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Can populism breach the left-right political divide?

Populist sentiment is rampant among voters this year, some candidates say, but do populists on the political left have anything in common with those on the right?

More transparent government run by and for the people instead of by special interests and fat cats are common goals. But members of Common Cause Maryland who gathered in Columbia recently wonder how to catch this year's wave — which seems hostile to Democrats and from which first-time county Republican candidates hope to profit.

Speaking to about 40 people at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice on April 18, Common Cause statewide director Ryan O'Donnell and Del. Elizabeth Bobo said three bills promoting campaign finance reform and open government died in this year's General Assembly. One would have restricted the ability of wealthy business owners to sidestep Maryland's donation limits by creating multiple corporate entities and using each one to give a favored candidate lots of money. Another would have had legislative committee votes electronically recorded, while hearings and Board of Public Works meetings would be available on the Internet.

O'Donnell noted that none of the bills got a full floor vote, though an improbable bill seeking to impeach Attorney General Doug Gansler did get such a vote.

Moveon.org, another group seen as made up of liberal Democrats, is sponsoring a community forum at 2:30 p.m. May 8 at the county's central library in Columbia to talk about "stopping the corporate money grubbers," according to its brochure.

"How can groups like Common Cause and Moveon.org take advantage of discontent among the middle class?" Paul Stolley asked at the Common Cause gathering.

"I've thought a lot about that question," replied Bobo. "We're not doing a very good job."

On Monday, four Republicans running for General Assembly seats in Democrat-dominated District 13 (which covers the southeast county) said at a lunch discussion that too much government spending and a lack of fiscal responsibility are what they hear about the most when they knock on doors looking for votes.

Jeff Robinson, who is running for the House of Delegates, said he agreed with Bobo's corporate contribution reform idea, and he and others also favor more transparency, but they don't see themselves working with Common Cause because they see it as a liberal group.

"There may be an opportunity to do some crossover," though, Robinson said.

Ed Priola, another would-be delegate, said, "I find as much in common with the left side as with the right," because "they have principles" and aren't just after power and self aggrandizement. He wants a two-term limit for members of the General Assembly and a revamping of how Maryland's government works.

"This government is designed for an agrarian age," Priola said, saying a 90-day legislative session makes no sense. He wants to discourage the impulse toward "career" politicians, yet he favors more "full-time legislators."

Robinson, too, said Maryland should look at the government structure, since a yearly 90-day session discourages working citizens from serving because of the time constraints.

J'Neanne Theus, a financial planner from Clarksville, is the third Republican running for delegate, while Kyle Lorton is running for state Senate. They all want to cut state spending, permanently balance the budget and reduce the size of state government. Both major parties, Lorton said, "are addicted to spending."

"There are too many professional politicians," Theus said, and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly needs more political balance.

The district is now represented by four Democratic officials, including first-term state Sen. James N. Robey, a former county executive and police chief, and Dels. Frank S. Turner, Shane Pendergrass and Guy Guzzone. Guzzone is also finishing his first term, though he served two terms on the County Council. Pendergrass and Turner are finishing their fourth terms in the General Assembly. Pendergrass also served on the County Council.

Whose side?

Where do Republicans go when they are social progressives but pro-business fiscal conservatives?

Maybe to newly minted Democrat John Bailey's lightly attended $100-a-ticket fundraiser April 15 at Oakland Mansion in Columbia, to rub shoulders with Republicans such as former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, lawyer Michael Davis, Joan Lancos and others. Bailey said he sold 31 tickets, though not everyone showed up.

Bailey, a former county GOP party leader, is opposing Bobo in her heavily Democratic single-member district covering West Columbia. Although Bailey has left the GOP, some moderate Republicans came to support him.

"Where can you go?" Lancos asked about pro-business Republicans who don't buy all the right-wing rhetoric coming from their party leaders. "A lot of people are looking for a [political] home," she said, and backing a candidate running against Bobo is a place to land. She votes for the person, not the party, she said.

Ecker narrowly beat Bobo in 1990 when she ran for re-election as county executive, and the soon-to-retire Carroll County school superintendent hasn't changed his mind about her. "I'm pro-business. I don't think she is," he said.

Davis said many of Ecker's early campaign events were as sparsely attended at Bailey's, but he went on to win.

"I think Liz is beatable," he said. "I think there's a tide changing."

In that same part of town, County Council incumbent Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat, now has an official opponent in Tom D'Asto of Clarksville, a mechanical engineer who ran against her four years ago and lost by a wide margin.

"I'm a little concerned that after four years of her leadership, we don't have a solution yet on Wilde Lake. We're letting a whole community fall down in disrepair," he said.

She later characterized that as a "totally uninformed" statement, given the new zoning for village center redevelopment approved by the council last summer and her work on the Wilde Lake Village board before the vacancies began.

Albert L. Nalley, a Baltimore County Republican who ran in Elkridge's portion of District 12 four years ago, has also filed to try again to unseat either Del. James E. Malone or Steven J. DeBoy.

Hope stays alive

Although the referendum petition drive to put the housing portion of the downtown Columbia rezoning on the November ballot is officially dead, according to county elections board officials, Russell Swatek, spokesman for Taxpayers Against Giveaways, said his group is still gathering names and is pondering a possible lawsuit. The idea is to turn in the required 5,000 names anyway, so that if a suit is filed and is successful, the referendum could go forward, Swatek said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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