Then as Now, Glendening a Pragmatist
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page B01
TALLAHASSEEThe upstart political party faced a tough choice. It could continue denouncing "corruption" in the two well-established parties and surely lose the coming election. Or it could merge with one of them and hope to win a few concessions.
A tall, thin graduate student named Parris N. Glendening announced the decision to his fellow political activists at Florida State University in 1966. He and his New Party co-founders, he said, would choose pragmatism over idealism, compromise over quixotic stubbornness.
Within weeks, the New Party dissolved. But its top priority, a "bill of student rights," survived -- and Glendening landed a cabinet post in the student government he earlier had criticized.
As Glendening, 56, prepares to formally announce his bid this week for a second term as Maryland governor, he hopes to continue an unbroken string of political victories that began with that episode 32 years ago. Even then, a blueprint for his future political style was visible: He would seek conciliation over confrontation; fight for a few key goals but compromise on others; emphasize practical realities over dogmatic ideals; and work behind the scenes to advance his political career.
Glendening's actions in college foreshadowed his rise in politics in Maryland, where he won a Prince George's County Council seat in 1974, the county executive's job in 1982 and the governorship in 1994. There, as in Tallahassee, he often began campaigns as an outsider criticizing the political establishment but soon became a consummate inside player, bringing fractious groups together for consensus and compromise.
A review of Glendening's role in Florida State elections, gleaned from interviews and campus records, opens a window on the future governor at the start of his political career. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Having grown up in a low-income household near Miami with a mother who discouraged him from attending college, Glendening blossomed politically and intellectually in Tallahassee. The only one of six siblings to go beyond high school, he transferred to FSU in 1962 after two years at a junior college in Fort Lauderdale. At age 20, he married a Florida State nursing school senior (they divorced eight years later). He entered campus politics as a graduate student, making him older than most college politicos.
In early 1965, as he worked toward his master's degree in political science, Glendening ventured into FSU's public life with a series of letters to the student newspaper, the Florida Flambeau. The letters trace the arc of a young man trying to find his political voice -- first with self-consciously orotund stabs at ironic humor, later with dry dissections of weighty issues.
He began by replying to a waggish columnist who, suspecting that a young woman was wearing a padded bra, ruminated about artificiality. Glendening, then 22, chastised him with didactic deadpan. He cited great thinkers such as "Tacitus, Plutarch, Augustine, Mill [and] Kant," and concluded: "Everything that man has developed since he first stood erect is artificial. . . . Are we to return to nature, to the government-less, culture-less state of war? . . . No!" He later wrote another tongue-in-cheek letter on "this controversy that is sweeping the campus."
A year later, as he began work toward a PhD, Glendening dropped the tone of erudite wise guy and took his first serious political step. In January 1966, he and a few colleagues announced the creation of the New Party, or NP. Except to insiders in the low-stakes world of college elections, it probably appeared little different from the two established, fraternity-dominated parties: the University Party (UP) and the Student Party (SP).
Glendening, the NP's treasurer and spokesman, said his party would appeal especially to graduate students and rejuvenate student government. A Flambeau editorial said the New Party "came out swinging at corruption, not only in a particular administration but in the entire present establishment of student politics."
Political skulduggery was commonplace at the time, some campus activists said. "The elections were always fixed at Florida State," said Mel Smith, an unsuccessful 1967 nominee for student body president. A previous president was elected, he said, because supporters "switched voting boxes."
Glendening soon unveiled the New Party's key proposal, a bill of student rights. The proposed measure largely echoed the U.S. Bill of Rights, granting students the right to worship freely, confront accusers in judicial settings and so forth. But it added a few uniquely collegiate items, such as forbidding the university to prosecute students for "conduct or incidents which take place during vacations [or] term breaks."
Within days of proposing the rights bill, however, Glendening and his New Party colleagues made a dramatic concession. They agreed to back the University Party's student body presidential nominee, Larry Gonzalez, who in turn would support the bill of rights.
Glendening said the NP couldn't win the presidential election on its own but would remain an "authentic third party on the FSU campus." A Flambeau editorial said the NP had "discreetly chosen survival over inflexible idealism."
Three months later, however, the NP had virtually disappeared. Yet Glendening scored a personal coup. Gonzalez, who won the presidency with NP's help, named him to a cabinet post: secretary of intercollegiate and public affairs.
Gonzalez, now a lawyer in Tallahassee, said in a recent interview that Glendening initiated the UP-NP compromise.
"At some point, he approached me about a coalition," Gonzalez said. "I think he probably perceived that it would be difficult to win an election if he had run for student body president with a new party. . . . He had something to offer, and I thought he could be an asset to my administration."
Throughout the spring of 1966, Glendening defended the proposed bill of student rights against criticisms from university administrators and even the Florida attorney general, who suggested that it was unconstitutional. The Flambeau described a Student Senate debate where "the bill seemed to carry undisputed support after the deluge of questions Glendening masterfully handled."
The departing student body president, Jim Groot, feeling the administration's heat, sought to delay the campus referendum needed to enact the bill. Glendening wouldn't back down. He told the student newspaper, "The administration has won round one, but this is clearly a 10-round fight."
As debate dragged on for months, Glendening and others agreed to some compromises. The prosecution-free vacation plank came out. So did a "double jeopardy" provision that would have barred university sanctions against a student's actions already addressed by a court of law.
Glendening wrote a newspaper column defending the concessions. It was unfortunate, he wrote, that "the term 'compromise' generally carried a bad connotation."
"If, as I expect, the idealists find this defense of the current 'diluted' bill weak," he wrote, they should accept a partial victory and try to improve the measure later. Students eventually approved the revised bill.
Despite Glendening's political involvements at FSU, the politics professor who oversaw his doctoral dissertation ("The Metropolitan Dade County Government: An Examination of Reform") was surprised that his student would become a successful politician.
"He was very serious about all the things he undertook," said Douglas St. Angelo, now retired in Tallahassee. "Of all the people I've worked with in the PhD degree, Parris would have been the last I would have thought would go into active politics."
St. Angelo said he hadn't even known Glendening's political leanings at the time. "If I'd have guessed," he said, "I would have guessed that Parris was a conservative."
In fact, Glendening was expressing mainstream liberal views in occasional opinion columns in the Flambeau. He advocated a guaranteed income for poor Americans, contending that the bureaucratic nature of existing welfare policies was "degrading and demeaning to human dignity."
Like many college students, he proved more liberal in his twenties than he would in his fifties. In July 1966, Glendening wrote a column denouncing the death penalty. "Each of the 12 jurors would have to say, 'This person must die!' " he wrote. "This writer could not do so; for clearly society has failed the murderer as much as the murderer has failed society."
Three decades later, Glendening, as governor, would say that his most difficult decision was to allow the 1997 execution of convicted murderer Flint Gregory Hunt.
By February 1967, Glendening was part of the campus political establishment -- and out of step with prevailing student sentiment. As he had done a year earlier, he endorsed the University Party's presidential nominee -- in this case, Mel Smith. But Smith lost badly to the campus's newest political group, the Action Party.
In 1967, Glendening left Tallahassee for College Park, launching a teaching career at the University of Maryland and a political career in Prince George's County Democratic circles. In both, he would pursue his devotion to practical, consensus-seeking politics. He even named the 1984 textbook he co-wrote "Pragmatic Federalism."
Within a decade, his pragmatic path would lead to the governor's mansion.
Metro resource director Margot Williams contributed to this report.
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