Sunday, August 31, 2003

It’s been less than a year since Maryland Democrats saw their 33-year grip on the State- house come to a crushing end. But it probably seems like an eternity to pols like Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch. This Labor Day (the first since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency on which Democrats have not held the governorship) has to be a troubling time for the state AFL-CIO and its political allies in the state Democratic party.

To be sure, the Democrats, who still command majorities of more than 2-1 in both houses of the General Assembly, were pretty successful during this year’s session in preventing Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich from getting much of his agenda enacted. But, look just a little beneath the surface, and you’ll see that, bit by bit, the Democratic Party, which has long dominated state politics, is coming unglued.

For one thing, many General Assembly Democrats are coming to understand that they’ll have to choose between standing with the leadership of their party on the one hand and political survival on the other. Mr. Busch’s blunt-spoken advocacy of higher taxes, in particular, is making a growing number of Democrats uncomfortable.

“The public right now sees a split: The Republicans are saying, ‘No more tax. No more tax,’” Sen. Thomas Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told The Washington Post. “And they see Democrats, in the mouth of Mike Busch, saying, ‘There’s got to be more taxes.’”

“Well, people don’t want any more taxes,” Mr. Middleton added. “When they hear, ‘We want to tax you more,’ it doesn’t sell well.” State Sen. Roy Dyson, like Mr. Middleton, a moderately conservative Democrat, complains that Mr. Busch became the voice of the party almost immediately after he was elected speaker of the house. “It’s not good for Democrats like us,” said Mr. Dyson, from St. Mary’s County.

In a front-page story last week on Maryland Democrats’ difficult predicament, the Post’s Lori Montgomery wrote that conservative Democrats would ordinarily turn to Mr. Miller, an “anti-tax moderate” who supported Mr. Ehrlich’s unsuccessful effort earlier this year to win the legislature’s approval for slots at race tracks, to make the party’s case against the Republican governor. Ms. Montgomery suggests that this hasn’t happened because the FBI has been investigating the Senate president over political contributions to a national Democratic campaign committee he heads.

The major flaw in this analysis is the fact that, just a few months ago, Mr. Miller teamed up with Mr. Busch to ram a tax increase package through the General Assembly that was vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich. And, of course, add to this the fact that, during the eight-year governorship of Mr. Ehrlich’s spendthrift predecessor, Parris Glendening, Mr. Miller routinely teamed up with that governor to foist higher taxes and spending on the public.

Perhaps the most remarkable development of all is the fact the state’s fiscal problems have persuaded some Democrats to consider scaling back the Thornton plan, which would spend an additional $1.3 billion on the public schools over a five-year period. In a speech last month calling for higher taxes, Mr. Busch acknowledged Thornton’s role in exacerbating Maryland’s budgetary problems. Indeed, Democratic Party back-benchers are beginning to speak openly about the need to, at a bare minimum, reduce spending on the plan. “If it’s Thornton or raising taxes to fund Thornton, then goodbye Thornton,” Delegate Kevin Kelly, a moderately conservative Democrat from Allegany County, a poor, rural jurisdiction in Western Maryland, stated.

All of the above only scratches the surface of the problems plaguing state Democrats. Delegate Howard Rawlings of Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, recently attacked Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer’s offense? Noting the critical role that Mr. Glendening played in creating the fiscal mess inherited by Mr. Ehrlich. Then, Mr. Schaefer said, Mr. Rawlings accosted him at a meeting and tried to get him to promise to support increasing taxes. Mr. Schaefer refused.

In short, it’s becoming more and more difficult for Democratic political barons in Annapolis to mobilize support for liberal orthodoxy on taxes and spending. Mr. Ehrlich faces a huge challenge in working with a Democratic Party that is increasingly divided and frustrated over the recent downward spiral in its political fortunes.

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