Ehrlich readies for a flurry of appointments


Vowing to leave his mark on Maryland's government, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. begins making appointments this month to some of the state's 600 boards and commissions.

All but finished naming his Cabinet secretaries and top staff, Ehrlich faces the more daunting task of forming a bureaucracy in his own image -- potentially angering some Democrats who are trying to maintain their grip on power.

"We won, we get to appoint our own people," said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. "That is how this works."

Maryland has more boards and commissions than the federal government, and the state's governors have traditionally rewarded political supporters by appointing them to the panels -- some voluntary, some paid.

The appointment process is a shadow of what it was during the heyday of machine politics and patronage jobs, but Ehrlich is discovering it still isn't easy, especially with divided government.

For them to take effect, the Democratic-controlled Senate must confirm the governor's appointments to boards and commissions, 5,000 people in all.

The most coveted positions are filled with friends, relatives and political supporters of some of the state's most powerful Democrats. Some of these Democrats intend to fight to keep their influence in the process.

"It's a whirlwind," said Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., Ehrlich's appointments secretary.

Case in point: Veteran GOP fund-raiser Richard E. Hug was spotted last week near the governor's office carrying an inch-thick folder titled "Appointments" and "Larry Hogan."

Hug, who led Ehrlich's campaign fund-raising effort, said he has been contacting the rest of the 50-person finance committee to see whether they -- or anyone they know -- would like to be appointed to a board or commission.

"We are trying to search for well- qualified people," said Hug, who sources say is interested in being appointed to the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

While Hug is trying to match GOP donors with appointments, the chairman of the Senate Executive Nominations Committee is preparing for bare-knuckle politics. Sen. Philip C. Jimeno has asked his staff to research the process for blocking a governor's nominee.

"It's been almost 40 years since we have had shared-power relationships," said the Anne Arundel County Democrat. "It's always been Democrats, so we thought we should go back and look at what happens if we don't vote to confirm someone."

Jimeno concedes that much of the exercise is posturing to send the governor a message.

"The message we give the governor is, these are his appointments, but on some positions we may want to talk to the governor," Jimeno said. "He has four years to make appointments. I am sure he wants to get off on a good relationship with the Senate."

Most of the state's commissions are panels staffed by volunteers named by the governor.

Some of the boards -- such as the Commission on Artistic Property, the Boat Dealer Advisory Council or the Commission on Responsible Fathering, to a name a few -- are so obscure that governors often have a hard time finding people to sit on them.

But appointees to a few high-profile panels -- the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, the Maryland Parole Commission, the Public Service Commission and the State Workers' Compensation Commission -- receive relatively generous salaries.

For now, those panels are packed with people who have close ties to prominent Democratic politicians.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's former law partner, John R. Webster Jr., is on the State Workers' Compensation Commission, which pays $111,500 a year.

Miller's son, Thomas V. Mike Miller III, is on the parole commission, which pays $81,120 a year. Former state Sen. Clarence W. Blount's son, Michael C. Blount, is also on the Parole Commission, as are former state Sens. Patricia K. Cushwa and Nancy L. Murphy.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s son, J. Joseph Curran III, receives a $97,344 salary as a member of the Public Service Commission. Former Sen. Catherine I. Riley is chairwoman of that commission.

"You've got 36 years' worth of Democrats on these things," said John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

Ehrlich will get to make appointments to the commissions as the terms of current members expire. In all, Hogan said, Ehrlich will make about 1,500 appointments a year.

Some of the prominent Democrats, such as Miller's son, are secure for now because their terms do not expire for years. But the terms of others, such as Riley and Webster, expire this year -- forcing the governor to face some delicate decisions.

Hogan said he and Miller have had several conversations recently about the fate of some Democrats currently serving on commissions.

Miller has also approached Ehrlich about keeping Webster on the Worker's Compensation Commission, the governor said.

Senate Democrats are particularly interested in keeping Riley at the Public Service Commission, but Ehrlich said in an interview that she might be replaced.

"We have received some feedback from the business community raising concerns," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich said there "has been no horse-trading" with Democratic leaders over appointments.

"I actually thought there would be more, but it may accelerate as we go along," Ehrlich said.

But Jimeno notes the Senate is already employing some subtle hardball techniques. One tactic has been to push back confirmation hearings for two of Ehrlich's more disputed Cabinet selections until after the governor's first batch of appointments to boards and commissions.

The hearings for the two nominees Miller has publicly expressed concern about -- Del. Robert L. Flanagan for transportation secretary and James C. "Chip" DiPaula as budget secretary -- are scheduled for Feb. 17.

That is three days after the governor is to make his first round of nominations -- the so-called "green bag" of appointments that goes to the Senate.

"It is no coincidence the timing for some of these appointment hearings comes after the green bag," Jimeno said, with a grin. "That will give us an opportunity to review the green bag appointments."

Miller was more circumspect about his intentions, but he denied he is lobbying to keep certain people in their posts.

"I am confident the governor is going to consider all appointments on their merit," Miller said. "He will look to balance between Republicans and Democrats. ... He wants to leave a legacy, but he can only do that with the cooperation of the legislative branch."

Hogan, a longtime GOP activist, said the governor plans to appoint both Democrats and Republicans. But Hogan also predicted an occasional showdown with the Senate.

"Certainly there are going to be situations where we don't see eye to eye," he said.

Hogan predicted that an equally touchy situation could erupt between Ehrlich and his Republican base, which will likely become annoyed if the governor appoints or reappoints too many Democrats.

"We probably do have to spend some time on the Republican side to let them know how the process works," Hogan said.

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