Bad Omen for GOP?

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 12, 2017 – No one predicted it: A tidal-wave election last Tuesday swept through numerous states, sending even entrenched Republican incumbents into retirement and shocking the most optimistic Democrats by the enormity of their party’s sweeping victories.

Does this foretell a similar tsunami a year from now, when control of Congress could be at stake? Does this indicate Maryland’s popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, faces a far more daunting challenge in 2018 than previously expected?

Before we get carried away by the surprising results, let’s keep in mind that all elections are not created equal.

Some are endowed with predictable outcomes while others are swayed by outside forces.

Last Tuesday, outside forces held the winning hand.

If you’re looking for one, overriding factor in all these election upsets, it’s the guy living in the White House.

With the latest polls showing barely more than one-third of voters approving of Donald Trump’s performance as president, it had to be expected that anti-Trump sentiment would show up in the November balloting.

Surprising Results

What came as a stunner was the breadth and depth of anger toward Trump – from enraged Democrats who showed up to vote in far larger than expected numbers, from independents who sided by a lopsided margin with Democrats, from college-educated women in the suburbs who have been turned off by Trump’s boorish and destructive behavior.

The result: Anti-Republican sentiment that wiped out even well-meaning moderate Republican officeholders.

Bad Omen for GOP?The two governorships up for grabs, in New Jersey and Virginia, went to Democrats by very large numbers. A tight race in the Old Dominion turned into a rout and Democrats came achingly close to re-capturing the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time in decades.

Some of the most conservative and longest-serving officeholders in those states got walloped by candidates from the other end of the political spectrum – a transgender, a Peruvian immigrant and a 32-year-old African-American woman who had never run for office before.

In a “wave election” anyone on the wrong side of the wave is vulnerable.

That could include Larry Hogan next year.

Demographic trends throughout the country and in Maryland may have been accelerated by Trump’s distasteful actions as president. Suddenly millennials, Latinos, African Americans, gays and college-educated suburban women are taking the time to show up at the polls and register their anger.

Frederick and Annapolis

Look at Annapolis, where incumbent Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides should have had smooth sailing to another term. Instead, he got clobbered by Australia native and restaurateur-businessman Gavin Buckley, a first-time Democratic candidate. Pantelides lost by a stunning 24 percentage points.

The same thing happened in Frederick city, where Democratic Alderman Mike O’Connor ousted two-term Mayor Randy McClement in a runaway race (22 percentage points). Democrats swept all five alderman seats by landslide margins, too.

Upsets are bound to occur in politics. But when so many long-established Republican figures are defeated in one-sided elections across the country, the GOP had better take notice.

Even Hogan, despite his popularity, could find himself a victim of the “send Trump a message” sentiment that dominated on Nov. 7.

Still, Maryland’s governor won’t be a sitting duck for Democrats next year. He’s proved to be a crafty, difficult-to-categorize politician who remains a staunch conservative but knows how to appease moderates.

He’s still an overwhelming favorite next year, but now there’s an asterisk attached to his name:

*If the country remains deeply angered by Trump’s presidency in November 2018, it won’t matter that Hogan is a likeable guy with sky-high approval numbers. He could be swept out to sea in spite of the fact he parted ways with the president long ago.

The same might apply to other moderate conservative Republicans with high popularity numbers, such as Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. If Democrats can find a decent Eastern Shore candidate to run against far-right conservative Rep. Andy Harris, the incumbent also might find the going rough next year.

No Republican is immune. The Trump influenza could infect all sorts of unsuspecting Republicans.

Different Issues

But don’t expect 2018 to be a carbon copy of 2017. The issues will be different. Congressional seats will be at stake with huge sums of GOP money thrown into races to preserve Republican control of Capitol Hill.

Hogan will vastly outspend his Democratic opponent. He’s also got the power of incumbency, which can’t be ignored.

Still, Hogan has to be having a sense of déjà vu: In 2006, incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, with approval ratings nearly as high as Hogan’s, was shown the door, receiving just 46 percent of the vote.

In short, the only thing Larry Hogan has to fear is fear itself – in the persona of Donald Trump. This year’s astounding results could be a preview of things.

Or next year’s results could mark as return to the status quo for Republicans.

The one thing we know is that the world will look quite different in 12 months when voters get another chance to express themselves.

Either way, Republicans are on the hot seat. Much like football’s Baltimore Ravens, they had better up their game.

Otherwise, 2018 could be a blowout year in which candidates such as Hogan and Kittleman might be lucky to avoid turning into collateral damage.

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Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

 

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 6, 2017 – Once upon a time, campaign endorsements mattered. Some of those nods of approval even tilted elections. That’s no longer the case in Maryland.

The power of an endorsement is waning as the communications revolution provides multiple sources of information about candidates running for office. Millions are spent on advertising in every media format to be sure voters hear from candidates directly.

That wasn’t true years ago, when the main form of getting your political message to voters was by mail and through the newspaper. Televised debates sometimes gave you a brief glimpse into the thinking of contenders for the top office.

