With the presidential election barely two months off, the drama in Maryland is centered not on who might carry the state Nov. 2 but on who will run the obscure state agency that administers the election.
State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone, already under fire from liberal groups for her support of electronic voting machines and from conservatives for her Democratic ties, is now the subject of an investigation into complaints about her leadership.
Gilles Burger, chairman of the state Board of Elections, said yesterday that the board has requested help from another agency to look into complaints "from a variety of sources, including several local boards of elections."
Burger, a Republican, would not detail the nature of the grievances but confirmed they were related to Lamone. A representative of the attorney general's office said the probe was not criminal in nature.
Democrats expressed outrage yesterday at what they said was the latest sign that Republicans are trying to oust Lamone, a Democrat appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said he was particularly concerned that the board had borrowed its investigator from a unit of the Public Safety and Correctional Services Department that should be focusing on prison misconduct. The arrangement was first reported yesterday in the Baltimore Sun.
"I don't understand what authority they have in this regard," Frosh said. "She's not somebody who's broken out of jail. . . . It seems very bizarre to me. To call this a witch hunt seems like an understatement."
Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he was considering hearings on the subject.
In Maryland, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, and polls have shown Sen. John F. Kerry (D) with double-digit leads over President Bush. In a radio interview this week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. advised his fellow Republican not to bother campaigning in the state.
The elections board has been political fodder since Ehrlich became the state's first GOP governor in a generation. With his election in 2002, Republicans gained control of three of the five seats on the board.
Lamone can be removed only for a legally justifiable reason, such as malfeasance, and four votes would be required.
The elections board, guided by the administrator and her staff, organizes elections and is crucial to resolving recounts and other disputes, such as the state's razor-thin 1994 gubernatorial race.
Under Lamone's leadership, the board has forged ahead with a controversial plan to use electronic voting machines statewide. The decision, which Lamone and her agency spent much of this week defending in court, has prompted calls for her resignation by advocates for paper records of the computerized votes. Republicans, though, have not seized upon the issue.
Democrats were rattled last year by reports that Ehrlich was maneuvering to replace Lamone with Michael W. Burns (R), a former delegate from Anne Arundel County. Burns was rebuked in 1988 by national GOP officials after he authored a fundraising letter linking Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis to paroled killer Willie Horton.
A more serious tremor came this summer when Ehrlich named Gene Raynor, a former state election chief and longtime associate of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, to one of the board's two seats reserved for Democrats. Schaefer, though a Democrat, has proved a close ally of Ehrlich.
The choice came as a surprise to Democrats, who thought they had struck a deal months before under which Ehrlich would reappoint the only black member of the board. "The only reason Gene Raynor was appointed to the board is to help the Republicans oust Linda Lamone," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said in an interview last week. "It's all part of a right-wing Republican effort to take over the election machinery."
Among those who have disputed that notion is Raynor.
For a brief period during Raynor's tenure as administrator, Lamone worked in the attorney general's office and advised the elections board. When Lamone moved on, Raynor gave her a print of Camden Yards, which hangs in her corner office today. "Unless something serious is brought to my attention, I have no problem working with her," Raynor said in an interview. "If I were she, I would welcome me."
Raynor said he had not been approached by Republicans about ousting Lamone. And he said yesterday that he had been unaware of the decision to hire an investigator. His first board meeting was Aug. 10.
Gilles said he initiated the investigation after polling board members by phone. In an interview yesterday, Ehrlich said he had no involvement in the authorization of the probe.
Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel) said he understood that the investigator was making rounds of local election officials to discuss Lamone's conduct. In a letter this week to Mary Ann Saar, secretary of public safety and correctional services, DeGrange called the use of the investigator "beyond belief."
Mark Vernarelli, a corrections spokesman, said Saar had authorized lending an investigator to another agency about four weeks ago.
In Montgomery County, election officials say they have been instructed by their attorney not to discuss the matter.
In Baltimore County, election board director Jacqueline K. McDaniel said she has not heard from an investigator or from anyone who has. "I wish they would wait until after the election," she said. " We have enough to worry about."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.