Spring in Annapolis, with Revenge in the Air


Springtime has turned Annapolis into a feast of colorfu enchantment. But the exuberance of the season doesn't extend to the hill overlooking the harbor, where occupants of the State House are engaged in a depressing game of mud-pie throwing.

These enfants terribles are splattering the mud over everyone -- including themselves.

The prime culprit is Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He sees this as "get-even time." The General Assembly spent 90 days pelting him with their mud pies. He feels humiliated and betrayed. So he has decided to respond in the best school yard tradition: get your own gang to launch a mud pie counter-offensive.

This may not be the best way to conduct the public's business, but Mr. Schaefer wants revenge. And he seems content, as one official put it, to be "uncooperative, difficult, juvenile and petty."

For starters, he sent legislators a letter announcing that his staff would "no longer be able to serve you as well or as quickly as we have in the past" -- because of "deep cuts to my staff budget" by lawmakers. In other words, don't ask me for help.

The governor held a bill-signing ceremony last week -- described by one participant as "pretty grim" -- in which he barely spoke with legislative leaders. He also moved up the time of the ceremony without telling the bills' sponsors. Many of them arrived too late to be photographed with supporters or to claim credit for the legislation.

And when Mr. Schaefer inaugurated the state's newest commuter rail service, the Susquehanna Flyer, he made sure his friends from Harford and Cecil counties were there, but not Harford County's legislative delegation.

That's his way of getting even. Some of his staffers mince no words: the objective is revenge.

Meanwhile, Mr. Schaefer continues his personal vendetta against House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell. Now he is blaming Mr. Mitchell because the state can no longer afford to pay $75,000 a year to maintain the old Kent Narrows Bridge -- a serious new expense for tiny Kent County.

According to the governor, it's Mr. Mitchell's fault because he wouldn't approve a 5-cent increase in the gasoline tax.

As for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the Cold War continues. The governor first agreed to name a Prince George's County judge favorable to Mr. Miller and then reneged, thus infuriating the powerful senator. The governor managed to pull a similar maneuver on two Anne Arundel state senators.

All this may strike Mr. Schaefer's cheerleaders as savvy strategy. Others see it differently. One lobbyist for an influential Baltimore company calls it "a sorry mess." He said the governor's attempt to bypass the General Assembly "gets you nothing but gridlock."

Another official, who has known Mr. Schaefer personally and professionally for years, says the situation is so grim that a cessation of hostilities may not be possible.

"I think he's irretrievable," the official said. "Schaefer's being totally indiscriminate in seeking revenge. People who've been helping him for decades are getting hurt."

One major business group was so concerned it asked a prominent elected official to intercede. The official declined because there seems little chance Mr. Schaefer will relent.

Meanwhile, Maryland is getting a black eye. National newspapers are chronicling Mr. Schaefer's antics. A tabloid sold at supermarket check-outs calls Mr. Schaefer "the wackiest governor in America." What business executive is going to move his firm to Maryland after he reads about these shenanigans?

Complicating matters was the governor's decision to isolate and humiliate Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg. He sent a memo to cabinet officials reminding them that the constitution gives the lieutenant governor no official role except "the duties delegated to him by the governor." Then he lopped off two of Mr. Steinberg's five staffers and replaced him as chairman of the Maryland Helicopter Advisory Committee with a Schaefer loyalist.

Mr. Steinberg's crime? He went public with his disagreement over the Linowes commission tax reforms. As one Schaefer aide put it, "Mickey didn't keep it in the family. He gave his word he wouldn't oppose Linowes and the next day he lets the press know he's opposed to Linowes. That was the final straw."

Despite Mr. Steinberg's efforts to sit down with the governor and make amends, Mr. Schaefer refuses to have any of it. "The trust between them is destroyed," said the aide. "It will never be repaired."

That poses a serious barrier. Mr. Steinberg was the governor's only effective lobbyist with the General Assembly. It was his absence this past session that helps explain why the governor got clobbered so badly. The executive and legislative branches could indeed be headed for serious governmental gridlock. It may be springtime in Annapolis, but that ominous storm cloud hanging over the State House shows no signs of dissipating.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each Sunday.

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