No One Is King For Life

Posted on December 11, 2007


The State Board of Education ignored the wishes of Gov. Martin O’Malley and General Assembly leaders on Tuesday, appointing Nancy Grasmick to a new four-year term as state superintendent of schools.

Grasmick has been superintendent for 16 years, spanning four governors. She is said to be the longest-serving appointed state school chief in the nation. The new appointment to the $195,000-per-year job, effective July 1, would extend her tenure to 20 years.

 Wait. The above two paragraphs are plain vanilla objective journalism.

The State Board of Education’s decision yesterday appears to be, at my remove from the event, a premeditated act of arrogant disrespect and defiance, and an abuse of power.

State Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker Michael Busch had urged the board earlier Tuesday to hold off on an appointment until after July 1, when O’Malley will name three new board members. The actions of the lame-duck board will likely be answered by a legislative move to change the appointment process. One option is to give appointment power to the governor.

This appointment raises a larger issue:  What happens to American democracy when leaders become entrenched in power year after year, term after term? Do people begin to suspect that their votes have absolutely no impact on government?

With the possible exception of the late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein (“God bless y’all real good”), no one deserves to hold office for life. Attorney General Joe Curran was wise to step down at the top of his game. Cal Ripken is Maryland’s Ironman, and we don’t need any politicians challenging him for the title.

In the fast-changing world of the 21st century, we can’t afford to let powerful people grow complacent in pressure-cooker jobs. We always need new talent, new ideas and new energy. We limit the president and most governors to two terms, eight years. Grasmick’s 16-year tenure already pushes the outer limits.

At the risk of venturing into politically incorrect territory, shouldn’t we think twice or three times about reappointing or re-electing leaders who have served for a long time and are past the traditional age of retirement?

(A digression: Did you know that Nancy Grasmick’s age is a state secret? Her age was not mentioned in The Sun or The Post on Tuesday. See if you can find the year of her birth in any official state biography.)

Many institutions and corporations have mandatory retirement ages for top leaders. (There should be a way to make exceptions for good reason.) It is not good business or good government for anyone to hold power forever. Of course, the concept of “retirement age” applies only to those who have served a long time in the same position. Age should be no barrier to taking up new challenges, or continuing service in new positions. 

As always, just my opinion.  —  Bernie Hayden