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Perils of the state's angry politics

Americans have come to despise politicians - Democrats and Republicans - recent polling shows.

In Maryland, it's easy to see why.

Faced with issues ranging from a proposed 72 percent electricity rate increase to challenges involving education, health care, taxes, slots and horse-racing, the state's politicians frequently seem more interested in scoring points against their opponents than in finding the right policies.

Venom fills the room at legislative hearings, where angry state executive-branch agency officials are peppered with hostile questions from Democrats during meetings of a select committee investigating the Ehrlich administration's hiring and firing practices.

It flows from the floor of the state Senate, where Democratic lawmakers passed a bill that effectively forced the governor's campaign fundraising chief off of the state university system's Board of Regents.

The political feuding has even been seized on as a principal campaign plank by Democrat gubernatorial candidate Douglas M. Duncan in a wave of TV ads in which the Montgomery County executive presents himself as more interested in the people's business than the squabbling Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., his two main rivals.

Of course, Duncan has given his share of personal shots too.

Experts say it is understandable that political tensions are at an all-time high. Ehrlich is Maryland's first Republican governor in more than a generation. Democrats don't like sharing power, and Ehrlich is playing tough because he is seeking re-election in a state where his party remains outnumbered by Democrats by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

What's more, the national political atmosphere has grown increasingly polarized and toxic in recent years, in part because of passions raised by two closely fought presidential races.

With the most competitive election season in more than a decade under way - in Maryland and nationally - the friction will only increase in the months ahead, most political experts agree.

But in Maryland, where politics have long been pragmatic, regardless of party affiliation, some in both parties wish it weren't so.

They long for the days - not that long ago, they say - when debate in the General Assembly was driven more by policy considerations than by politics. Just a few years ago, they say, it was hard to find differences between conservative-leaning Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans.

But moderates in both parties seem to be a vanishing breed.

"I think partisanship knows no limit," said John N. Bambacus, a former Republican state senator representing Allegany and Garrett counties. "There should be a sharing of power, more than a separation of power."

As chairman of the political science department at Frostburg State University, Bambacus is a student of politics as well as a practitioner. He recently concluded that Maryland's political system is not working.

Late last year, Bambacus wrote to his county election board and requested a form to change his registration. He is no longer a Republican. He has no party affiliation now, having joined the growing number of independent-minded voters in the state.

As of March, 15.3 percent of the state's 3 million registered voters were either unaffiliated with a political party or enrolled in a minor party. That's up from 13.4 percent of 2.7 million voters in 2000.

The choice comes with consequences: Unaffiliated voters can't cast ballots in party primaries. In many areas of the state, primary winners are all but assured election.

"I don't like party politics, because they are always extreme," Bambacus said during an interview this year at his home on the edge of campus. "The extreme wings run the party."

Bambacus entered the political world as a campaign staff aide for former U.S. Sen. Charles M. Mathias, whom he called "a liberal Republican and a decent man and one of the brightest men I ever met in life."

Bambacus maintained the tradition when he went to the state Senate, joining a coterie of respected moderate Republicans that included John A. Cade of Anne Arundel County, John W. Derr of Frederick and F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County.

None of the four are still in office. Cade died in 1996. Derr and Boozer were defeated in primaries in 1998, ousted by challengers who came at them from the right.

Bambacus, who did not seek re-election in 1990 and later became mayor of Frostburg, says that when he visits Annapolis now, he barely recognizes the place. The tone of debate has shifted even more strongly with Ehrlich as governor, Bambacus said, and events of the past year or so have turned his stomach. He was angry and saddened, he said, by accounts of the activities of Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the longtime Ehrlich aide who acknowledged that he looked for employees to fire in state agencies.

Steffen resigned - the governor says he fired him - after being confronted by a Washington Post reporter with documents showing he participated in spreading rumors about O'Malley's personal life on the Internet.

"All of us down there know, to the victor go the spoils," Bambacus said. "The glorification of Mr. Steffen and his long-standing relationship with Governor Ehrlich ... was probably the proverbial last straw."

