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If anything goes, bad things are bound to happen

January 15, 1998

The last lawmaker to be expelled from the Maryland General Assembly without being convicted first of a crime was in 1797 when a Montgomery County delegate was kicked out for the heinous offense of playing poker with a marked deck.

After his expulsion, Del. Robert Swailes got married and, of all things, moved to Washington County - where he no doubt became a sharp at tip jars.

Ah for the days of the simple, pure crimes of card cheating and witch burning.

Today the political world is far more complicated, with violations that involve luxury cars, lucrative contracts for little if any work and sweetheart cash deals from medical companies that come before your health-care committee. I know graft probably goes back to day one of the Republic where it was not unheard of for a lawmaker to trade his vote for a half dozen pigs and "two comely wenches of virtue true" to the local saloon keeper.

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But today it all seems so permeated through the system and so, well, nasty and incongruous.

It's incredibly sad that on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, such a racially divisive drama is being played out in the Maryland Senate.

Beneath the heroic statue of jurist Thurgood Marshall all week, state Sen. Larry Young, D-Baltimore, joined hundreds of supporters who were marching, chanting and singing "We Shall Overcome."

What Young and his supporters were trying to overcome at the moment was an expulsion recommendation by the Senate Ethics Committee to be voted on by the full Senate on Friday.

Young, predictably I suppose, is basing his defense on race. That in any event, he did nothing worse than anyone else but is being singled out because he's black.

Could be, I guess. You could also just as easily argue that Young has lasted this long only because of white lawmakers' fears of Mallside marches, chants and songs. Were he a minority, Del. John Arnick (remember him) might be a sitting judge today. No one knows.

Certainly Young's dealings were no secret even way out here, where one Western Maryland lawmaker remarked recently that he couldn't believe the Senate hadn't acted before this.

It took the Baltimore Sun to raise the issue, in what surely appeared to be a well-researched piece of investigative journalism. The Ethics Commission met and discovered the same things. Tellingly, respected black Senators have deserted Young. No doubt the state prosecutor's office will have a say as well.

I can never, and do not claim to, understand race issues as blacks see race issues. I can never know the pain of the black man's battles against the white establishment.

But there comes a time when a fair person simply has to consider the evidence, and the Young case has all the looks of walking and talking like a serious list of infractions. It does the equality cause no favors to invoke its name when the charges against one are so clear. It cheapens and sullies a very serious issue.

I don't doubt Young does feel persecuted, especially if he's correct in his assertions that lots of lawmakers blur the line between public business and private compensation.

Somehow, I'd bet that there are anywhere from 10 to 20 very nervous lawmakers in Annapolis right now. It reminds me of the old story about the rag lady who shuffles into the butcher's, picks up a chicken, lifts up the wings and sniffs and frowns, lifts up the drumsticks and sniffs and frowns and lifts up the neck and sniffs and frowns. The butcher takes this in and finally says "Lady, if you can pass that same test I'll give you the stupid chicken for free."

What will they do if Young decides to name names?

The lawmakers cannot exclusively blame Young for this.

Through the years they've fostered this atmosphere of big-money whoop-dee-do by shunning meaningful finance laws, campaign laws, gift-giving laws, lobbying scholarship reform - you name it.

Lobbyists and special interests rule.

When lawmakers tire of not having enough power they quit the House or Senate and join a whiz-bang law firm where they are molded into well-paid influence trading lobbyists and consultants.

It's the way the game is played and everyone knows it and accepts it and looks the other way - even if it means ignoring allegations of shadiness until media and election-year pressures allow them to ignore it no longer.

No, I don't believe Young is the victim of race, nor do I much sympathize with him. But it is very difficult to work up sympathy for the General Assembly as a whole either, whose failure to live cleanly itself has created an environment friendly to the notion of anything goes.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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