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Political Animal

Rain Delay

By Brian Morton | Posted 4/12/2006

There’s an old saying in baseball about how only three things can happen: You can win, you can lose, or it can rain. On Monday night, April 10, the last day of the legislative session in Annapolis, boy oh boy, did it rain. After a long day of mounting tension between lobbyists, lawmakers, and the governor, after an afternoon of thumb-in-your-eye overrides of the governor’s vetoes, the last bit of business was saving the lawmakers’ own skins. And then the rain came falling down.

Lawmakers knew the stakes. A long hot summer, a deadline for 72 percent electricity rate hikes, a fall election, and plenty of blame to go around.

Twenty minutes before the mandated end of the session, upper Eastern Shore Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36th District) was making an impassioned speech against the bargain made earlier in the evening, complaining that at the last minute he and the rest of the senators were handed a done deal on how to handle the rate hike and expected to vote it through. Pipkin vented into the tiny microphones corded to the Senate desks about how constituents would be clamoring over the phones at them come summer: “‘Did you fight for us? Did you fight for us?’”

Second reading for the bill came about 10 minutes before midnight, and the bill looked to have the votes to pass. But when it came time to suspend the rules, the members of the Senate inexplicably choked. Right then, the feeling in the air was like the moment right after a husband tells his wife, “I’m sorry honey—this has never happened before.”

By the time people actually started realizing what happened, you could feel the steam building in the hallway outside the white marble chambers. An angry pair of citizens collared me outside the door to the House chamber as members began streaming out into the milling mass of bodies that hung in the hallway after midnight; they wanted to rant at anyone in the media who could convey their disgust at the evening’s events. Seconds after exiting the House side, Baltimore Del. Catherine Pugh (D-40th) railed outside the chamber about the Senate’s failure to move the bill through, while members of the Senate, mere feet away, expressed their disappointment at their own body and the governor for not taking a more active part in the process.

Later in the night, Paul Schurick, Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s spokesman, came down to the disheveled press offices in the statehouse basement to claim how the lawmakers’ failure to do their job wasn’t his boss’ fault. “The legislature had 90 days to finish the job, and they didn’t do it,” he said.

Regardless of which way you come down on this, it’s hard to contradict that statement. This session started out about veto overrides, and then took Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through a whole host of topics: the fallout of the Wal-Mart bill override; the governor’s free-spending budget; several weeks of fiery rhetoric over the possibility of a gay marriage bill and what it would do for GOP turnout in the fall; paper ballots on voting machines; embryonic stem cells vs. adult stem cells; William Donald Schaefer ogling a twentysomething gubernatorial aide; the last-minute takeover attempt of 11 Baltimore city schools—and then the utility rate hike exploded on the scene, and suddenly everyone was scrambling for a solution.

Alfred Hitchcock used to explain the difference between suspense and surprise like this: Surprise is a bomb going off beneath someone’s chair—BOOM! Suspense is knowing the bomb is there, and then agonizing over its expected detonation. Monday night in Annapolis had the suspense of knowing that something had to be done about the electricity rate hike and the Constellation Energy Group/Florida Power and Light Co. merger, but the surprise was that, by the end of the night, nothing got done. Nobody saw it coming.

Now all these lawmakers, who have been champing at the bit for 90 days to begin fundraising for a fall election season that is going to be a free-for-all like we haven’t seen in years, have to bring everything to a screeching halt while the collective powers that be decide about a special session. Chances are by the time you read this they’ll have scheduled one. This means no dinners, no bull roasts, no money coming in until the ink is dry on a way to keep angry power consumers from taking their vengeance out on any delegate or senator who didn’t find a way to keep people from going into cardiac arrest come July. So Monday night was a night for everyone to lash out at everyone. When House Speaker Michael Busch was asked at a late-night gaggle in the press room to respond to the governor’s statement that lawmakers weren’t doing their jobs, even he couldn’t find the words to pin blame in one place. There seems to be so much to go around.

Words can fail you after an evening like this—you want to call it a carnival, a car crash, perhaps a catastrophe. But in the end, it’s probably easiest to come back to a baseball metaphor. After nine innings, neither team could muster enough to get one all the way around the bases. And right now, a legislature that was hoping to look like Charlie Hustle is doing its damnedest not to look like Charlie Brown.

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