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What's good for the party not always right for the people

October 05, 2008

In a startling - but not too startling - move, Frederick Del. Richard Weldon washed his hands of party politics this week and changed his affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated.

Weldon, who represents a small portion of Washington County, had groused about partisanship in Annapolis before. He has also announced he will not run for re-election, so he is a carefree position that allows him to make a political statement.

And when all is said and done, he will likely have more statements to make about life in the State House.

Still, changing affiliation is a rather bold step to take in this day and age when party is usually put well ahead of God and country.

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"The climate in Annapolis is such that accumulating partisan political power has replaced common-sense thoughtful discussions about the implications of our policy decisions," Weldon said.

He elaborated, but he didn't need to. His fellow delegation members unwittingly proved his point.

When asked to respond to the news, Republican Del. Chris Shank said partisanship isn't the problem in Annapolis, the problem is the Democrats.

Democratic Del. John Donog-hue said that partisanship isn't the problem in Annapolis, the problem is the Republicans.

Oh well.

Weldon continued: "I have decided that the guiding principle behind the votes I will cast will be this simple question: Is it good for the people of Frederick County and the people of Maryland?" he said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will of course swear on a stack of special-interest campaign contributions that this is their guiding principle as well.

But consistent, party-line votes tell a different story. Is it possible that a Democrat has never had a good idea? Is it possible that a Republican has never had a good idea? Apparently so, at least in Annapolis.

As a Republican, Weldon had the audacity to vote in favor of a state budget written by the hand of a Democrat - an act so incredulous that it is still remarked upon today.

Republicans vote against Democratic budgets in their sleep - which is part of the reason why Republican counties always get the short end of the budgetary stick. The other part is that Democrats steamroll the budget simply because they have such a great majority.

Every year just about, Republicans come up with a list of proposed budget cuts in the name of controlling state spending. Every year the Democrats ignore the list. Sure, some of the proposed cuts are unworkable - but all of them? The implication is that if the idea came from a Republican, it must be a bad one.

On issues from stem cell research to slots, party leaders routinely tell their membership what to think. Of course,not every delegate or senator holds with this "my party, right or wrong" philosophy, but the majority do.

To a degree that's understandable, since like-minded people will gravitate to the same party. But can they be that like-minded, so as to vote party lines time and time again? When a new issue comes up for debate do they think to themselves, "Wow, what a coincidence, my party is right again, for the 476th consecutive time."

The fact that so many lawmakers are either incapable of thinking for themselves, or choose not to, is distressing enough. Worse is the increasing tendency to use issues as political weapons. The first question isn't, "What's best for the people," the first question is, "On which side of this issue can the party score the most political points?"

Then comes the predictable and tiring vilification of the opposing party for the crime of holding a different view.

Complex issues that are dumbed down into terms of black and white or Democrat or Republican will never be satisfactorily resolved. Those who were told by their lawmakers that the $700 billion banking rescue was a "bailout for Wall Street tycoons" or "privatized profits and socialized risk" deserved to be told that the problem was a lot more involved than that.

After years of analysis, I've pretty much decided that the person with the most clever catchphrase usually understands the problem the least.

Weldon's "experiment," as Shank sardonically termed it, might not prove much. But it could, if Weldon were to change his mind, run again for office and win as an unaffiliated candidate.

This would be a true and worthy experiment to gauge the public's acceptance of a candidate with an open mind.

Scattered throughout the halls of power in America are certainly a significant number of lawmakers such as Weldon who are fed up with politics as usual. What if they followed his lead? What if they succeeded?

An unaffiliated candidate off the street has no chance - big money politics has seen to that. But unaffiliated incumbents are a different story, as Sen. Joe Leiberman has demonstrated. A third party - call it the "Open Mind Party" - might make a difference if enough incumbents are as fed up with the system as the gentleman from Frederick.

All odds say that a decade from now Weldon will be an unremembered footnote to the history of business-as-usual Annapolis. But we've reached the point, it seems to me, where even just one chance in a million is worth the shot.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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