Back then, an endorsement by a trusted group gave a voter reassurance and direction.

Today’s gubernatorial race on the Democratic side so far has been a rush by some candidates to gain endorsements. They seem transfixed on what may turn out to be a desert mirage.

Brief Notice

This summer, Benjamin Jealous grabbed TV face-time and news stories with endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Corey Booker. That gained Jealous brief public notice 10 months before the Democratic primary. But little beyond that.

Booker is a popular though second-tier New Jersey senator whose backing for Jealous has even less weight in the Democratic primary for governor than his support from the militant National Nurses United and Maryland Working Families.

Jealous also has the ringing endorsement of the hero of far-left Democrats, Bernie Sanders. That is to be expected since Jealous toured the country as a Sanders surrogate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) and Benjamin Jealous

Bernie’s support does help Jealous identify himself as a Sanders acolyte but remember, Sanders got just 34 percent of the Maryland primary vote. Still, in a crowded campaign that slice of the party vote could prove important.

Yet there’s no assurance Sanders backers will flock to Jealous’ side just because the failed presidential candidate supports him. It doesn’t work that way in this era. In the top races, today’s voters don’t like being told what to do.

Endorsements from labor unions used to be a potent force. For instance, what the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers union said mattered to members. No longer. Donald Trump gained few labor endorsements yet blue-collar workers strongly backed him.

Jealous’ endorsement from the service workers’ union, SEIU, could help produce volunteers for his campaign, especially in parts of Baltimore City. Yet the impact of that endorsement could prove modest statewide.

Similar Views on Education

Similarly, the backing of the Maryland State Education Association – a coveted honor contenders for governor badly want – will provide the honoree with some manpower and organizational help, but the vast majority of teachers will make up their own minds. They aren’t going to be dictated to by their union, especially since all the Democratic candidates have quite similar pro-education and pro-teacher positions.

The primary is still eight months away yet the cycle of endorsements began last summer – way, way before voters start contemplating the party’s gubernatorial candidates.

Even worse, the primary campaign could change dramatically before the filing deadline in late January, leaving early endorsers in a bind.

For instance, Emily’s List last week gave an early endorsement to a little-known candidate with zero elective experience, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings. This was more a function of the candidate’s inside-the-beltway networking skills than anything having to do with the Maryland governor’s race.

Emily’s List can provide a chunk of money for the endorsee, which will be helpful. But what if the campaign landscape takes an unexpected twist before the filing deadline?

Perhaps former Rep. Donna Edwards decides to switch races and files for governor rather than run for Prince George’s County Executive.

What if former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, an icon among feminist groups, finds retirement boring and runs for governor?

What if former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake takes a look at the gubernatorial field and jumps in?

What does Emily’s List do then?

Early endorsements can backfire. They also have little influence if announced hundreds of days before the actual balloting.

Taking a Chance

One endorsement that could continue to hold weight is Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s public backing for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Van Hollen and Baker have worked together politically for decades. Baker took a risky step by endorsing Van Hollen over Edwards in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary. (He won by 14 percentage points).

Now the senator is returning the favor.

Here’s the real significance: Van Hollen is a respected and popular officeholder, especially in his longtime home, Montgomery County, which is a key jurisdiction in the Democratic primary.

His support of Baker will matter there, especially if Van Hollen campaigns for Baker in the Washington suburbs, where the party’s political fulcrum now rests.

Harry Who?

Newspaper endorsements used play a pivotal part in elections. Having the backing of the Baltimore Sun or Washington Post was BIG news. One Baltimore politician once told me that gaining The Sun’s endorsement in his legislative district could mean as much as 10,000 extra votes. Now that’s power.

Dwindling newspaper readership, though, has altered that perspective. No longer are newspapers the main source of campaign information. Nor do voters trust newspapers the way they did in past decades.

Even in the case of Maryland’s most famous newspaper endorsement – the Baltimore Sun’s surprise backing of Harry Hughes for governor in 1978 – the potency of that front-page editorial turned out to be more legend than fact.

No, The Sun and The Evening Sun didn’t “elect” Harry Hughes. The endorsement wasn’t the difference-maker (he won by nearly 4 percentage points).

It did, though, add to the momentum for Hughes, a trend that had started weeks earlier. It gave him credibility.

Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

News-American story, by David Ahearn, on Harry Hughes’ surprise victory in 1978 Democratic primary for governor.

A post-election analysis by a respected pollster concluded, “The newspaper endorsement made Hughes a plausible candidate and the voters did the rest.”

So take this round of 21st century Maryland gubernatorial endorsements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

They aren’t what they used to be. In some elections, endorsements may not matter much at all.

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Dems Grovel for Governor Nomination

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 30, 2017 — A humiliating scene played out recently at the Maryland State Education Association’s fall convention in Ocean City.

Eight candidates for governor, all Democrats, went before the 73,000-member teacher union gathering and tried to out-grovel one another.

