STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Gov. Parris N. Glendening basked in a moment of personal and political triumph yesterday as he took over as chairman of the National Governors Association
The governor told his fellow governors he would concentrate his efforts on the issue of controlling sprawl - in effect taking his statewide Smart Growth initiative to the national stage.
"It is time for some new thinking on how we use land in this country," the governor said.
Glendening, 58, reached what could be the pinnacle of his three-decade political career as the governors wound up a four-day conference in the home of Pennsylvania State University.
The Democrat, who first won office by a razor-thin margin in a bitterly ideological contest in 1994, assumed his new role in the atmosphere of bipartisan cordiality that often pervades meetings of the nation's governors.
His ascension marks another step in a political comeback since a series of missteps early in his first term made him one of the least popular governors in the country.
But Glendening fought his way back to a convincing re-election victory in 1998 and has moved with growing confidence toward the national stage and a role in a possible Gore administration. He has said he intends to serve the full year as head of the National Governors Association and the rest of his term as governor, which ends in January 2003.
Glendening succeeds Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican. Democrats and Republicans alternate years in the chairmanship. Michigan Republican Gov. John Engler will be Glendening's vice chairman, assuring he will step up to the top job next year.
A liberal, Glendening said he will have no trouble leading an organization with 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and two governors who are affiliated with neither party.
"You used to say out West, 'You check your guns at the door,'" he said in an interview. "Here, you check your extreme partisanship at the door."
He said the "rough and tumble" of politics should be left to the Democratic and Republican governors associations.
As chairman, Glendening will spend the next year as the chief advocate for the powers and prerogatives of the 50 state governments. He said he would do so aggressively - even if the particular issue is not one he feels strongly about.
Glendening said he had no plans to change the way the association's conferences are underwritten by major corporations. The governors came under criticism this week for meeting behind heavy security in a conference center where corporate sponsors are welcome but the general public is not.
The new chairman said it is more appropriate for the conferences to be paid for by private interests than by taxpayers. He said extra access for business executives should not be a concern.'These governors are very, very experienced," he said. 'They know how to keep an arm's-length distance from lobbyists.'
When Leavitt turned over the gavel to Glendening yesterday, it capped a weekend in which the Maryland governor has played a prominent role.
On Monday, he sat at President Clinton's right hand during the president's valedictory address to the group. Throughout the conference, he was a visible presence at social events - displaying skills that helped him win the top spot.
Glendening said he was especially honored to have been selected by his peers. "This is a very small group of people in which they know you well," he said. "They know your strengths, they know your weaknesses."
In selecting Smart Growth as his focus, Glendening is taking on an issue that is politically sensitive for many governors - especially conservatives from Western states where property rights are jealously guarded.
But in his first speech as chairman, Glendening said governors of both parties were taking on the issue of sprawl in different ways - noting examples from states such as Democratic-led Georgia and Oregon and Republican-led Colorado and New Jersey.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican from one of the most conservative states, had no quarrel with Glendening's priority.
"There's a variety of ways to address this," he told a news conference. "We should address the issue of growth without question."