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For Poole, what a short, strange trip

August 15, 1997

Maryland Del. Bruce Poole and U.S. Rep. Bob Ehrlich still share the tight friendship they enjoyed six years ago as cohorts in the state House of Delegates Judiciary Committee.

Despite coming from different parties, the two moderates were a lot alike, with similar attributes, similar goals and frequently similar ideologies.

Young, smart, glib, both were seen by their respective parties as prospective congressmen or state office holders with unlimited futures.

If anything, Poole, the Democrat, had the jump, having just been named by Speaker Clay Mitchell as the state's youngest House Majority Leader.

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This week Ehrlich, now a rising star in the U.S. House of Representatives, was in Hagerstown under the pretext of talking about Congress' new balanced budget agreement.

But when a lawmaker from a metropolitan area on the other side of the state suddenly pops up in the woods of Western Maryland without a shotgun and a turkey call - well, you know what that means.

It means you can soon expect to see Ehrlich's name on the statewide ticket, most likely as a candidate for Paul Sarbanes' U.S. Senate seat.

Poole meanwhile is looking to quietly beg out of mainstream politics, seeking a circuit judgeship in Washington County.

Not that a seat on the bench is chopped liver.

But it certainly didn't appear to be the electoral row Poole was likely to hoe in the early '90s, when the question on every political gadfly's lips was "what's Poole running for next?"

Strange to say, but what seemed to be such a prominent stepping stone in 1990 - Poole's rise to Majority Leader at the age of 31 - may have ultimately stunted his chances for state or national ascension.

Rocks don't always cast predictable ripples when they're tossed into political ponds. And rather than propelling him forward, Poole's plum assignment rocked the boat with two key groups: The powerful old-guard politicians in Annapolis led by Cas Taylor, and Poole's own constituents back home in the district.

Taylor is a firm believer in paying your dues and working your way up through the ranks. He seemed to believe Poole's appointment came too soon and too easily. When Speaker Mitchell stepped down, Taylor's well-marshaled forces swept to power pushing Poole (who was counting votes to see if he himself had a chance at the Speakership) out of the Majority Leader's seat, off the powerful appropriations committee, out of leadership and into the back row on the House floor.

Taylor, pro-Western Maryland to a fault, offered Poole a small piece of the leadership pie in the form of a rather obscure committee chairmanship.

But by this time a new dynamic was coming into play, because Poole's post in state leadership wasn't winning him any points back home. Washington County likes its state and national leaders to be provincial - not so much leaders as glorified case workers who can be counted on to make the proper calls if the Workers Comp or Social Security check is late.

Poole's intelligence, vision and pre-occupation with the big picture weren't necessarily attributes in the eyes of district voters. Unfairly perhaps, Poole's detractors took one vote - his support of leadership's assault-weapons ban legislation - and portrayed him as a lapdog of the state big boys who snubbed his own constituents' wants.

Local voters never focused on the fact that Poole could pay them big dividends down the road if he rose to prominence at a state or national level.

Poole sensed the voters' mood. He sensed it even better after he eeked out a 70-vote win against a political nobody in 1994.

From a leader on the cutting edge of state thought and initiatives, Poole turned down Taylor's offer, changed into populist stripes and played the role of the Annapolis outsider, most notably in leading the fight against the new Baltimore Ravens' football stadium.

Poole, however, never seemed well-fitted to outsider clothing. He's too smart and sophisticated to buy into every conspiracy theory and taxpayer-association red herring for which oppositionists are famous.

While he was Majority Leader, his best chance at a national toehold had also passed him by. In 1992 Beverly Byron proved to be too conservative for 6th District Democrats and Tom Hattery proved to be too liberal for the 6th District as a whole.

Had he not traded in his national aspirations for Mitchell's promotion (part of the deal was that he not challenge Byron), the moderate Poole might well be in Congress today.

If the judgeship doesn't come through, Poole appears ready to mend fences with Taylor and resume a leadership role. He was said to be in line for the Ways and Means vice chairmanship before the judicial post opened.

If he is appointed judge though, you get the feeling that Poole and the voters of Washington County have missed a great opportunity.

Were Poole in Congress or atop the state hierarchy he, like Ehrlich, might be traveling to a remote part of the state this week to get his name before the public rather than pushing for a post that well could spell the end of a legislative career.

Wherever he lands in public or private life, Poole will, as he always has, serve Washington County well. Plus, he's still young and anything can happen. But for now we're left to wonder, had the breaks been different, how far Poole might have gone and what benefits it might have had for Washington County.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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