By the time they were done, they had promised so much to elevate schooling and improve the lives of teachers you would think Maryland was home to the most magnanimous and well-healed citizens in the world, willing to accept giant tax increases to fund every wish of unionized educators.

  • Universal pre-kindergarten in every jurisdictions;
  • Fat teacher salary hikes and pensions increases;
  • Modern school buildings for everyone;
  • Extra learning assistance for kids living in poor school districts;
  • Enhanced pre-natal care for pregnant students;
  • A plan for recruiting talented teachers;
  • More career skills in vocations not requiring a college degree;
  • $50,000 more per year for every school in Maryland;
  • Another $2 billion a year to bolster existing K-12 public-school education.

It’s as though the Democratic gubernatorial candidates were contemplating a perfect world in which anything and everything is not only possible but mandatory.

Naturally, every Democratic candidate lambasted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his failure to champion massive new education aid programs. They called him the “anti-education governor.”

The unionized teacher representatives loved it. And why not? Having a bunch of wannabe governors begging for the union’s endorsement must be an ego-enhancing experience.Dems Grovel for Governor NominationBut the question must be asked at some stage of this campaign: How are they ever going to pay for all this?

Where’s the Cash?

Benjamin Jealous won cheers for saying he would cut Maryland’s budget by five percent and give all that new-found cash — $2 billion — to education.

Since 80 percent of Maryland’s expenditures are mandated by law, Jealous has his work cut out for him.

Wait till he starts itemizing precisely where that $2 billion in coming from. Cutting billions from existing programs just isn’t possible without eliminating or savaging dozens if not hundreds of services used by millions of Maryland citizens.

Krish Vignarajah, another governor wannabe, also endorsed a $2 billion boost to education but without any sign she has a clue of how to realistically make good on her promise.

She also wants to give all 1,424 public schools in Maryland $50,000 in science and technology investments each year. How will she raise that $71.2 million each year?

Nearly all the candidates pledged, if elected, to require universal pre-kindergarten in every Maryland school district.

Old Promises

Funny, so did the Democratic candidates for governor in 2014.

Anthony Brown’s program would have cost $138 million in 2014 dollars. He would have taken that money out of Maryland’s taxes on gambling – most of which already goes toward K-12 education. That internal contradiction never seemed to faze the candidate, who lost big-time to Hogan.

Brown’s primary foes, Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur, also supposed pre-K education. Gansler wanted an expanded, full-day program for more kids in poverty, at a cost of $20 million. He would have stripped those dollars out of an already-struggling horse-racing industry.

Mizeur’s phased-in full-day pre-K plan would have cost $280 million a year, paid for by legalizing and taxing marijuana. That idea still lacks political support.

At least candidates in 2014 were not only proposing sweeping programs but also putting a dollar figure and funding options out in the open so voters could judge how realistic their plans would be if put into effect.

That’s not so in the early stages of the current gubernatorial maneuvering. That is probably due to the excessively large field in which only a few stand a realistic chance of getting the Democratic nomination.

When a candidate is vying for attention and support from a powerful interest group along with seven others, what happens is an auction — a bidding war. Each tries to out-bid the others for the group’s affections.

The result is unseemly groveling, a pandering win the group’s endorsement – at any cost.

In this case, it means pie-in-the-sky promises that bear little relationship to the real world of Maryland state government, this state’s troubled budget situation and Maryland voters’ strong resistance to higher taxes.

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Hogan’s Off-Message Moments

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 23, 2017 – Gov. Larry Hogan is riding high with strong poll numbers, low unemployment and ambitious plans to turn Maryland into a cutting-edge economic-development state.

Yet amid these positives, Hogan has a tendency to veer into a form of pettiness and vindictiveness that to some degree mirrors Donald Trump’s off-message moments.

Hogan at times gets testy when his decisions are challenged. It’s as though he cannot stand even the mildest of criticisms.

A week ago, he briefly turned nasty after an event honoring his efforts as governor to support causes dear to the Jewish community of suburban Washington.

A handful of people told Hogan how disappointed they were he had mandated a post-Labor Day start to the school year because it could lead to the elimination of days offs in Montgomery County schools for the Jewish high holidays. (The same situation is cropping in Baltimore County schools).

Hogan’s glad-handing, smiling demeanor changed. He said he was “outraged” by even the suggestion his move would result in no days off for those two sacred Jewish holidays.

“That’s nonsense,” he said, then suggested angrily that the entire Montgomery County school board should be defeated at the next election.

Sounds like one of Trump’s tantrums in which the president responds to the slightest critique with searing criticism of the speaker and urges his defeat on Election Day.

Tag-Team Nastiness

A few days later, Hogan displayed moments of ill temper at a Board of Public Works meeting in which he laced into the interim school chief of Baltimore County for failing to have all county schools air-conditioned immediately.

This is an old tale, one Hogan and state Comptroller Peter Franchot have used yearly to vilify Baltimore County officials. The county has embarked on a billion-dollar system-wide renovation to solve this decades-old problem but it cannot happen overnight – though the tag-team of Hogan and Franchot imply that it can.

