Gov. Parris N. Glendening emerged from the 1997 General Assembly session with three glittery ribbons of achievement, a pair of brave new supporters -- and some political problems with career-ending potential.
Tuesday, 11 hours after the 90-day session ended, he signed bills giving Marylanders a 10 percent income tax cut and a quarter-billion-dollar school aid package for Baltimore -- accompanied by lavish praise from two frequent critics.
State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller vehemently opposed many of the governor's legislative initiatives in January but said last week, "I don't know of a more productive session -- with your leadership and cooperation between Republicans and Democrats."
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who feuded with Glendening throughout the session and might challenge him in a 1998 gubernatorial primary, echoed Miller.
But the celebrating could be fleeting for Glendening, who heads toward the last legislative session of his four-year term and the 1998 election facing significant political challenges:
The Baltimore schools deal was a classic mixed political blessing. It gave big money to Baltimore, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1. But it was passed over strenuous and possibly continuing objections from lawmakers in two counties the governor must carry, Prince George's and Montgomery. Both were crucial to his narrow victory in 1994 and could be in 1998.
However well or poorly Glendening's programs fared with the General Assembly, new competition could be approaching from his own party. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat, has been accelerating his exploration of a challenge to Glendening, asking others in the party whether Glendening can be rehabilitated sufficiently from fund-raising and pension controversies to hold off a second run by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Republicans think they came out of the session in great shape. They were happy to see Democrats quarrel -- always a good thing for the GOP in a state where Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in registered voters.
The Republicans said Glendening failed to find a formula that might have gained wider support for his five-year, $254 million outlay for Baltimore's troubled school system. The tax cut was a liability, too, the GOP said.
"I think what the governor has done," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, "is give Ellen incredible credibility. He just said her 1994 campaign promise of a 24 percent tax cut was on target and that she was the one who had the vision for Maryland, not him."
Many Democratic legislators were opposed to a tax cut, except as political cover against an expected Republican attack if they didn't pass one. Most voted yes, after amending the governor's proposal to distribute more of the break to low-income taxpayers.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat who was one of the few who opposed the cut, said, "I don't think a tax cut was good government or good politics. We've set ourselves up for a very difficult financial situation in the future. And I just don't think we've taken the issue away from the minority party."
Bobo added, however, that Glendening had helped himself recently by taking a strong and unwavering stand against gambling. His advisers had urged him to find a firm position on something, some visible issue, to combat the view that he changes position so frequently that voters and some members of his party don't have a good handle on him.
Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Glendening's position will improve in his county when voters focus on his Smart Growth anti-sprawl initiative, the third major ribbon earned by the governor this year. The voters will like the $25 million in state school construction money that is headed for the county, he said.
"No governor prior to this one has paid as much attention to our needs," Dewberry said.
He added, however, that "someone as viable as Ben Cardin has to take a look at running."
Nothing in what Bobo or Dewberry said conflicts with the session-ending hosannas from Miller and Taylor. Although undoubtedly sincere, the remarks of the presiding officers must be read partly as reflecting their own pride in the session's work and partly as an effort to support a Democratic governor who, as matters stand, will head their re-election ticket in 1998. Party leaders know that a strong slate, top to bottom, improves the prospects of every party candidate.
Glendening tried to placate lawmakers from Montgomery and Prince George's counties with an array of financial gifts, but he and the assembly leadership declined to commit to large annual outlays of cash paralleling the commitment to Baltimore, a long additional step they demanded.
Glendening dismissed the political significance of the studied Prince George's-Montgomery antipathy and said voters will realize he treated them fairly.
"I think it was very unfortunate that a lot of the debate came down to which region or county was doing better. What we ought to keep the focus on is our overall vision, the quality of education statewide, for every child in every community," he said.
Both counties did well in the 1997 budget, he said.
Prince George's, where Glendening was county executive until 1994, got $51 million in new money for education, $31 million in operating funds and $20 million for construction. Montgomery got $36 million for school construction and $14 million in operating cash.
Baltimore got $40 million, $10 million for construction and $30 million for operations. The city's money might have a longer-range grip on the treasury, however, because it results from a court decree.
The Prince George's-Montgomery coalition had no regrets.
"We stated a proper, moral position," Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry said at a post-session news conference with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
"If Maryland is to be the education state," said Curry, playing off a Glendening theme, "every area's needs must be addressed. If he'd wanted to, he could have. The money was there."
The unhappiness of Curry and Duncan sounds to some like the music of the election of 2002, when both could be candidates for statewide office. One or both could be running against Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger as candidates for governor after Glendening or whoever succeeds him leaves office.
Ruppersberger walked away from the suburban-Washington coalition in midsession to work for passage of the Baltimore package, gaining substantial state aid from Glendening for his county -- and political friends in the city.
Without Ruppersberger's backing and his influence with the county's delegation -- including Republicans -- the school aid legislation might not have passed.
Duncan and Curry were not happy with him or the governor. Asked how they thought Glendening had fared during the session, they lavished gratitude on Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's Democrat who promoted the counties' cause.
Duncan called what he regarded as Glendening's lack of response "a missed opportunity" -- while thanking Taylor and Miller for their help. Given the importance of governors to county executives, the determination to be disappointed with Glendening might be a further reflection of his weakness among voters in Montgomery and Prince George's.
"He's going to have to do some explaining to Prince George's residents," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat. "It will be tough to come back home and explain why we don't have it in the budget."
Glendening said any political damage would be transitory.
"It's not about deals and jurisdictions; it's about children," he said. "This was an extraordinary pro-education budget. Everyone won. State education funding increased 8 percent at a time when the overall budget increased less than 3 percent."
The new coalition didn't buy that for a minute.
Asked what he and Duncan might do next year, having failed despite unprecedented solidarity in 1997, Curry said, "We have yet to take our best shot."
Glendening has to hope the best shot comes before, not during, his next election campaign.
Pub Date: 4/14/97