Political power sometimes short-lived for county leaders

February 17, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER


Political power can be a fickle mistress - more than one leader has been king of the castle one day and the victim of palace intrigue the next.

Especially, some say, in Washington County.

Since 1986, county voters have compiled an increasingly consistent record of turning out state representatives who have achieved some degree of influence in Annapolis.

"Nationally, there's a lot of job security" in public office, said Spring Ward, an assistant professor of political science and history at Hagerstown Community College. "But that doesn't seem to trickle down to Washington County."


The trend started when Hagerstown attorney Bruce Poole upset incumbent District 3A Del. Paul Muldowney in a tense campaign that kept voters on edge until the final moments of the 1986 election.

"I've been following Maryland politics for a long time," Muldowney said, "and I don't recall any long, emotional upsets before mine."

Muldowney held a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and was vice-chairman of the subcommittee that oversaw funding for state prisons - three of which were in Washington County and employed hundreds of workers. He had chaired a House/Senate panel on pension reform and was in line for a more influential spot on the Appropriations Committee when he was defeated, he said.

Young and ambitious, Poole became a rising political star in Annapolis. As he began his second term, he was named House Majority Leader - the youngest delegate in Maryland history to hold that post at age 31.

A reorganization of the leadership under House Speaker Casper Taylor in 1994 stripped him of that post, but Poole said he found other ways to wield influence.

"You just have to pick your shots," he said.


By 1998, Poole was working his way back up the leadership ladder. But his ascent was cut short by young, ambitious Christopher Shank.

That same year, Senate Minority Whip Jack Derr, who represented Frederick and Washington counties in the state Senate, was upset by political newcomer Alex Mooney in the Republican primary.

"I do see a pattern," said Taylor, the most recent victim of Washington County's shifting political winds.

"There's a fairly recognizable level of anti-government mentality" in the county, Taylor said. "When people don't trust government or don't like government - and think the less we have the better off we are - those people by their very nature are going to resent power."

Poole's perspective is a little different.

"I don't think it's intentional," he said "I just don't think we have a good idea of who's doing well and who isn't. We don't know who shows up for committee meetings and who doesn't."

"There's a disconnect" between how the legislature really works and what local voters perceive, Poole said.

HCC's Ward said there are often multiple factors that lead to a powerful incumbent's defeat. Muldowney agreed.

"I think there are different reasons," he said. "There's not a stereotype."

One factor may be the growth of the Republican Party in the region, but it doesn't fully explain the phenomenon. Most, but not all, of the former incumbents were Democrats.

And most of those Democrats were considered moderate, espousing much of the same conservative ideology of their constituents. One has since switched parties.

"That's the way a democracy is supposed to be - we all know this can happen," Derr said. "It's just one of those things. The people have a chance to speak every four years. Things change, voters change."

Issues don't change

But some issues don't change in this part of the state.

"There are certain issues in Washington County that are very important to segments of the voting public - abortion and gun control," said former Washington County Commissioners President Richard Roulette.

Roulette lost election for the first and only time when he ran against Robert McKee for the House seat vacated by Peter Callas in 1994.

"And I would be the first to agree that they're important," he said. "But the reality of the running of state government and the distributing of tax dollars has very little to do with those two issues."

Time spent doing the actual work of the office can also mean having less time to spend campaigning than an aggressive challenger has.

Mooney "did go out early and campaign hard," Derr said. "Many people were moving into Frederick - there was a huge influx of new voters. They didn't know me from Adam."

All agreed that voters frequently don't understand the give-and-take required to build influence - which ultimately translates into advantages for the home district.

"I think it's a combination of not understanding and not paying attention," Taylor said. "It's apathy. I would come home on weekends and have people ask if I'd seen the president," thinking they'd elected Taylor to Congress.

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