Democratic leaders accuse Ehrlich of bringing bare-knuckled, Capitol Hill-style politics to Annapolis, but they have pursued their own brash partisan tactics.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller delivered a speech to Democrats the day before the start of the General Assembly session in January, promising, "we're going to get together and we're going to shoot [Republicans] down. We're going to put them in the ground, and it'll be 10 years before they crawl out again."

Miller's chamber then pushed through several bills aimed squarely at Ehrlich, such as a budget amendment that prevents the governor from appearing in state tourism ads during the campaign season. Another measure prohibits political activity by members of the Board of Regents. Democrats acknowledge they were going after Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's chief fundraiser.

The erosion of interparty cooperation can't be blamed on one party, said former Sen. Robert R. Neall, a former Anne Arundel county executive who replaced Cade. A longtime Republican, Neall switched parties but lost his next re-election bid, in 2002.

"I'm glad I'm not there," Neall said in a recent interview. "I don't see the field of opportunity for problem solving that once existed. I'm glad I lost my last election."

"When I was a Republican, I was a very nonpartisan Republican," Neall continued. "When I was a Democrat, I saw myself as a moderate in the middle of the room, with decent relationships on the left and on the right. That's one of the principal roles that moderates played in the General Assembly, but their numbers have been depleted."

Although Ehrlich has decried the trend toward harsh political tactics - calling in two State of the State speeches for a return to civility - some of his recent actions belie his concern.

One of Ehrlich's most recent fundraising letters asked donors to contribute money "so I can counter the personal attacks [and] expose the slanderous propaganda and lies put out by the liberal special interests."

"The liberal power brokers in Annapolis are desperate to replace me with Martin O'Malley or Doug Duncan who will rubber-stamp Senate President Mike Miller's spending sprees and raise your taxes to pay for them," the letter says. "The Baltimore Sun, Senate President Miller, Speaker Busch and my opponents have spent the past three years in attack mode, spreading misinformation about my record."

Some candidates are trying to capitalize on voter disgust with the two-party system. Kevin Zeese, an anti-war activist who has led an effort against Maryland's electronic voting machines, is running for U.S. Senate this year as a "fusion" candidate, seeking the nominations of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties.

He says he is addressing issues that major party candidates won't, such as challenging U.S. policy in Israel and calling for a tax-reform plan that would exempt an individual's first $100,000 in income from taxation. To replace the revenue, he would impose an 0.1 percent "microtax" on the purchase of stocks, bonds, derivatives and currency, which he says would raise $1.2 trillion yearly.

Zeese acknowledges that many independent voters are turned off by politics entirely. "But others are looking for a leader," he said.

"Partisanship has gotten really ugly in Maryland," he said. "There is a divide between the leadership of the two parties and the voters of the two parties. There is an opportunity here if the right candidate comes along."

Not all political experts think that the rhetorical and ideological divide between the major parties has caused damage, however.

Staunch Democrats and Republicans hold legitimately different views on many issues, and those differences need to be articulated, said Harry Basehart, a political science professor at Frostburg State University and a co-director of the school's Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement.

"I think partisanship generally is good," Basehart said. "We certainly want parties to have different positions on issues, to represent their constituent interests. ... Voters can't have it both ways. You can't have parties that stand for something, and then not like the fight."

William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a 2005 study on partisanship, "The Politics of Polarization," said growing voter dissatisfaction with interparty fighting may lead to a new crop of candidates who can rise above the fray.

"The existence of that very large pool of dissatisfied voters or potential voters creates an opportunity for politicians to present themselves, not as above partisanship, but as someone willing to go the extra mile to find common ground with people on the other side of the aisle," Galston said.

It will not be easy, Galston said, noting that such politicians will have to "convince extreme partisans that you are not going to stab them in the back," while demonstrating that they are not compromisers for the sake of compromise.

But the popularity of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and the credibility of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission show that voters respect those who put solutions over ideology, he said.

"In the current circumstances, it's not only possible. It's almost necessary," Galston said. "The American people have had it up to here with hyper-partisanship. ... I would be surprised if both parties didn't try to modulate the tone. The time for problem-solving has arrived. I think that is going to be a winning strategy."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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