What kind of naive fool...

What kind of naive fool... (KAL/Baltimore Sun / September 5, 2014)

Forty-one years ago, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel pulled off a series of staggering triumphs that The Sun compared to winning the Triple Crown: Maryland's first gun-control law; a unique, state-run auto insurance agency; and a higher gasoline tax to support Baltimore's first rapid rail line.

He achieved this in the face of ferocious opposition from the National Rifle Association and the insurance and trucking industries. It took Mr. Mandel's enormous persuasive skills — including arm-twisting and deal-making — to win those monumental battles.

Fast-forward to this week's legislative wrap-up. To quote Yogi Berra, it was "déjà vu all over again." Despite intense resistance, Gov. Martin O'Malley captured his own Triple Crown: a more restrictive gun-control statute, a package of gasoline tax increases and abolition of the death penalty.

Raising the gas tax this session was more difficult, and unpopular, than in 1972, when a gallon of petrol cost 55 cents. Abolishing capital punishment required an enormous number of one-on-one discussions to convince lawmakers this ultimate penalty no longer made sense. It was the kind of determined dialogue Mr. Mandel thrived on.

Thanks to the Newtown school massacre in December, which coalesced public opinion behind firearms restrictions, this year's gun-control battle in Annapolis was loud but less intense that the 1972 showdown.

Two governors celebrated monumental victories four decades apart. They did it in vastly different ways, though, reflecting a sea change in Maryland since the days of the Nixon-Agnew presidency.

Mr. Mandel's power came from his unrivaled mastery of the General Assembly. He recruited a lobbying team of irregulars that included a railroad engineer from Cecil County (who kept rural legislators in line), two slick Baltimore attorneys (who dealt with the area's old-style politicos) and a scion of a South Baltimore political machine. They were the governor's hammer.

For important bills, Mr. Mandel added the genteel lobbying of his lieutenant governor, Blair Lee III (to woo Montgomery County compatriots); his secretary of state, Fred Wineland (a force in Prince George's County politics) and the state's first transportation secretary (and future governor), Harry Hughes.

Rural and suburban conservatives held far more power back then, making Mr. Mandel's task harder than Mr. O'Malley's. Sometimes he secured votes by backing a lawmaker's pet project, generously dispensing race track passes, or dangling the prospect of patronage jobs.

During the 1972 session, entire county delegations would march off the House floor and up the marble stairs to the governor's office for a reminder of what was at stake.

Mr. Mandel knew how to win over lawmakers. He also excelled at obfuscation — seemingly indicating support for a legislator's wishes while never fully committing to the specifics. In 10 years as governor, he rarely suffered a defeat.

Mr. O'Malley hasn't been as fortunate. He was deeply embarrassed by the General Assembly's failure last year to pass the state budget on time. It took two special sessions to straighten out the mess, followed by a nasty referendum battle involving four O'Malley-passed bills.

The governor's luck changed this year. He got big assists from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who stopped feuding and started cooperating. The veteran presiding officers were at the top of their game — revising unpopular aspects of the governor's bills and then lining up the necessary votes.

Mr. O'Malley chipped in by staying at home and getting actively involved in lobbying. That differed from last year, when he spent much time campaigning out of state for President Barack Obama.

Sharp population changes in the past four decades provided Mr. O'Malley with a winning edge in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Legislative power now resides in the populous urban-inner suburbs where minorities and liberal voters dominate: Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the Baltimore region. It made his job much easier.

O'Malley and his allies (the NAACP, gun-control groups and the business community) used persuasive arguments, not arm-twisting. Then the governor locked in the support he needed by agreeing to help Prince George's build a new hospital, Baltimore build new schools and Montgomery build a new Metro line. Obviously, the quid pro quo continues its role a useful political tool.

His victories this session mark a high point for Mr. O'Malley's administration. He made it happen in his seventh year as governor through hard work, close cooperation with Messrs. Miller and Busch and an improved grasp of legislative dynamics.

It was an updated version of Mr. Mandel's 1972 triumphs and sets Mr. O'Malley apart from most of his predecessors.

Barry Rascovar, a former deputy editorial page editor at The Sun, covered the 1972 General Assembly session for the paper and has been a commentator on state politics and government ever since. His email is brascovar@hotmail.com.

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts