When Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wanted slot machine gambling, Democrats Joseph J. Minnick and John S. Arnick stood with him, as they have on many issues. When other lawmakers criticized the governor's hiring practices, the two Baltimore County delegates remained silent.
But when those hiring decisions helped drive out a respected manager at the Port of Baltimore, the conservative Democrats took notice.
The port is an important economic engine for eastern Baltimore County and the state. More than 16,000 people work at the port, and it generates $1.5 billion in revenue for businesses that operate there. The area is also home to many of Ehrlich's most loyal constituents, people he represented during his eight years in Congress.
The Feb. 24 resignation of the port's longtime executive director, James J. White, amid complaints of meddling by senior Ehrlich appointees has stoked criticism of the Republican administration by conservative Democrats, business leaders and others who rarely break with the governor.
"This one may come back to haunt him," Minnick said of Ehrlich. He later said White's departure "may have been the straw the broke the camel's back."
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), generally an Ehrlich ally, has criticized the governor over White's departure, as have several of the port's largest customers, including a high-ranking shipping official who says he is a Republican.
Minnick stopped short of criticizing Ehrlich directly, but he said accountability ultimately rests with him. "I don't know who to put the blame on, but as Harry Truman said, 'The buck stops here,' " he said. "If Ehrlich didn't know what was going on, he should have."
Arnick has submitted legislation to remove the Maryland Port Administration from the state Department of Transportation. He said controversy over the port leadership "is different" from that about other state agencies. "It's people's jobs that are affected," he said.
White's resignation came amid what Democratic leaders say is a broader effort by administration officials to supplant experienced state officials with political operatives who have little relevant experience. Ehrlich officials have patently denied the allegations.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) have pledged to launch an investigation into the governor's hiring and firing practices after the legislative session ends in April.
Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan mounted a defense of the port administration in hearings before Senate and House committees Wednesday and yesterday, saying criticism is based on "rumors, half-truths and innuendo."
"There are a lot of misapprehensions out there," Flanagan said. "The time has come to look forward and not behind."
Responding to criticism of Flanagan, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said: "Secretary Flanagan's record speaks for itself. The governor has confidence in his decision making ability."
Several business leaders told lawmakers yesterday that the port is well run and that it has never been healthier. Transportation officials showed lawmakers some critical letters from port contractors with identical wording in many places, suggesting an organized campaign.
This week's hearings reflected broad concern over the port. Such hearings were routine in the 1980s, when the port had high turnover and low productivity. That changed after White became executive director in 1999 and port traffic grew rapidly.
Now Arnick and Sen. George W. Della Jr. (D-Baltimore) are pushing bills to establish an independent port authority. Former U.S. representative Helen Delich Bentley (R), whose district included the port, said she has long supported such a move.
Other attempts have been beaten back over the years. With the controversy surrounding the port this year, the proposal has taken on new significance, lawmakers said.
The fight over the port administration, Busch said, "is the first issue where I've seen delegates like Arnick and Minnick . . . in such staunch opposition to the Ehrlich administration and its policies."
Fawell said the proposal to make the port administration autonomous "doesn't make fiscal sense."