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For lawmakers, it's behind-the-scenes stuff, not meetings, that count

December 09, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

In the political world, there are work horses and there are show horses.

We've all seen the show horses - they all hold press conferences, make themselves available for stand-up television spots under the capitol dome to shred the opposing party, appear on the cable TV gabfests with a pocketful of sound bites and glib analyses - and of course they would never dream of missing a public meeting back in their districts.

They are the Great Communicators, and there's a place in this world for them. Their fingers are always in the political winds and they can be counted upon to follow the herd of public opinion.

But the herd isn't always right.

And the herd can't be bothered with arcane, unsexy issues such as insurance-law technicalities and medical-care trivia.

In the 1970s, Sen. Ted Kennedy was a classic show horse, Sen. Robert Byrd a classic workhorse. Kennedy got the TV face time, while Byrd walked quietly back to his home state carrying all the loot.

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The county Republicans' latest crusade against Del. John Donoghue - for his failure to attend local meetings, of all things - is just that. A lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Meetings? Please. When was the last time anything productive came out of a local meeting? Despair.com sells a demotivational placard with a number of hands clasped in a circle. It reads, "Meetings: None of us is as dumb as all of us."

Show horses attend meetings and get their names and pictures in the press for it, but government is run by the work horses operating the hallways, offices and cloakrooms, grinding out the technicalities that no one else wants to be bothered with.

Consider former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who, frankly, couldn't have found Western Maryland on a map. While the show horses were out in public railing about meaningless social hot buttons such as flag burning amendments, the Maryland Senator was out of the limelight penning the details of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that was in response to the scandals of Enron, Tyco and WorldCom and, for better or worse, changed the investing universe.

Donoghue's habitual failure to attend local functions may be a concern in the political sense - graveyards are filled with political corpses of folks who were perceived as becoming more attuned to Annapolis than Washington County. And you can argue that Donoghue should be more of a local leader and arbiter of local disputes, such as the hospital situation or the ongoing city-county mess.

State and local contact gives the appearance of communication, for what that's worth. Sometimes the appearance of communication is the same as actual communication and sometimes it isn't.

We have delegates who have never, ever missed a local meeting. And what, exactly, has that gotten us? What problem, exposed at a local meeting, has been solved by an attending lawmaker? What project or program has actually moved forward because of a meeting?

Any local official with a concern in need of state redress is free to do something totally nuts - like pick up a phone. In fact, if you first learn about a problem at a public meeting, that probably is a sign that you have been seriously out of the loop.

If home rule fails in Washington County, local residents better pray that Donoghue doesn't. He's the one who has, more times than can be counted, rescued Washington County legislation in Annapolis.

This is the political reality, and it would true of the roles were reversed - if Annapolis were led by Republicans and Washington County had but one Republican lawmaker. That one Republican would be key because he or she would be our conduit to state leadership.

A Democrat in Washington County is like a male holly. You may only need one, but without it you ain't gonna get any berries.

Some Washington County show horses have made a career of doing nothing but publicly slamming Democratic leadership. That's fine if politics, not people, is your gig.

But the Democrats control everything in Annapolis. How can you hammer the leaders at every turn and then expect to be able to ask those same leaders to respond positively when you are trying to bring something home like a road or a school for the people of Washington County?

That's why we count on the work horses behind the scenes - lawmakers such as Donoghue, who does a lot of the state-level grit that earns the respect of the leadership, or Sen. Don Munson, who has spent more hours than any of us will ever know or appreciate hashing out tedious Budget and Tax Committee issues.

Some years ago, politicians made a big deal out of the fact that they had a 100 percent voting record on the House or Senate floor. They never missed a vote, a sign of tireless work for the people, they claimed.

But the truth is, nothing ever happens on the floor. The real work is done in committees and in the back rooms. Lawmakers who missed floor votes were off cutting deals and writing law. Lawmakers who missed floor votes were the ones who were players, the ones who mattered. Those with perfect voting records were stuffed shirts.

Yet to the public, a perfect voting record looks good. Just as it looks good when you're in the front row of every forgettable public meeting.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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