By Tom Lobianco and Justin Palk
ANNAPOLIS – In unprecedented move, Maryland’s Democratic Senate rejected Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s nominee for Environment Secretary, Lynn Buhl.
The Senate voted to reject Buhl 26-21 after 2 hours of debate and an intense week of lobbying that demonstrated the tension between the Democratic Legislature and the Republican governor.
Buhl and Ehrlich, who called this “the first hiccup in the partisan road,” were unhappy with the vote.
“I was looking forward to serving as Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, and I am disappointed with today’s vote,” Buhl said in a written statement.
Environmentalists objected to Buhl’s history as an auto-industry lawyer and her record while a mid-level administrator at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an agency Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, described as “dysfunctional.”
Environmentalists, a powerful lobby in Maryland, said they want to work with Ehrlich to identify a new candidate.
“I think we want to see strong qualified leadership at the department,” said Susan Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “We want to see everybody at the table.”
Ehrlich, who promised to bring a seat for business to the MDE’s table, weathered accusations that his appointments threatened to remove the environmentalist’s seat.
“Senators made it clear there was a price to pay,” Ehrlich said. Although he said he was disappointed by the vote, he is “not into retribution.”
However, Ehrlich followed through on a threat to let Deputy Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick, considered by environmentalists to be a worse choice than Buhl, run the department until he decides how to fill the spot.
The Philbrick threat topped a week of battling between Ehrlich and Senate Democrats, who drew battle lines after the Senate Executive Nominations Committee rejected Buhl by one vote March 3.
Senate Minority Leader Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, opened the floor debate with a somber acceptance of what he deemed a partisan vote.
“Yesterday afternoon, the votes were there to confirm this lady, it’s now a party call,” he said. “Partisan pressure has been exerted, but I guess that’s what’s expected in Annapolis.”
In fact, seven Democrats broke ranks to vote for Buhl – the Senate is divided 33-14 in favor of the Democrats. Ehrlich’s team said they had the votes, but three Democrats, including two chairmen, changed their committee votes, swinging the total against Buhl.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, chairman of the Executive Nominations Committee, and Sen. James DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, withdrew the support they gave Buhl on March 3.
Ehrlich’s appointment secretary, Larry Hogan, said the switch was the result of arm twisting by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. D-Calvert, and called the vote a concerted effort by Miller to flex his political muscle.
The Senate president appoints chairmen and wields power over influential seats.
Miller first questioned two of Ehrlich’s appointments early in the session but saved his weight for Buhl. Hogan said Miller told him: “`The bull’s eye has moved to the lady from Michigan.'”
Ehrlich maintained, and Senate Republicans took the argument to the floor, that the governor had a right to appoint whomever he liked. But his game of hardball backfired one week after he threatened to install Philbrick and pulled the administration’s support from a clean water bill Buhl had backed in her testimony.
The Ehrlich team lobbied hard, enlisting former Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Barbara Hoffman in the effort.
Sen. Lisa Gladden, who beat Hoffman in the Democratic primary in November, said the former chairman placed many calls on Buhl’s behalf. But she said the Senate has a constitutional right to deny a governor’s choice if it sees fit.
“We have the authority to tell the governor `We don’t want your nominee, she’s not good enough for Maryland,'” Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore, said.
Frosh agreed the Ehrlich game plan didn’t work in Buhl’s favor.
“She failed to get things right when she had the chance (to support the clean water bill),” Frosh said. “Sometimes you’re going to have to bang the governor’s head. I don’t think she’s strong enough to do that.”
Miller pinned the blame squarely on the Ehrlich administration. “The governor’s staff mismanaged it from the start,” Miller said. Ehrlich “needs help, he really does.” – 30 – CNS-3-11-03