it increasingly clear that Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich will have a difficult time on his hands as he attempts to implement real reforms in state government.

The incoming speaker of the House of Delegates, Michael Busch of Anne Arundel County, makes little secret of the fact that he is more liberal than the man he is replacing, Delegate Casper Taylor of Allegheny County, who was defeated last month. Mr. Busch has said that Democrats will not support Ehrlich administration proposals for such as a state version of Project Exile which targets felons who use handguns in the commission of a crime and has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the violent crime rate in Richmond. Mr. Busch also has expressed doubt that Democrats would support two other Ehrlich proposals: ending discrimination against faith-based programs in the awarding of state money and enacting charter-schools legislation.

Meanwhile, both Mr. Busch and his counterpart, Senate President Mike Miller, have elevated some of the General Assembly's staunchest liberal ideologues to positions of power. In the House, for example, the new majority leader is Delegate Kumar Barve of Montgomery County, and Mr. Busch picked Baltimore Delegate Maggie McIntosh to head the Environmental Matters Committee. In the Senate, a sea change has taken place on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, where Sen. Walter Baker a curmudgeonly law-and-order man who was skeptical of gun control and death-penalty moratorium proposals was defeated for re-election last month. Mr. Miller chose the ardently liberal Sen. Brian Frosh of Montgomery County to take Mr. Baker's place.

Mr. Ehrlich has promised to end the moratorium on executions imposed by outgoing Gov. Parris Glendening. This could pave the way for up to seven executions by the end of 2003 (most of the convicted murderers in question have been on death row for a decade or more). But the General Assembly's black caucus hopes to keep the moratorium in place by emphasizing the fact that six of the seven killers are black. Delegate Salima Siler Marriott is demanding that the General Assembly ram through legislation instituting a moratorium before Mr. Glendening leaves office in mid-January.

Another capital punishment-related issue may come up in the General Assembly this year: Spurred by the case of 17-year-old sniper suspect John Lee Malvo, Mr. Ehrlich has said he is considering legislation permitting the execution of murderers under 18 years of age. Mr. Frosh has expressed strong opposition to this idea, setting the stage for what could be a revealing early battle between the new governor and the legislature.

At first glance, Messrs. Busch and Miller might appear to be in the catbird's seat; after all, Democrats will hold a 33-14 advantage in the Senate and a 98-43 lead in the House. But, viewed in isolation, these figures exaggerate the Democrats' strength. Those 131 Democrats include a significant minority of moderates and conservatives from suburban and rural areas (many of these areas carried comfortably by Mr. Ehrlich last month) who understand that Maryland is now a two-party state. They understand that political necessity requires them to cooperate with Mr. Ehrlich and, if necessary, to buck the Democratic leadership, particularly if they see it lurching too far in the direction of Mr. Frosh, Mrs. Marriott, the ACLU and the teachers' unions.

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