If making mistakes disqualified a governor from recognition for outstanding service, then Parris Glendening would be out of luck. Nobody — not even Glendening himself — would dispute that his first term featured its share of disasters, including rocky relations with the legislature, perceived indecision on critical issues of gambling and transportation, and an embarrassing flap over pensions for himself and former aides. As he completed his second year in office, in 1996, polls showed no governor in the country with a lower public-approval rating.
But then the governor made a dramatic turnaround. In the closing months of his first term, he reached accommodation with lawmakers, set out a comprehensive policy agenda, and projected a new aura of decisiveness that led him to a comfortable second-term victory in 1998. Then, reelection in hand, he embarked on one of the most productive periods of legislative achievement recorded by any Maryland governor.
The centerpiece of Glendening’s administration, and the product for which he will be remembered longest, is the Smart Growth law that he conceived, wrote and steered through to passage. When Glendening first took office, urban sprawl was an issue hidden somewhere beneath the radar of most legislators, and “smart growth” was a phrase very few had heard. Six years later, sprawl is a high-profile issue in more than 30 states, and nearly a dozen have passed sprawl-control measures more or less similar to the one that took effect in Maryland in 1998.
The Smart Growth Act is actually a rather straightforward idea. Its purpose is to steer the state’s infrastructure dollars in such a way as to discourage sprawl and encourage development or redevelopment in settled communities. It does not prevent builders or local governments from creating new projects on virgin land — it merely says that such projects will no longer get any subsidies from the state.
Parris Glendening certainly did not create the national concern over sprawl and land use patterns, and the capacity of his policies to change the landscape of even his own state remains uncertain. But whatever the future of “smart growth,” Maryland’s governor has done something few of his counterparts ever manage to do: seize upon an important public issue, step forward with a tangible solution, and thereby set the agenda for national debate. “The costs of sprawl — smog alerts, time spent in traffic — are becoming too obvious to ignore,” Glendening says, adding that the problem concerns liberals and conservatives alike. “We used to think that we won business-location battles with tax incentives. Now, it’s about quality of life.”
By the time Glendening began his second term, voters around the state were already familiar with his growth agenda. What few of them expected was the flurry of new initiatives that he and the legislature produced. Even the Baltimore Sun, a consistent Glendening critic, described the 2000 session as a “slam-dunk super success” for the governor. The state expanded children’s health care, revised the regulation of nursing homes, and created one of the toughest gun-safety laws in the nation. A few weeks after the legislature adjourned, Glendening became chairman of the National Governors’ Association, promising to make sprawl the central issue of his tenure there.
Glendening’s personal popularity continues to lag behind public support for his programs. But after a career that has spanned more than 20 years in county government and two terms in state office, and after surviving early missteps that might have ruined his tenure, the 58-year-old former college professor finally seems to have convinced both the electorate and himself that important things can be accomplished without the benefit of charisma. And the past few years in Maryland seem to demonstrate that beyond any reasonable doubt.
— Alan Ehrenhalt
Photos by Steve Barrett