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County reflects shift in power


For the past decade, when counties tried to squeeze more school construction money out of the Maryland Board of Public Works, nobody made a bigger show than Baltimore County. Every year, an army of 50 or more stood up to plead the case - parents, teachers, school board members, County Council members and a delegation of legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Not anymore. When County Executive James T. Smith Jr. made his second trip to the Governor's Reception Room recently, all nine of the county's Republican delegates were conspicuously absent. Most claimed to have scheduling conflicts, but some said they were trying to send a message to the county executive.

Whether the partial boycott of the so-called "beg-a-thon" (as it is known by those who participate in it) will hurt the county's school construction program won't be known until the funds are divided at the end of the legislative session. What may be more significant, however, is what the incident says about how the county will push its priorities in Annapolis, and how successful lobbying efforts will be.

Republican delegates might have had to stand behind the county executive before, but now that Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, is in office, they say they have a more direct line to power in Annapolis. Democrats say they fear the delegates' failure to appear signifies an end to the unity and teamwork that proved successful in the 1990s, when the county won funding for wholesale renovations at elementary and middle schools, plus money to build its first new high school in nearly 25 years.

"If they think they have this power and influence, show us," said Michael J. Collins, a Democrat and former chairman of the county's Senate delegation. "I think now more than ever, it's important for the county delegation to put politics aside and join together for the benefit of the schoolchildren and try to show this united front.

"Delegates who miss the opportunity to show that unity to the Board of Public Works for any reason, but particularly for a silly, petty, partisan, political reason, should be ashamed of themselves," he said.

But Republicans say the Democrats should recognize the power shift in Annapolis and take advantage of Baltimore County's bipartisan delegation.

"You may not be the one driving the bus, but you help put the gas in the bus," said former Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Catonsville Republican. "I can relate to some of this being down here doing some lobbying - sometimes I'm the right guy to go in, and sometimes I'm not the right guy. It's probably not prudent to have Jim Smith be the front guy all the time."

Rather than going to the public works meeting, the Republicans signed a letter to the governor backing Smith's school construction program. That, they said, will have more impact than nine people present at the request for funds. "If the Republicans had sent a letter before, I think that it might have been detrimental to our cause," said Del. A. Wade Kach, a north county Republican. "With the present governor, receiving a letter signed by all nine Republicans expressing support for the capital projects on the agenda of the county I think has tremendous clout."

Several Democrats said they believe the reason the Republicans were absent was to protest Smith's criticism of Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a former Republican delegate from Perry Hall, over the handling of insurance complaints after Tropical Storm Isabel.

Smith's spokesman, Damian O'Doherty, said that if true, it's a case of misplaced priorities.

"The county executive thinks it's peculiar to use a school funding request as an opportunity to protest one of his initiatives," he said.

Some Republicans acknowledged that Redmer was a factor. But others said they don't think Smith recognizes their value or treats them as members of the team. They complained of poor communication and said Smith needs to realize that Republicans are not irrelevant.

Dels. Richard K. Impallaria and Patrick L. McDonough, who represent the east side of Baltimore County, said Smith hasn't included them in his plans for a park on the former site of the troubled Villages of Tall Trees apartments in Middle River. And Dels. Joseph C. Boteler III and John W.E. Cluster Jr., from the Perry Hall area, said Smith needs to pay more attention to their constituents' concerns, such as high school crowding.

"There are a lot of new faces [in the delegation], so the dynamic has not quite worked itself out for where the pecking order is," Boteler said.

The 2002 election brought the split between the parties in the county's delegation nearly even - there are now nine Republicans and 12 Democrats.

O'Doherty said the county executive values the Republicans' contributions and has worked closely with them on a number of issues.

"I also think that this is all very much new territory for the county executive, for the governor and for the delegates of both parties," O'Doherty said "We're all trying to learn how we can best utilize each other's resources to move the county forward."

The county's delegates implicitly recognized the changed political climate last year when, for the first time in memory, they gave a Republican a leadership position, naming Kach as their vice chairman.

Murphy said that never would have happened when he was a member of the delegation. The new balance between Republicans and Democrats in Annapolis might mean that Smith and other Democrats won't be able to run the show by themselves anymore and instead should look at the new two-party structure as an opportunity, he said.

The all-for-one, one-for-all strategy the county has used for the last decade is the legacy of Smith's predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Legislators who served with him said they used to make bets on how many times the former athlete could use the word "team" in his speeches to the delegation.

Ruppersberger, now a congressman, criticized the Republicans' actions.

"Whether they agree or disagree with the way Smith handled Al Redmer is their own issue, their own politics, but when it comes to the best interests of your constituents, there needs to be a time out," Ruppersberger said. "It's very important that all those elected officials work together to try to help their constituents and put politics aside."

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