- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

By any measure, Terry Lierman, the new chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, is taking over an institution that has been going through a very difficult period for the past few years. With the election of Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2002, Republicans regained control of the State House for the first time in more than three decades. Aided by his skillful use of talk radio as a medium to take his message to the voters, Mr. Ehrlich increasingly seems to dominate political debate in Maryland.

The man who is arguably the most popular Democrat in the state, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, elected two years ago with 68 percent of the vote, frequently sides with the Republican governor on taxes and spending issues. Mr. Schaefer was excluded from the state delegation to this year’s Democratic National Convention by party apparatchiks unhappy with his lack of enthusiasm for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential candidacy.

To be sure, the more orthodox liberals who dominate the state Democratic Party, like Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, retain plenty of power. And Democrats retain comfortable majorities in both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. Look beneath the surface, however, and signs of trouble are virtually everywhere. In April, the outgoing head of the state Democratic Party, Isiah Leggett, and Senate President Mike Miller blamed House Speaker Michael Busch for failing to compromise with the governor over taxes and slots. Moderate Democratic delegates from the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland made known their displeasure over arm-twisting by Mr. Busch to force them into supporting tax increases. While Mr. Ehrlich pledged to veto tax hikes, Mr. Miller declared: “We definitely need an increase in taxes, but not as dramatic as was proposed by the speaker.”

While all this has been taking place, Mr. Schaefer has been publicly feuding with Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. Once viewed as a fast-rising star in the party, Mr. O’Malley has lost much of his luster thanks to problems with school funding and student violence and ongoing turmoil in the city police department.

Enter Mr. Lierman, the man who is supposed to unite the Democratic Party. He was a top fundraiser for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign this year. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Rep. Connie Morella, a moderately liberal Republican, attacking her from the left. The most memorable part of that campaign was a report — which ran one week before the election in The Washington Post — that Mr. Lierman, a lobbyist for the Schering-Plough pharmaceutical company, gave a $25,000 loan at below-market rates to Democratic Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, who subsequently signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill that extended the firm’s patent on the allergy drug Claritin. That report effectively ensured Mr. Lierman’s defeat. ( After the Post report ran, Mr. Moran immediately agreed to repay that loan.)

So, the Maryland Democratic Party will now be headed by a liberal ideologue and a Washington lobbyist whose campaign for Congress imploded after his financial relationship with Mr. Moran became public. If he sticks around long enough, Mr. Lierman may prove to be as helpful to the Maryland Democratic Party as Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was in 2002.

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