- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

Maryland Democrats, still flummoxed by the new reality of living in a two-party state, can’t seem to come up with a winning game plan for highlighting their differences on the budget with Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. During this year’s session of the General Assembly, the Democrats were divided over whether to support Mr. Ehrlich’s proposal for slots as a revenue source: Senate President Mike Miller was in favor, while House Speaker Michael Busch was opposed. The party must “come to some conclusion, some consensus,” Comptroller William Donald Schaefer stated. “One cannot be against slots and one for slots.”

Not to worry, because the House and Senate leadership agree, however, on one thing: raising taxes, which they’re strongly in favor of. Last week, they blasted Mr. Ehrlich’s veto of their corporate tax increase bill, suggesting that Mr. Ehrlich was jeopardizing vital state services. Now, Mr. Schaefer — clearly sensing that tax increases aren’t a formula likely to win back the State House — thinks he’s got a better idea: getting Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan to unify the Democratic Party.

The idea that Mr. Duncan is the man to lead the party out of the political wilderness is a bizarre one, unless one believes that Marylanders have suddenly become enthusiastic about increasing their taxes. Given the fact that Mr. Ehrlich made broad opposition to higher taxes a centerpiece of last year’s successful gubernatorial campaign (becoming the first Republican to be elected governor in 36 years), this wouldn’t seem to be a winning strategy. But this much is certain: The political career of Mr. Duncan, which has lately been in a state of free-fall, mirrors the fortunes of the state Democratic Party Mr. Schaefer wants him to lead.

In March, Mr. Duncan proposed a 3 cent increase in the Montgomery County property tax and increased the local income tax rate from 2.95 to 3.2 percent. And more tax increases and cuts in local services are on the way, county politicos say. As he watches his 2006 gubernatorial fortunes collapsing around him, Mr. Duncan has become increasingly strident in his attacks on Mr. Ehrlich, labeling the governor “Backward Bob” and accusing him of making “devastating cuts” to higher education. (As we noted last week, this is a bum rap: Even with this year’s cuts, state higher-education spending has increased by well over a third since 1998.)

Mr. Duncan, like many other prominent Democrats, is understandably frustrated by the political changes in Maryland. But unless he’s got something to offer beyond tax increases and name-calling, he’s hardly the man to lead the once-proud state Democratic Party to a better day.

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