Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Still running after all these years

Seismic news broke last week — almost.

A blogger, citing unnamed sources, reported that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was stepping down. She wasn’t running for re-election. She was retiring.

A 9 on the political Richter Scale — had it been true.

Turns out she’s running with the usual glib alacrity.

“I’m not shy,” she told supporters with a typically agile turn of phrase. “And I’m not retiring.”

Beneath the humor, Mikulski was said to be livid.

Even the suggestion that she was leaving the stage had the potential of doing serious damage. If people thought she might step away, they might not be so eager to write checks, a strong challenger might chance a primary race — maybe even a Republican would step up.

Was damage the objective?

Maybe damage was the objective.

Of course, the suggestion that she might choose to call it a career had to be checked out. I called a few people who would know. Was there a Barbara Buzz? No, nothing, I was told.

But it’s easy to see how such a report got halfway into the political air supply. There are three main reasons:

First, her health: She had a nasty spill last year, suffering a badly broken ankle. It might arguably be difficult to run after such an injury. But she is said to be well-mended and fired up.

I saw her on opening day of the General Assembly and she seemed fine. I think she had a squad of blockers walking in front of her, lest someone or something promote another fall. But she wasn’t walking like an invalid or a short-timer.

Second, there is keen interest in her health among others in the political fraternity, Democrat or Republican or Tea (Party, that is).

It’s not that anyone wishes anyone ill. But there’s always unrest in party politics. And there’s even more these days with so much anger and unhappiness with government.

Politicians may love and respect each other, but their antennae are well-tuned. In Democratic Maryland, it seems, only death or broken ankles create opportunities.

It’s rare for an elected official in Maryland to declare disgust with government and retire as Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, did last week.

Around the bottom rung of the Maryland Democratic Party’s ladder to higher office there’s always a scrum of wannabees. Lots of talent with no place to go.

Policing the scrum

Rugby imagery notwithstanding, these competitors are polite. They don‘t jostle each other. They seem to have been imprinted with the idea that waiting your turn is the best way. Everybody gets there eventually.

In the past, the party’s leadership policed the scrum, tapping those whose patience was to be rewarded. Bosses want to minimize contested primaries. They’re costly in dollars — and in the kind of bruised feelings that can divide forces.

But now there’s no gatekeeper, no boss, no one to regulate the flow of ambitious strivers. Given that vacuum, you could have chaos. The youngsters could be killing each other in bloody scrambles for the next rung.

So we’re left with discipline. Not nearly as much fun.

For entertainment, we must conjure with reports from the new media.

The blogger in question, Richard A. Vail of Pikesville, says he stands by his report. The senator has not made her resignation announcement, he says, because she wants to raise more money.

“After all,” Vail said in an e-mail message to me, “politicians are allowed to keep a great deal of their campaign funds for private use, once they retire. Follow the money.”

Actually, what you have to do is follow the law.

“In general,” says the Federal Election Commission, “funds contributed or donated to a federal candidate may not be converted by any person to personal use.”

Candidates and their treasurers are instructed to use the so-called irrespective test: “… If the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, the personal use ban applies.”

Back to the drawing board.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.