To conclude his week, Hogan assailed a federal appeals court for daring to conclude a giant, 40-foot cross-shaped war monument on government property violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

An “outrageous . . . overreach,” Hogan wrote. The court’s conclusion, he concluded, is un-American. “Enough is enough.”

He also vowed to fight the court decision – though the state does not own the land where the “Peace Cross” sits at a busy intersection in Bladensburg and thus is not a party in the lawsuit.

Hogan's Off-Message Moments

Bladensburg Peace Cross

This is the kind of social issue Hogan avoided during his campaign for governor in 2014 so as not to inflame a sensitive issue that might hurt him with voters.

Yet defending a Christian symbol erected on government land plays well with Hogan’s conservative Republican base.

That minorities might find a 40-foot Latin cross objectionable doesn’t seem to enter the governor’ calculations.

Unpleasant Parallel

Hogan’s stance on the Peace Cross has similarities to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s revisionist approach to constitutional provisions regarding church and state.

Moore was removed as his state’s top judge for installing a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building’s rotunda and then refusing to remove it when this was deemed unconstitutional.

Moore, like Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka, is a zealous believer in Christian “moral law” superseding constitutional law. The two men would concur with Hogan’s stance on the Bladensburg Peace Cross.

The irony is that earlier this year Hogan removed a statue from the State House grounds due to its inflammatory, racist implications. He respected the sensitivity of offended minority groups.

Yet in the case of the Peace Cross and the possible elimination of school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan appears not to care about offending minority groups.

He seems oblivious to the fact a giant Latin cross on public land might offend non-Christians, or that this imposing religious symbol at a busy intersection gives the impression that government is endorsing Christianity.

What if a similar-sized Latin cross dedicated to soldiers were placed on the grounds of the Maryland State House? Would Hogan see anything wrong with that?

There’s really no difference between that hypothetical and the Bladensburg situation.

The Peace Cross issue could be resolved by moving the monument to a private location or urging the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to turn the land and monument over to a non-profit group, such as the American Legion.

That would be a common sense answer, but Hogan is more interested in reaping political points with his conservative voters, not in solving a problem that has deep constitutional overtones.

Political Danger?

As for school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan’s criticism may strike some supporters the wrong way.

The governor has captivated many Jewish voters by giving scholarships to parochial schools, increasing ties to Israel and increasing aid to Jewish social agencies.

But his post-Labor Day school commencement edict is creating problems. In some years, local school boards may not be able to schedule 180 days of classes and also give days off for the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar.

If that happens, there could be a political reaction against Hogan’s stance.

There is a middle-ground, common-sense way out for the governor that avoids offending Jewish voters: Make it clear that the state school board has the authority under his executive order to grant a waiver to local school systems if such a bind crops up when creating future school calendars.

That would be more of an on-message approach Hogan could take to would avoid making issues like these a point of contention in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.

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‘Free’ Tuition Isn’t Free

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 16, 2017 – Talk on the far left about “free” college tuition got a boost last week from an acolyte of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the foremost proponent of this marvelous-sounding idea.

Benjamin Jealous, former head of the NAACP who is running for governor, told a group of college students and progressive activists, to no one’s surprise, that his gubernatorial pitch includes free education for Marylanders at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Naturally, in this Trumpian world of headlines without facts to back them up, Jealous later admitted he had no cost estimate, didn’t know who might be eligible for the program and had no details on how such a proposal would work.

He did say he’d pay for free tuition by reducing the number of people in prison.

Such pie-in-the-sky, emotional rhetoric – which brings cheers from progressives — falls quickly to earth with a thud when closely examined.

Jealous does a disservice to the electorate by speaking before he can support what he says with cold, hard facts.

Demagogic rhetoric may have elected Donald Trump, but growing public skepticism now greets sweeping political pronouncements – and for good reason.

Steep Price

The notion of free college education isn’t new. It has been around at least 120 years. For decades, California footed the tuition bill in its state higher education system – until the price tag became unaffordable. New York now offers a modified “last dollar” scholarship for many of its college-age students.

But don’t get fooled. Free tuition isn’t free. It comes at a steep price.

First, while a free-tuition policy results in a zero-tuition bill for parents, universities get around this financial roadblock by charging whopping fees.

For instance, the best-known public university in Los Angeles, UCLA, hits in-state students with fees of $13,000. For out-of-state-students the fee is $41,000.

Add in other assorted charges such as room, meals, textbooks, travel and living expenses and  “free” takes on a whole new meaning.

Jealous’ plan is an expensive entitlement program. It grows dramatically in cost for the state during recessions as jobs become scarce and more high school graduates opt for college instead.

'Free' Tuition Isn't Free

Benjamin Jealous

The flood of new students drawn to state universities and colleges by a free tuition plan also adds significant extra expenses to public university systems, which can’t hike tuition to accommodate this vast expansion.

Lecture classes become enormous in size. Quality declines. Without extra revenue, student amenities at public universities suffer. Maintenance is postponed.

