Commentary

Al Gore, Gov. Glendening, And Lord Bolingbroke

In a recent New York Times story on how the nation’s governors are working to help elect their party’s presidential candidate, only two Democratic state chief executives were mentioned by name: Gov. Gray Davis of California and Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland. The choice of Davis, head of the state with the most electoral votes, makes sense. But what does it say about Vice President Gore that he would dispatch Glendening to the campaign trail?

Maryland is a small, safely Democratic state whose governor is not well known outside its borders. But that’s not what makes Gore’s choice so unusual. It’s the fact that Glendening is a man whose chief mission in political life appears to be the enrichment of his political patrons, his cronies and, not least of all, himself.

When he was elected in 1994, Glendening seemed a clean, honest, moderate, technocratic former professor. He might be a bit dull, and he might give Maryland big government, but at least it would be clean government. So what did he do when he took office? Well, here’s how The Washington Post described his debut:

“In his first major act as Maryland governor, Parris N. Glendening unveiled a … budget that unabashedly steers the biggest share of spending to the three areas that voted most strongly for him: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore.”

A few days later it turned out that Glendening and his top aide were collecting tens of thousands of dollars in early pension payments from Prince George’s County, where Glendening served as County Executive until his election as governor. The windfall was due to Glendening’s creative interpretations of rules that gave early pension benefits to government employees who suffered “involuntary separation” from their jobs. Glendening decided that officials not allowed to seek re-election because of term limits, such as the two-term limit on the County Executive, had been “involuntarily separated” from their jobs. And he “demanded” the resignations of his top aides a month before he left his county job — making them also victims of “involuntary separation” — whereupon he hired them as his top aides in the governor’s mansion.

Like the Energizer bunny, the Glendening money train just kept on going. In May of 1995 the governor asked the legislature to spend $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to rescue a struggling high-tech firm in Prince George’s County headed by one of his political supporters. Then Frank W. Stegman, the state secretary of labor, licensing, and regulation, hired the wife of Theodore J. Knapp, the state personnel secretary and a colleague of Stegman’ s from the Prince George’s government, for a job in his agency. No ingrate, personnel secretary Knapp then returned the favor by recommending a $10,000 raise in Stegman’s meager $100,542 salary.

Glendening took $90,000 from a man who does business with the state for his legal defense against Ellen Sauerbrey’s challenge to his 1994 election. He attended a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser in New York hosted by a different businessman who was then bidding for a $25 million Maryland contract. And he spent $270 million in taxpayers’ money on stadiums for two millionaire team owners.

Rare is the politician who will tell the truth about his motivations. Most of them spend great sums of money on speechwriters and spin doctors who can persuade the public that their self-serving schemes are actually in the voters’ own interests. Such practices are even older than democracy, of course. The desire for power and status has long been cloaked in the garb of “divine right,” or the defense of the realm from outside threats, or the scapegoating of imaginary enemies.

One of the most charming and honest descriptions of politics ever penned came from a letter written by Lord Bolingbroke, an English Tory leader in the 18th century. “I am afraid,” he wrote to a friend, “that we came to Court in the same dispositions as all parties have done; that the principal spring of our actions was to have the government of the state in our hands; that our principal views were the conservation of this power, great employments to ourselves, and great opportunities of rewarding those who had helped to raise us and of hurting those who stood in opposition to us.”

That is a fitting description of Glendening, whose goals are to get re-elected, to hire his friends, and to hand out tax dollars to those who helped him get there. But his selection as a surrogate for Vice President Gore sends a disturbing message to the American electorate — namely that it ’s OK to steal from taxpayers. A candidate trying to separate himself from association with scandal should have better judgment.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer.