For years, the way to get things done in Maryland was behind closed doors. The governor went public with his plans only after working out the necessary compromises, testing the political winds and using the levers of his office to acquire support.
Today, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III is breaking tradition with a more open style -- one adviser called it "government by press conference" -- and in the process he is ruffling the feathers of some members of the General Assembly and raising in some minds questions about his decision making powers.
"He assumes the ole of an umpire too much, said Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore). "As soon as something happens, he calls it a ball or a strike. He's got to back away from the quick calls and be more of an arbitrator, listen and learn."
In recent weeks, Lee has been accused of using his news conferences to think out loud. He has taken firm stands on controversial issues, backpeddled a few days later after guaging the full impact of his position and then ungracefully reversed himself.
He has angered influential politicians by failing to include them in decisions affecting their constituents and frustrated advisers by taking unqualified public positions that leave him little room for an honorable retreat in the event that a compromise is needed.
He has antagonized potential political supporters with strong language and acerbic wit. He has been criticized for putting fellow politicians in a bad light and alienating lawmakers with condescending remarks. Some say he has his foot firmly planted in his mouth.
After years of working in the shadow of suspended Gov. Marvin Mandel, who thrived on secretiveness and compromise, Lee appears to be experimenting with a new style of leadership, stripped of the mystique and wheeler-dealer airs of the Mandel administration.
"Marvin always held his cards close to his chest," said House of Delegates Speaker John Hanson Brisof an arbitrator, listen and learn." Marvin was a great person for saying 'let's work it out.' Blair's more inclined to go at it the hard way."
"Blair wants to have people agree with him because of the wisdom of what he's doing," Briscoe said. "He doesn't like to compromise or twist arms or promise favors. He gets an idea and let sit go before he pulses the fling of the people affected by it."
Lee defends his style as the best way of "keeping the public informed on how things are progressing, even if he tends to change his mind on key issues. "The alternative is to do all the negotiating behind closed doors," he said in an interview.
He acknowledged at last week's press conference that he also uses the public spotlight to enhance his bargaining leverage with members of the General Assembly on such weighty matters as the property tax relief program.
After announcing at the conference that he was negotiating a compromise with legislative leaders on a tax credit program that he categorically rejected two weeks earlier, pledging to veto it if passed, Lee was asked if his statements should be taken at face value.
"I advise you, not only with respect to me but with respect to all preceding and succeeding governors that during the course of a 90-days session, you should not regard anything as totally final until the bell rings at midnight on the 19th day," he said.
Such unabashed and sudden shifts in policy have become a hallmark --some say the Achilles heel -- of the Lee style. "You don't have any confidence that his final word is final," complained Del. Paul E. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore). "He seems to make a decision the way he feels at the moment without any deep thought."
In addition to the tax credit program, Lee turned 180 degrees on the most troublesome problem of his administration, the location of a medium security prison in Baltimore. The political fallout caused by his handling of the issue points out the dangers of his free-wheeling style.
For months, he resolutely defended long-standing plans to build the prison at the site of an old can company building in Baltimore, despite bitter community opposition. He refused to budge, saying the site was the only feasible location. He referred to politicians who opposed his posiion as "simple-minded."
Suddenly last month, he backed off, saying he would entertain alternative proposals. He then proceeded to anger Baltimore's influential mayor by rejecting a package of his recommendations and publicly putting pressure on him to accept a site the mayor had picked out for an industrial park.
Finally last week, Lee said he would ask the legislature to approve another location for the prison. But he was accused of committing a diplomatic faux pas when word of his plans leaked out before he informed several important political leaders from districts surrounding the newly proposed site.
Some editorial writers and political opponents have seized on Lee's fluctuations as a sign of weakness. A recent editorial in The Baltimore Sun with the headline "Government By Poll" accused him of leading the state "by putting a wet finger to the air to determine which way the wind is blowing."
Even some of his supporters, who initially considered Lee's open style refreshingly candid, worry that he is making himself vulnerable to criticism. "I think people find it difficult to understand how such inconsistent positions can be taken so closely together," said Del. Donald B. Robertson (D-Montgomery).
In a interview last week, Lee said he believed in the "battling back and forth of the ball until reaching a reasonable concensus. It's not necessary to work up a letter-perfect solution, adopt it, spring it and live with it forever. I don't put a premium on blind obstinacy."
As an acting governor facing his first legislative session in an election year, Lee said, he often feels that he must make strong public statements to strengthen his bargaining hand with the General Assembly. "It's not unlike the farmer who hits the mule across the backside just to get his attention," he said.