Threat to Private Colleges

Even worse, a sweeping free tuition plan for public higher education would devastate private colleges in Maryland. Many of them cannot compete for students when there’s such a huge cost differential. Some could close.

We live in an era where voters almost never approve of raising their own taxes. And their elected leaders are fearful of infuriating the electorate. Thus, a free tuition program means sharp budget cuts in other state programs – a shifting of priorities.

For example, in the 2017 General Assembly session HB 931 called for full tuition waivers for students attending community colleges in the state. The cost: a minimum $60 million a year. A legislative analyst concluded “significant additional costs are likely.”

The bill’s sponsors sought to pay for free tuition at community colleges by taking this money out of slot-machine taxes designated for Maryland’s K-12 public schools.

The bill’s sponsors wanted to strip funds from struggling public schools.

Imagine the price if all of higher education had been covered by this free-tuition bill, which mercifully died in committee.

Moreover, the real winners of no-cost public college tuition aren’t children living in poverty. They already receive sufficient federal, state and college education aid to make higher education possible.

The free-tuition winners are middle- and upper-income families (depending on how the program is structured).

Additionally, free tuition takes away a powerful incentive for students, and their parents, to make sure they get a degree. Putting skin in the game – a personal financial commitment – is a great way to ensure students focus on good grades and a diploma.

As for Jealous’ plan to pay for free tuition by emptying state prisons of inmates, it’s nonsense.

First, it is hypothetical savings that may never materialize.

Second, the Justice Reinvestment Act, which went into effect Oct. 1, already is designed to do the same thing – get thousands of lower-level offenders out of jails and into rehabilitation programs.

The law earmarks expected savings for post-incarceration programs. The idea is to help ex-cons avoid a return to prison.

Does Jealous intend to strip that money away from rehabilitation programs to pay for free college tuition?

Besides, the savings envisioned in the Justice Reinvestment Act is only $10 million a year – a drop in the free-tuition ocean.

There are far better ways to ensure that Maryland students can afford a higher education which prepares them for 21st century jobs:

  • More state support for community colleges that is contingent on lowering tuition.
  • More state aid to supplement federal Pell grants.
  • Far more government support for vocational and technical programs.
  • More scholarship aid directed toward economically struggling students.
  • State aid to encourage high school/community college collaborations.
  • State tax credits for businesses that offer career-education work-study programs.

Free tuition is a misnomer. In this world, nearly everything comes at a price.

Voters should beware of candidates offering “solutions” that, upon examination, are too good to be true.

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Starting at the Top

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 9, 2017 – There’s nothing like starting your political career at the top.

No need serving an apprenticeship in a low-level elective office or working your way up in a methodical manner to gain essential expertise and experience.

The new, Trumpian model is to convince voters you’re the most exciting anti-establishment neophyte in the race who is capable of transforming Maryland’s government “swamp” into a modern-day Nirvana — even if you may not meet the legal qualifications needed to run for governor.

Exhibit A is Krishanti Vignarajah, a Sri Lankan by birth who held jobs in the State Department and the First Lady’s office during the Obama administration.

Now she wants to begin her Maryland career as governor, though her local political credentials are close to zero.

Worse, she may not be eligible to enter the governor’s race.

Vignarajah announced she’s running for governor but she has yet to formally file. She is asking a judge in Anne Arundel County to issue a sweeping declaration that she’s qualified.

Vignarajah is suing the campaign of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for a comment made by Hogan’s campaign lawyer questioning Vignarajah’s claim that she meets the state’s eligibility standards.

How Hogan’s campaign ended up as a defendant is unclear since the governor runs in the Republican primary and Vignarajah is attempting to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Hogan’s campaign has nothing to do with the Democratic shoot-out.

There’s also the matter of free speech. The comment by Hogan’s campaign official is one man’s opinion, which isn’t normally subject to judicial review.

The state elections board also is being sued. Why is unclear, too.

First, Vignarajah hasn’t officially filed with the board. So it’s not surprising that the board has yet to say a word either pro or con about Vignarajah’s eligibility.

That puts the judge in a bind.

The judge is being asked to rule about a candidate’s eligibility even though the candidate has yet to submit the formal paperwork and pay the filing fee.

Vignarajah’s lawsuit may be premature.

If she does file with the elections board for governor, she still might not be able to get a judicial determination of her eligibility until the March 1 withdrawal deadline for candidates.

At that point, the elections board might make a decision on whether she meets the legal standards required of a gubernatorial candidate.

That’s when she could contest an unfavorable ruling in court.

Vignarajah was a District of Columbia resident and D.C. voter as recently as 2014. She worked, lived and voted in D.C. – not in Maryland.

Is it possible for her to meet Maryland’s requirement that candidates for governor be residents and registered voters for five years at the time of their filing?

Maryland, My Maryland

In her lawsuit, Vignarajah declares that her heart belongs in Maryland, which she feels should be enough to let her run for governor. She grew up in Woodlawn and now owns a home in Gaithersburg. She considers herself a Marylander.

