- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

Republicans and Democrats alike say the deterioration of civility among Annapolis politicians is hurting state government.

The rhetoric “is becoming more personal,” Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told The Washington Times yesterday. “It degrades the institution of the General Assembly. … It hurts everything, and it hurts everybody.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, criticized incivility and the increasingly disrespectful tone of political debate in the state capital last month in his State of the State address. But even as the governor was delivering his impromptu scolding about ill manners, several lawmakers perused newspaper sports sections or typed e-mail messages into their notebook computers.

Mr. Ehrlich’s aides say the governor has grown increasingly concerned about the political tenor since receiving terse treatment while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the special session late last year to pass medical-malpractice legislation.

The ill will continued when the session began last month. House Speaker Michael E. Busch broke with tradition by not inviting the governor to address the chamber.

Mr. Busch did not return a call yesterday seeking comment.

Mr. Ehrlich also was snubbed by the Legislative Black Caucus during the special session. The caucus refused to let the governor address the group and forced him to wait outside the conference room.

Unpleasantries are not limited to scuffles between the governor and the legislature.

Mr. Busch reassigned House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell from a front-row seat usually reserved for party leaders to a desk on the side of the chamber. Top Democrats said Mr. O’Donnell, Calvert and St. Mary’s Republican, brought it on himself.

“This is the same minority whip who more or less called the speaker a liar,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, referring to remarks made last fall when Mr. Busch withdrew his support for a deal to legalize slot-machine gambling.

Mr. Barve, Montgomery Democrat, said slots also was the impetus for civility’s demise. He said politics started getting nasty after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele accused Mr. Busch of “playing the race card” when the speaker met with black ministers to muster opposition to the gambling plan.

At the same time, Mr. Barve said the administration has been overly sensitive about perceived insults. “‘Gotcha politics’ is a national feature of politics that has been developing for quite a while,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think Maryland is catching up to the rest of the country.”

Other veteran lawmakers contend civility was on the decline in Annapolis long before Mr. Ehrlich became the state’s first Republican governor in 34 years in January 2003. However, the Republican administration and an emboldened minority party were bound to rankle the General Assembly’s long-standing Democratic majority.

The political discord, some say, has a price.

Some lawmakers blame the rancor for undermining major legislation, including the governor’s bill to legalize slot-machine gambling — an initiative backed by Democrats before Mr. Ehrlich took office.

“The governor wants slots. The Senate wants slots. The House is questionable at best,” said Delegate John S. Arnick. “Two out of three want it. You should be able to work it out, [but] people don’t think that way anymore.”

Mr. Arnick, Baltimore County Democrat, who has served in the legislature off and on for 38 years, said lawmakers are unwilling to compromise because politics has trumped public service.

He said the General Assembly is just less friendly than it used to be, even for members of the same party. “We don’t talk. We don’t socialize,” he said. “That is part of the problem. Everything is politics. Your main chore sometimes gets to be getting elected.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. disagrees with Mr. Arnick and the governor’s characterization that “Capitol Hill assassin politics” has infected Annapolis. But he said leaders from both parties need to work to tone down the rhetoric.

“It is not as complex and as mean-spirited as Capitol Hill. But it is not as congenial as days gone by,” Mr. Miller said.

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