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Michael Dresser's Annapolis: The more things change, the more they remain the same

It was late in 1996 that I joined the Annapolis Bureau of The Baltimore Sun, squeezing into the paper’s tiny office in the historic State House.

Parris N. Glendening was Maryland’s governor. Casper R. Taylor Jr. was speaker of the House of Delegates. And Thomas V. Mike Miller was president of the Senate.

Twenty-two years later, as I head out the door into retirement, Larry Hogan is governor. Michael E. Busch is speaker of the House. And Mike Miller is still president of the Senate.

Someday, though it’s hard to imagine, somebody else will lead the upper chamber of the Maryland General Assembly. But Mr. Miller serves as an enduring symbol of Maryland’s resistance to fundamental change.

In 2018, as in 1996, Maryland remains a cautiously progressive state.

The Democratic supermajority that has endured for decades just withstood the test of Mr. Hogan’s popularity in November’s elections. The Republican governor won re-election with a pro-environment, pro-tax cut campaign message not all that different from that of the Democrat who would seek re-election in 1998.

(Mr. Glendening, in fact, delivered a broad-based cut in income taxes — something that so far has been beyond Mr. Hogan’s reach.)

The judiciary in Maryland remains much as it has been for decades — restrained and deferential to the political branches of government. I’m sure the lawyers who practice before the Court of Appeals have noticed changes over time, but when was the last time that court issued a truly sweeping decision?

Also enduring is an unofficial branch of government — the lobbyists. They’re an amazingly resilient group.

When I arrived in Annapolis, two of the top lobbyists in town were consummate schmoozers Gerard E. Evans and Bruce C. Bereano, though Mr. Bereano was still appealing a 1994 federal mail fraud conviction. Fast-forward 22 years, during which time Mr. Evans was convicted of fraud and went to federal prison, and who are the two top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis?

Need you ask? (For the record, Mr. Evans edges Mr. Bereano: $1.96 million to $1.90 million.)

One area that has seen marked change is the influence of women in Annapolis. At the beginning of the 1997 legislative session — the first of 15 I covered for The Sun — women held two of the 10 standing committee chairmanships in the Senate and the House. Now they hold five.

Next year, for the first time, all of the key fiscal committees in the General Assembly — Budget & Taxation in the Senate, Appropriations and Ways & Means in the House — will be held by women. They are Sen. Nancy King, Del. Maggie McIntosh and Del. Anne Kaiser. Senate Finance isn’t really a fiscal committee, but Sen. Delores Kelley will head that powerful panel.

In 1996, there were no openly gay members of the General Assembly. When the Assembly convenes in January, three openly gay lawmakers will chair standing committees.

African-Americans have not made as much progress in the 22 years I’ve been there, but that has a lot to do with the fact that in 1996 they were represented in the top ranks of the legislature by two remarkable committee chairs, the late Sen. Clarence Blount and Del. Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings.

That women, African-Americans and gay lawmakers haven’t had a shot at the top two positions in the legislature is a result of the long tenure of Mr. Miller, president since 1987, and Mr. Busch, who has held that position since 2003. Watching these two run their chambers has been a remarkable lesson in the art of politics.

One profound difference between 1996 and now is the all but total disappearance of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in the legislature.

When I arrived there were staunchly conservative Democrats in charge of key committees in both the Senate and the House. Democratic majorities were overwhelming, but there was a core group of about a dozen who joined the Republicans on key votes more often than not.

On the other side was a small group of moderate to liberal Republicans such as Sen. Vernon Boozer (defeated in a primary), Del. Jean Cryor (ousted by a Democrat in increasingly blue Montgomery County) and Sen. P. J. Hogan (who switched parties).

As far as governors go, the voters have had three chances since 1996 to choose someone other than a white man in a general election (2002, 2014 and 2018) and declined each time. That barrier will fall, maybe as soon as 2022.

My tenure is Annapolis was broken up by a stint in Baltimore as transportation reporter from 2004 to 2011, but that beat still kept me closely involved with state issues. I’ve had the opportunity to observe four governors up close — five if you count William Donald Schaefer, whom I covered during his years as comptroller.

The one common thread among these men — Democrats Schaefer, Glendening and Martin O’Malley and Republicans Hogan and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — is a hefty ego. It takes a high opinion of yourself to believe you can govern a state of 6 million people. None was lacking in that regard.

There have been some memorable debates I’ve been privileged to witness. My first session, 1997, brought a heated fight over a plan to reform and improve Baltimore’s struggling school system. I recall one speech by an obscure delegate from Carroll County, Democrat Ellen Willis Miller, affirming the state’s responsibility for the city’s children. Many in the chamber knew her vote doomed whatever chances she had of holding her seat in her conservative district. But she voted from the heart.

In 2012, Maryland became one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by a vote of its legislature — a decision then ratified by its voters. The next year brought repeal of the death penalty — an issue I covered from start to finish through that legislative session. It is in such high-stakes debates over matters of deeply held principles that state legislatures become more than transactional bodies and elevate democracy to a higher plane. It’s been a privilege to cover these moments of social transformation.

One topic never long out of the picture in Maryland politics is that of corruption. While I’ve seen my share of scandals in Annapolis, I never quite bought the idea that the capital is steeped in a “culture of corruption” as a judge opined. That, in a way, lets the crooks off the hook by implying the temptations are irresistible.

They’re not, and the vast majority of honest public servants resist them quite easily. Slowly, I think the voters are becoming more discriminating in whom they send to Annapolis. It’s not as easy to skate by with a dodgy reputation in 2018 as it was in 1996. But every time you think Maryland has cleaned up its act, along comes a Sen. Nathaniel Oaks ready to betray his oath for chump change.

As a state government reporter, the most significant positive improvement on the beat is the vast amount of information now available online. The most negative development is the tendency of both politicians and their spokespeople to hide behind email and refuse to answer questions on the record over the phone. This CYA culture breeds mistrust between reporters and the people they cover and does little to help citizens understand the issues at stake.

After decades of covering politicians, I’d have to say most are honest, decent people trying to serve their communities as best as they know how — Republicans and Democrats.

But they are politicians, and as the late Mike Royko wrote of Chicago aldermen, they need to be watched like puppies on a new rug. I trust that my successors in the State House Bureau will continue that tradition.

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