Yet she voted in D.C. elections from 2010 to 2014, which requires residency in D.C. and seems to foreclose the possibility that she was a Maryland resident during that period.

Yes, she has retained her voter registration in Maryland as well, which could become a point of judicial interest if Vignarajah gets a chance to make her case before a judge.

She raises some interesting issues which could use judicial clarification at some point during the campaign:

  • Are the state’s eligibility election laws discriminatory or deficient?
  • Is it legal for individuals to hold dual voter registration cards if they own property in each jurisdiction? Can they then pick and choose which place they cast their votes or run for offfice?
  • What is the legal definition of residency in Maryland for the purposes of state election laws?

Maryland sets a minimum standard that statewide candidates must meet to qualify for the ballot.

Vignarajah is old enough to run for the state’s highest elective office. The unanswered question is whether she meets the five-year residency and voter requirements.

At some point a judge may rule on that question and other related issues. This controversy has just begun. We may not know the outcome for many months.

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Warning: Beware of Polls

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 2, 2017—According to a recent Goucher Poll, the winner of next year’s Democratic primary for governor is . . . “none of the above.”

The second-place finisher in the poll?

An individual who wasn’t even an announced candidate. He’s since said he won’t be running for governor in 2018.

So much for the validity and value of this public opinion survey.

It should be a warning to voters: Beware of polls.

Too many Americans look upon polls as Gospel, the definitive word on how elections will come out.

Wrong.

Polls can be useful at times but only as an indicator of the shifting winds of public sentiment.

They cannot predict accurately the outcome because polling is an art, not a science.

Wide Variety of Methods

Methodologies vary among polling organizations.

Indeed the Goucher survey, conducted by student interviewers, stated in its press release that errors in the results could come about due to the wording of questions, the order of the questions and the non-response bias of those taking the survey.Warning: Beware of Polls

Some polls are conducted only through personal interviews. Some are conducted entirely through the internet. Some just ask viewers or listeners to call in randomly. Others contact only people with telephone landlines.

The Goucher survey consisted of contacting people who use either kind of phone (77% through cell phone numbers and 23% through landlines).

The size of the poll matters a lot.

Goucher’s results were culled from just 324 registered Democrats, or at least people who told interviewers they were Democrats.

That’s a small sample.

But it gets worse.

None of the Above

A stunning 44% indicated they didn’t have a clue who they were going to vote for nine months from now in the June 26 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Thus, only 161 people in the survey actually expressed an opinion.

Of those, 36 people said they favored former Attorney General Doug Gansler, who thought about running for governor but decided against it.

So in actuality, just 125 people in the survey expressed a judgment that matters – hardly enough to draw conclusions.

Of the 324 Democrats surveyed, a mere 10 people lived in Western Maryland. Their viewpoints are supposed to represent the political inclinations of the 112,000 registered Democrats in the state’s western-most counties.

In Southern Maryland, only 19 people were surveyed. On the Eastern Shore, just 16 people were contacted for their opinions.

That’s hardly a viable way to judge the political landscape in the Democratic governor’s race in those regions.

There is no way you can call these tiny samplings scientific.

Imperfect Crystal Ball

Polling is a tough business because polls are trying to predict the future – and that’s an impossibility.

If polling were scientific, the overwhelming majority of professional political surveys taken in early November 2016 would have told us conclusively Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, would be the next president.

Only a tiny number of polling organizations came to that conclusion. Most of them got it wrong.

Few voters recognize a public opinion poll is merely a Polaroid snapshot of the moment. It lets us know how people are thinking about a politician or a topic at an instant in time.

Unfortunately, polls can’t not tell us enough about how those same voters will feel toward politicians or issues nine months from now.

Public sentiment is fickle. It changes rapidly. What a survey reveals about voter sentiment today may be radically different next summer.

Thus, opinion polls should be viewed with a good deal of skepticism.

Too Early in the Race

The Goucher survey showed that none of the legitimate Democratic candidates running for governor is well-known. Since the campaign has yet to begin in earnest, that’s not surprising.

With no clear front-runner or a widely recognized figure in the race, it will take time for Democrats to figure out who these candidates are and which ones are the most appealing, the most qualified and the most viable in the general election against a popular Republican governor.

The good news for the Democratic Party – which holds a 2-to-1 registration majority in Maryland – is that a heavy number of people in this survey said they would almost definitely vote at election time next year – 83%.

If that polling number turns out to be true a year from November when the general election is held, the party’s nominee for governor could give Gov. Larry Hogan a run for his money.

Then again, we’re so far away from that election this may be idle speculation. It’s certainly not scientific evidence you can take to the bank.

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Hogan, King of the Road(s)

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 25, 2017–Gov. Larry Hogan never met a highway project he didn’t like. He’s a 1950s type of politician – solve all the state’s transportation gridlock and congestion by paving the countryside with lanes of new concrete.

