The Yin and Yang of Parris Glendening


He's still the talk of Annapolis. Two months into his governorship, Parris Glendening is an enigma to legislators, lobbyists and state employees. They can't figure him out.

There's the Good Parris and the Bad Parris. At times, he is a pragmatic "policy wonk" intent on fashioning a smaller, more efficient government. At other times, he's an old-fashioned politico scheming to reward friends and line up support for the next election.

One thing is certain: Parris Glendening is no William Donald Schaefer. He's far more even-tempered, willing to ignore criticism, eager to seek compromise, happy to share glory with subordinates and legislators. No more gubernatorial cult of personality.

Yet the two men share one trait: They can't be easily categorized. Neither is a traditional politician. Both are complex and at times conflicted individuals.

The yin and yang of Parris Glendening keeps State House inhabitants guessing: Is this the Good Parris or the Bad Parris speaking?

He immediately won over legislators with sensible, mildly

conservative inaugural and State of the State addresses. He won plaudits for a holddown budget that attempts to rein in spending.

He accepted a legislative compromise on auto-emissions testing and is pushing hard to rev up Maryland's economic growth. He quashed casino interests' desire for immediate legalization. He has stood behind the Schaefer-era regulation to ban workplace smoking (with attempts to accommodate valid objections) -- even in the face of strong pro-tobacco sentiments from the legislature.

But he sent down a Green Bag list of appointments loaded with the names of cronies and allies from three of Maryland's 24 subdivisions. He filled slots in his administration with hangers-on from Prince George's County. He established a litmus test for many appointments based on contributions to his gubernatorial campaign and whether support came before or after he won the Democratic primary.

Mr. Glendening catered to special interests by pushing to give the teachers unions -- rather than the state education board -- control of teacher certification. He further endeared himself to the teachers unions by replacing Robert C. Embry, the prime school reformer on the state education board.

He curried favor with state employee unions by filling labor and personnel slots with pro-unionists and reassured them he'll push for collective bargaining next year.

He rewarded blacks handsomely in appointments, with city selections funneled through Mayor Schmoke and his political confidant, Larry Gibson. He proposed an expanded minority set-aside program for state contractors -- though it flies in the face of political opposition to such programs in Washington and may not survive conservative opposition in the General Assembly.

Now he is supporting a terrible bill to set up a Milk Commission to fix milk prices so dairy farmers are ensured a profit -- and consumers wind up with inflated milk prices.

The governor's rationale for this consumer rip-off? It will boost economic growth and help state farmers compete. This comes at a time when Washington is slashing agricultural supports (i.e., government handouts to farmers) in an attempt to return to free-market economics.

What does this governor stand for? It's hard to decipher. He's made a big deal of his economic-development moves, including a pledge to slash regulatory restraints -- only to send the opposite signal by backing a commission to impose higher milk prices by government fiat.

He says education is a priority -- only to cut hard into state college budgets. His efforts to romance the teachers unions also call into question his commitment to true education reform.

Mr. Glendening was hobbled by his late start in setting up his government. Ellen Sauerbrey's court challenge paralyzed transition efforts. Meanwhile, former Governor Schaefer made budgeting decisions difficult by insisting on his own, unrealistic fiscal plan.

Yet when the new governor sat down to make his patronage decisions, he met with an insular, narrowly focused group of friends, mainly from Prince George's. His staff is a P.G. group, too. Few aides have any grasp of statewide issues or a feel for the General Assembly.

At this point, the strategy seems to be to take strong stands on a few issues, get his budget through the legislature largely intact and try to thwart conservative efforts to jump on the tax-cut bandwagon this year.

Then Mr. Glendening will have the luxury of the summer and fall to learn the ins and outs of state government, formulate plans for revamping social programs, plot his own three-year schedule for tax reductions linked to reductions in government spending and grapple with the full impact of the Republican-generated "devolution" of social programs coming Maryland's way from Capital Hill.

We probably won't get a good fix on the new governor's overall thrust until he presents his budget and legislative package 10 months from now. The Glendening enigma isn't likely to disappear any time soon.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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