Glendening's summer of political discontent With controversies, governor creates mess of his own making


Those who know him well, friend and foe alike, say Gov. Parris N. Glendening's summer of controversy flows from a style in which promises, easily made, are easily broken, from arrogance and from poor political instincts.

He has presented himself as a man committed to pursuit of the public good, an unswerving traveler of the political high road.

Yet, from the beginning of his administration 20 months ago, he has had to explain embarrassing disclosures: generous and secret pension allowances for himself and his aides, a legal defense fund amassed in secret by special interests, questionable fund-raising expeditions and disputes with other public officials who doubt his word.

As a result, some Democrats have begun an unusual midterm canvass for a challenger to oppose his re-election in 1998. Three county executives and two leading Maryland businessmen, who represent significant opposition among opinion leaders across the state, met last week in Chevy Chase to consider ways of arresting what one Democrat calls a "meltdown."

The Democratic governor dismisses it all.

He says disappointed favor seekers, wealthy special interests and jealous political competitors are responsible for his predicament, aided and abetted by news media interested only in "Gotcha!" stories.

His defenses hold some truth -- but he leaves aside his own role.

"County executives feel they can't trust the guy," says Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has a list of complaints about Glendening -- beginning with what Schmoke calls a broken promise to support introduction of slot machines at racetracks to produce new revenue for the city. Glendening insists that he made no such promise.

It is another measure of the governor's standing that many Democrats have accepted Schmoke's account.

Opponents in both major parties have been comparing Glendening, unfavorably, to President Clinton. The governor has all the president's widely alleged character flaws, they say -- no core values and no moral compass. Some say it is the president who suffers by this comparison.

Glendening and his aides insist that he is fulfilling promises to the Marylanders who matter -- the voters. He has never wavered, they say, from his vision for the state: superior public education, a job-rich economy and safe streets. Voters would see his accomplishments, they say, if the news media were willing to write about programs and policies.

"People need to go back to the issues that matter," says his press secretary, Judi Scioli. "Look at the resources he's put into education. People get upset with little things, but look at the big picture -- his agreement with environmentalists and others on oyster propagation and dredge spoil disposal. Those sorts of agreements are hard to achieve, and he's getting it done."

Still, his differences with Schmoke and others across a wide spectrum of Maryland business and politics amount to what Lanny Davis, a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from Maryland, calls a "meltdown." Usually a reflexive defender of anything Democratic, Davis is sharply critical of Glendening's fund-raising trip to New York on a corporate jet in July. The governor's host was, at the time, pursuing a lucrative state contract here.

Glendening's slide seems precipitous because so many had high expectations of a man driven to implement progressive policies. With only a 5,993-vote victory margin, he needed to establish a broader base -- but he often seems to conclude that his future will be guaranteed if he raises a massive campaign fund.

"People are perplexed that he's in the situation he's in," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who has been a supporter as well as a critic.

A range of Glendening watchers, opponents and supporters say his problems are rooted in three interrelated aspects of his personal and political style.

"Consensus building": This is the term Glendening chooses for the process of reaching agreement on complicated issues. Those who deal with him instead call this approach over-promising, promise-breaking or worse.

Last year, for instance, Baltimore County officials thought they had a personal commitment from the governor to provide $2 million for extending Red Run Boulevard in Owings Mills, an important project for that community and for the county. But the money was not provided in Glendening's supplementary budget. The funding materialized only after pressure from an influential Democratic county legislator, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell.

Business leaders, too, have felt abandoned. They cite, among other things, his position on a "punitive damages" bill during this year's legislative session. That bill would have made it easier to win additional cash awards from corporations involved in lawsuits. They say he promised to oppose it -- and eventually he did, but only after flirting with supporters of the bill, which failed.

State employee labor unions were told Glendening would support their bid for collective bargaining rights. Again, he did -- but not as aggressively as some thought he had pledged, and the measure was defeated. Glendening then issued an executive order granting part of what the unions wanted. But this infuriated business leaders, who thought the order was inconsistent with his promise to improve Maryland's business climate.

"People want to believe they've heard certain things," says press secretary Scioli. "People are always after him. He always listens. He's very accessible." Inevitably, though, as a decision is reached, "sometimes he disappoints people and they get angry," she says.

Sometimes, his critics say, he would profit by realizing he must be the ultimate consensus maker -- as he did when, belatedly, he said he would never support casinos or slot machines. Again, though, he had made all sides of the gambling debate feel he sided with them until his abrupt declaration at the end of the summer.

Arrogance: The word seems harsh and, perhaps, it is a loose label slapped on him by those who disagree with a decision. Perhaps he is simply cerebral. But arrogance is the word used repeatedly by those who have watched him as governor and, earlier, as Prince George's County executive.

To the lasting irritation of Democratic allies, Glendening assumes his most professorial aloofness when describing any political activity he is not orchestrating. He was not so interested in courting members of the General Assembly, he said earlier this year, because he was not a backslapping "insider." He was the policy man; they were the pols.

Says Scioli: "He's not an arrogant person at all. What I see is someone working very, very hard on the issues, trying to apply the best thinking on each one."

The Chevy Chase meeting to discuss his performance last week was dismissed as a tawdry, "back-room" cabal.

But what were his conversations with Schmoke when they met privately and discussed the introduction of slot machines at the tracks? What was the governor's fund-raising trip to New York or the county pension enhancement worked out in private?

The latter "gave the signal that he's not in public life to improve the lives of people but to improve the lives of bureaucrats who work for him," Rawlings says.

Political tone-deafness: This governor, with 27 years as a professor of political science and almost as many as an elected official, seems to have little instinct for dealing with people -- too little appreciation for how his words and actions will "play." It is not that he shuns such considerations; it is just that the ones he makes seem awkward or transparent.

When one of his contributors was charged with making illegal campaign contributions by funneling money through relatives, Glendening declared himself "Shocked, SHOCKED!"

Virtually everyone in Annapolis, Republican and Democrat, howled with laughter. If he really was shocked, he was no politician at all, because overzealous contributing via friends and relatives is not new. And it is more than predictable when so much pressure is exerted on the givers -- principally by Glendening.

"We're not naive, but when you're running a campaign it really doesn't help you to get illegal contributions. Someone will find out, and it's against the law," Scioli says. "It's proper that we do retain our feelings of shock and disappointment. There's too much cynicism in the world."

Critics also point to Glendening's handling of the announcement that former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell had decided to relocate to Baltimore. Glendening did not share the stage with former Gov. William Donald Schaefer to announce the news -- and, later, when ground was broken for the team's new stadium, Schaefer was again excluded. Critics saw a deliberate slight, selfish and mean-spirited.

Some argue that Glendening's decisions are startlingly impolitic -- not the sort of mistake Clinton would make. Still, the governor's allies predict, the Clinton parallel eventually will work in the governor's favor.

"When Parris has had a chance to get his message out, it'll be the same as with the president," says Greg Pecoraro, a Westminster councilman and member of the DNC. "People will understand that he's done a good job for the state."

Joel Rozner, Glendening's former chief of staff in Prince George's and now a lobbyist, says, "Anyone who claims to be concerned about aid to education, anti-gun legislation or anti-smoking regulations has to be impressed by his performance."

But to be Maryland's "Comeback Kid," the governor may need to make a careful self-appraisal. Even supporters say he won't be able to project any big picture successes if he keeps standing in the way.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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