He’s got a $9 billion plan that is a lollapalooza: Let construction giants build and pay for toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and the busy I-270 corridor from the beltway to Frederick – 70 miles of exclusive Lexus lanes – and let those companies reap the toll rewards so they can recoup a staggering $7.6 billion investment (the actual cost is likely to be substantially higher).

Then Hogan says he’ll take the state’s part of the profits and turn the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, now owned by the U.S. Park Service, into curb-to-curb concrete with nary a tree or woodlands in between.

Hogan: King of the Road(s)

He could re-name it the B-W Speedway.

It’s an all-highway solution straight out of the mid-20th century.

While conversation over this stunning proposal has barely started – Hogan consulted very few people it seems – there are a slew of points that deserve consideration before his back-to-the-future initiative gets too far off the ground:

The environmental damage, especially along the B-W Parkway, could be substantial.

How can the Park Service, even under a run-amuck Trump administration, turn the parkway’s 30 miles of mature woodlands over to a state eager to destroy those trees and vast stretches of scenic greenery? Is such a move even legally permissible?

Eight lanes of concrete – four new toll lanes (plus wide shoulders) and four toll-free lanes – would convert the parkway into a high-speed, tension-filled raceway.

For homeowners and neighborhoods abutting or close to the three roadways, Hogan’s plan is a calamity.

When a two-lane expansion of the B-W Parkway was proposed in 2011, Greenbelt leaders loudly objected, fearing the intrusion of the busy highway directly into the town. Imagine what a four-lane toll expansion will do to Greenbelt and other communities along the route.

The situation is far worse along high-density sections of I-270 and the Capital Beltway. Gigantic lawsuits and protests await Hogan when he tries to seize all that private property from businesses and homeowners – and then turn the land over to a consortium that would profit from those government land-grabs.

At the end of this project, Hogan may have done little to relieve highway congestion.

Every expansion of I-495 and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway) has meant more cars on those roads and a quick return to the same level of congestion and added pollution. Los Angles has experienced the same thing with the famed I-405, where a $1.4 billion expansion didn’t help ease congestion at all.

The notion that Maryland taxpayers won’t be on the hook for a lot of the expense of these mega-projects isn’t realistic.

Hogan’s no-cost-to-taxpayers assertion may sound good to voters, but there’s virtually no way he can make it happen. These are ultra-expensive projects. For starters, seizing private properties through eminent domain can’t be privatized and will be extraordinarily expensive in the high-priced Washington suburbs.

Hogan also says the state’s share of profits from the I-495 and I-270 toll lanes will pay for the four toll lanes on the B-W Parkway. That doesn’t compute given the woeful record of the state’s last two toll projects – the Intercounty Connector and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes from Baltimore to White Marsh. Neither has come near the revenue numbers anticipated prior to construction.

Maryland’s toll authority already is in a heap of long-term financial trouble that would be compounded by these mega-projects.

The Department of Legislative Services says that between now and 2022, Maryland’s tolling facilities will take in $267 million less than projected but operating expenses will be $588 million higher than anticipated. This will force $1.7 billion worth of cuts to future projects and reduce the toll authority’s ability to float bonds by $3.7 billion.

Adding Hogan’s toll-road projects, even with a public-private contract, will scare the heck out of bond-rating agencies, which know full-well the state isn’t getting a free ride on construction projects of this size.

Transportation trends are not on Hogan’s side.

In good times, more cars and trucks use highways and toll roads. But in bad times, the reverse is true. Experts almost universally note the nation is ripe for an economic downturn. That means a big drop in gas tax and toll receipts for Maryland’s transportation agencies.

Rising fuel-mileage standards are hurting Maryland’s gas-tax receipts, too. So is the growth of electric vehicles on the road.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Transportation Authority’s debt service is soaring – a nearly six-fold increase between 2007 and today with no decline in sight over the next 25 years.

The authority “will need to make long-term changes in order to remain financially stable,” DLS reported early this year. Hogan’s mega-projects ignore that suggestion and add to the state’s highway obligations.

Say goodbye to any future mass transit projects.

Hogan’s plan gives zero attention to a balanced transit solution in Central Maryland, instead putting all the state’s transportation eggs in a highway basket. That’s not the direction Virginia or other Eastern states with similar congestion woes are heading.

Such a vast expansion of I-295, I-495 and I-270 will create massive new gridlock at exit and access points.

How in the world could Russell Street in Baltimore handle an additional two lanes of rush-hour traffic? Ditto as the BW Parkway flows into New York Avenue in D.C. It would be a nightmare. Arterial roads and cut-through streets in adjacent neighborhoods along these three interstate highways would be clogged. The law of unintended consequences could kick in.

Passing environmental tests posed by federal and state laws and regulations could delay construction for many years, especially on the B-W Parkway.

Rest assured, legal challenges to every aspect of Hogan’s plan will be posed by environmental groups, well-to-do neighborhood associations along these routes and local governments.

Indeed, Hogan may be out of office by the time the first ground-breaking ceremony takes place – which may be part of his strategy.

What happened to helping Joe Six-Pack and the “forgotten Americans” who can’t afford E-ZPass transponders or Lexus lanes?

