Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Inside Story Behind Charles Barkley’s Ouster

The Gazette reported yesterday that Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39) was stripped of his Public Safety and Administration Subcommittee chair (a subcommittee of House Appropriations) because of his opposition to last year’s millionaire tax proposal. Barkley told the Gazette, “I thought it hit Montgomery County too hard, and we just increased taxes back in November. Another tax increase that quick wasn’t right.” County Executive Ike Leggett said he was “disappointed,” noting, “It comes at a crucial time when we are leaning very heavily on Annapolis that the county's interests are protected.” So is this a case of a Montgomery legislator being punished because he stood up for the economic interest of the county?

The vast majority of our spies say no. They claim the real reason for Barkley’s demotion, and his impending departure from House Appropriations altogether, is his repeated public battles with leadership. The protocol of Annapolis is to keep conflicts in the backroom. If you are a subcommittee chair and you lose an internal committee battle, you may vote against the resulting bill on the floor but you may not publicly attack the committee’s work product.

Barkley ran afoul of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway (D-38B) twice, blindsiding him with amendments on the floor after losing in committee. The more recent of the two incidents involved the millionaire tax. Barkley was unable to stop the tax in committee, so he offered an amendment against it on the floor and criticized Chairman Conway (and the committee) for insufficiently restraining spending. Barkley’s open defiance was too much for leadership, who took away his subcommittee chair and arranged for him to move to the Economic Matters Committee.

One spy sighed, “When you’re in leadership, you work with leadership. But he won’t play with the team. He’s just very, very stubborn. He wouldn’t change his mind to save his soul. No one did this to him – he did it to himself.” Multiple informants pointed out that none of the other millionaire tax rebels were punished.

Will the loss of Barkley’s seat on Appropriations hurt Montgomery County? No. We hear that Delegate Bill Bronrott (D-16), already an Appropriations member, will be given a subcommittee chair. And Barkley's replacement on Appropriations will be Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-20). So Montgomery will neither lose its total number of seats on Appropriations nor its number of subcommittee chairs.

A minority of our informants takes a different view. They acknowledge Barkley’s “hacksaw” approach in defying the millionaire tax. But they praise him for standing up for the county’s interest and note that there is no comfortable way to challenge leadership. They worry that excessive reliance on protocol and deference to leadership will discourage Montgomery’s delegation from aggressively challenging budget cuts that disproportionately impact the county.

One informant comments:

Here’s the deal in Annapolis. We get screwed if we don’t speak up, and we get screwed if we do. Why? Because we don’t stand up as a group. For every Charles Barkley there are five others who cower and fear losing their positions, so they go along to get along. At some point, those five need to stand with Charlie and tell leadership that they can’t keep screwing us, they can’t do it without us, and they need to play ball with us.

A pipedream, I know. Because it takes courage. And it seems many in our delegation would rather be the “deputy assistant to the senior advisor to the true insider with an ear to the ground” than an effective Montgomery County representative.
That view is typical of the way many county officials see the Montgomery delegation.

Regardless of Barkley’s fate, this episode should cause our delegation to think long and hard. With both GCEI and teacher pensions at risk of being cut, Montgomery’s head is inside the state’s guillotine. How can the delegation work together to protect Montgomery from bearing the lion’s share of the upcoming budget debacle? Our advice last summer was to devise a common strategy, stick together and punish defectors from the county's team.

The alternative will create a couple more Barkleys and a whole lot of lost money for Montgomery County.