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Political Animal

It Is to Laugh

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/23/2005

A little over 10 years ago, this writer toiled on the staff of a member of Congress. So I know that unless a member of the House of Representatives is in a leadership post, he or she is lucky if his or her staff grows to more than 15 to 18 people. Members of Congress are given a finite amount of money, and with that they must build a small corps of workers to handle constituent affairs, keep track of legislation, handle correspondence, run the local and Washington offices, and deal with the press, both at the district and national levels. So I have some experience with political office staff, both personally and as a political reporter.

Which is why the protestations of Bobby Smooth and his assorted lackeys, flunkies, and minions cause me to respond with a tremendous horselaugh.

A month and a half ago, one of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s employees, nominally appointed to be the spokesman for the Maryland Insurance Administration, resigned after the discovery that he had been propagating rumors about the state of the marriage of Mayor Martin O’Malley, the front-runner in the race to unseat Ehrlich in the 2006 election. Joseph Steffen, who claimed that no lesser a personage than the governor himself dubbed him the “Prince Of Darkness,” moved seamlessly through the offices of state government, leaving behind a trail of pink slips.

Steffen was one of Ehrlich’s original political hires, having worked for the governor back when Ehrlich was one of the bright-eyed boys of Newt Gingrich’s so-called “Republican revolution” in 1994, when the GOP took control of the House of Representatives back from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years. This would make Steffen one of a very small number of people who know Ehrlich well, and vice versa. That Steffen e-mailed the governor’s wife for advice and counsel should he get into trouble is not that hard to conceive.

Which is why, at this date, that the staff and defenders of Gov. Not-Quite-as-Smooth seem to protest a tad too much that Steffen was “overinflating his role,” as Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick has said, or that he “was irrelevant to our world.” This, to put it mildly, is a phrase that, in Maryland political history, could end up being as notable as the Nixon-era “third-rate burglary.”

What Richard Nixon’s taping system was in 1974 or Oliver North’s shredder was in 1986, Joseph Steffen’s e-mails are to Bobby Smooth in 2005: physical evidence that points out the actual reality, no matter what the GOP flunkies will say when trotted out before microphones. All the toadies in the world mouthing off whatever lies they can think of can’t contradict an e-mail written by Steffen saying, “I have full authority, indeed I am at times directed/mandated, to contact individuals directly regarding meetings and other requests on behalf of the Governor.”

Remember—Ehrlich had thousands of patronage jobs to fill, but only some 20 or so of them came from his previous political coterie as a member of the Congress. And one of the first rules of politics is to surround yourself with the most loyal of the lot. Do you really think that someone who landed a job paying $75,000 a year without a college degree is someone who wouldn’t have the confidence of the governor? Oh, and he’s got the governor’s wife’s e-mail address?

So now, a month and a half after the scandal broke, after excerpts of Steffen’s e-mails have been published in the newspapers, the governor has the gall to say that he’s all about examining the hiring practices of the political arm of state government—but only if the practices of former governor Parris Glendening are looked at as well.

This is as if Ronald Reagan, when notified that his national security staff was conducting a secret illegal foreign-policy operation out of the basement of the National Security Council, said, “You’re right. Let’s look at what’s going on in my NSC—and Jimmy Carter’s as well.” Get real.

Bobby Smooth didn’t get to be so smooth by ignoring the rules of crisis control—but in this case, it would be a miracle if he thinks that the evidence his personal “Prince of Darkness,” his right-hand man of doom, will let him continue to smell like roses after his dumpster dive through the state personnel hiring and firing process. It’s gonna be fun watching him try to wriggle out of this one.

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Political Animal archives

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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