Guns, growth and dead fish have given Gov. Parris N. Glendening fleeting moments on the national stage. Now he's about to get a year in the political spotlight.
Members of the National Governors' Association will gather today in State College, Pa., for a four-day conference that will conclude Tuesday with Glendening taking the reins of the organization. He becomes the first Marylander to chair the NGA since Marvin Mandel in 1972-1973.
Glendening plans to use his year as chairman to acquaint the nation with a phrase he has made commonplace in Maryland: Smart Growth. Each chairman gets to pick one topic to focus attention on during his tenure, and the governor has chosen the control of sprawl - an issue on which he has a legitimate claim to national leadership.
"I think it's going to be a good issue, an important issue and one we can rally around on a bipartisan basis," the governor said this week.
Glendening won the job last year in St. Louis when he was chosen as vice chairman by the nation's Democratic governors.
Democratic and Republican governors trade the chairmanship and vice chairmanship each year. Glendening will succeed Utah's Republican governor, Michael O. Leavitt. Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, is expected to become vice chairman.
For Glendening, the post offers a chance to display his political skills and mastery of policy on the national stage - and perhaps to polish his credentials for a role in a possible Gore administration.
Glendening has had moments of national attention during his 5 1/2 years as governor - notably for the fish-killing 1997 Pfiesteria outbreak in the Chesapeake Bay, this year's gun safety bill and his continuing Smart Growth efforts. But overall, he does not have much of a national profile, according to Steve Raabe, executive vice president of Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda.
So, Raabe said, the NGA role is a "golden opportunity" for Glendening. "Here's a chance for him to speak out on some issues that may capture the attention of the vice president," Raabe said.
But Glendening insists his interest in leading the NGA springs from a desire for a national platform on the issues that matter to him most. He said he expects to serve out his year as head of the NGA - and follow it with a year leading the Council of State Governments and a final year as president of the Democratic Governors' Association.
"My intent is to finish the full four years. I love this job," said Glendening, whose term as governor expires in January 2003.
To be effective as NGA chief, however, Glendening will have to forge coalitions with governors who are every bit as conservative as he is liberal - against the backdrop of a presidential election. At home, he has been able to roll over Republican opposition to his programs; in the NGA, he is one of just 17 Democratic state governors among 31 Republicans and two who are not affiliated with either party.
In Maryland, where Glendening has hardly been a soothing presence to conservatives, Republicans such as House Minority Whip Robert L. Flanagan are skeptical that the governor can succeed in the NGA role.
"Bottom line, his instinct is to divide and politicize, and Smart Growth is an example of this," the Howard County lawmaker said. "I would not trust the governor in a position that required him to be bipartisan."
But Glendening's career shows that he can thrive in such bipartisan organizations. As Prince George's County executive, he twice won the presidency of the Maryland Association of Counties - the only official ever to do so - and served one term as head of the National Council of Elected County Executives.
Within the NGA, Glendening has crafted a less divisive image than he has at home. In particular, his initiatives on curbing sprawl - an issue dogging Republican and Democratic governors alike - have bolstered his national reputation.
"He's very well-respected throughout the country on that and many other issues," said Leavitt. The Utah governor said he and Glendening have had "a very workable and amiable relationship."
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat who held the chairmanship in 1994-1995, also expressed confidence that Glendening will do a good job. "We don't see Parris as a very partisan person," Dean said. "He's worked very well with Mike Leavitt to fashion very middle-of-the-road positions."
Glendening said he expects the focus of his early months as chairman to be maintaining bipartisanship through the fall national election. After that, he expects the governors to move aggressively to influence whatever new administration comes to power.
The governor said he also expects to spend the year helping to launch three years of research on "best management practices" in higher education - a study he pushed for within the NGA.
The NGA role plays into one of Glendening's strengths because it tends to focus on the nuts and bolts of policy. And no matter who controls Congress or the White House, governors of both parties find themselves in disputes with Washington. "The common problem we have is federal intrusions," said Dean.
Some who have held the post say there can be benefits to the chairman's state beyond mere bragging rights.
Leavitt said the post gives the governor the opportunity to make valuable business contacts. "There is a human element to economic development," he said.
Mandel said the chairmanship give him an opportunity to build relationships on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
"It was a good deal of help from the point of view of our accessibility to Congress and government offices," he said. "I was also able to learn quite a bit from having the contact and availability with other governors."
Mandel said he's confident that Glendening understands the role and the benefits it can bring. He offered just one nugget of advice: "Don't try to overuse it. Just try to use it."