There’s nothing in Hogan’s transportation vision that helps people at the lower end of the economy. No expansion of commuter buses, no shuttles connecting workers to spread-out job sites, no future mass transit such as a desperately needed east-west line through Baltimore.

Hogan’s highway proposal creates a windfall for the well-to-do and transportation businesses.

The plan is a winner for candidate Hogan.

Expect hefty campaign contributions from the construction and highway industries, from trucking concerns and from companies along these routes that figure to benefit from additional high-speed, interstate concrete lanes.

For voters, Hogan’s plan sounds great and makes an ideal campaign pitch. The devil is in the details, though, which Hogan won’t mention to voters.

How Democrats react to Hogan’s mega-plan will be fascinating to watch. Commuters want highway relief. But will they like what comes with the relief Hogan is offering?

Putting specifics before voters won’t be easy because the topic is complex. Voters like simple solutions and Hogan is very good at giving simple answers to exceedingly complicated problems.

How will the two other members of the Board of Public Works vote on Hogan’s plan?

They hold the key. Without BPW approval, Hogan’s super-highway plans are dead.

Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp will have to dissect the extensive financial ramifications of Hogan’s proposal, the environmental impact, the legal liability such a huge seizure of private property might entail and the impact this would have on the lives of thousands of residents and businesses along those interstate routes.

About the only thing that seems assured is this: Hogan’s sweepingly ambitious highway-building plan is a long way from getting built.

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Hogan’s Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 18, 2017 – In one of the oddest situations Annapolis has seen in recent times, Gov. Larry Hogan is trying to sabotage his own education commission.

That’s right. A state school board made up almost exclusively of Hogan appointees is scheduled today to submit to federal officials a plan for turning around under-performing schools.

The panel agreed to this improvement plan after 19 months of intense study that included five “listening tours,” 205 meetings, testimony from education experts and extensive staff research.

Yet the governor is intent on blowing up his school board’s plan before it arrives in Washington.

Hogan wrote a scathing letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos denouncing the school-improvement program approved by his own education panel. He says it preserves “the status quo in failing schools.”

Hogan's Strong-Arm Schools Tactic

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

A reading of the state’s submittal doesn’t appear to support Hogan’s objection, which is rooted almost completely in politics, not education.

Hogan wants to turn under-performing schools over to private contractors to be run as charter, non-unionized schools. He’d like to strip counties and Baltimore City of authority over those schools and lump them into “recovery districts” controlled by the state. He’d love to shut down failing schools and give students vouchers to attend private schools.

Multiple-Choice Education

His notions are rigidly conservative and radical. He would sweep away much of the underpinnings of Maryland’s public school system, including local control. Hogan wants to replace weak-performing schools with a privatized, multiple-choice system for educating children.

That idea hasn’t gotten off the ground in the Maryland General Assembly. The Democratic-controlled legislature repeatedly has rejected Republican Hogan’s attempts to privatize parts of the state’s public education system.

To make sure Hogan can’t embed his conservative education ideas by way of state school board decisions, the legislature passed a measure earlier this year limiting reforms the state panel can include in a plan it must submit to Washington to deal with failing schools.

Essentially, Democratic lawmakers instructed the state board that reform efforts must deal directly with student deficiencies and teacher deficiencies at existing schools. The board’s remediation plan must be implemented within the current education structure. No radical steps like charter schools, privatized management, vouchers or recovery districts allowed.

Lawmakers also rankled Hogan by limiting how much weight can be given to controversial standardized tests in determining if a school is failing.

Hogan vetoed the legislature’s bill, which Democrats then easily voted to override.

Much of the language approved by the legislature is what the powerful state teachers union wanted to protect its members from being fired in a mass privatization movement.

Dealing with Failed Schools

Yet the legislature’s restrictions hardly amounts to “preserving the status quo.” It did restrain what Hogan’s school board can propose as far as school takeovers and other sweeping moves to turn to private-sector solutions.

Yet the final product gives a detailed description of how schools will be judged and how the state will support comprehensive improvements in the weakest public schools.

It’s a far more challenging and thoughtful plan than an “off-with-their heads” approach that would re-create faltering public schools along privatized lines.

Hogan could well gain backing for his subversion from DeVos in Washington. After all, the pair made a joint guest appearance at an elementary school in Montgomery County earlier this year. Their education ideas seem to mesh.

She, too, is an ardent believer in privatization of schooling, though that approach has a mixed record.

Despite reservations from some of its members, the state education board’s submission to Washington is a solid, commendable effort to directly confront failings in schools across Maryland. The stress is on comprehensive efforts to improve teaching skills and student performance.

That may not be radical enough for Hogan, who is using all his tools to try to gum up the works. The danger is that he succeeds, with $250 million in federal school aid hanging in the balance.

But don’t count on Democrats in the legislature letting the Republican governor have his way on education privatization, even if DeVos sides with him. They are unlikely to yield.

This could well turn into an election issue next year with Hogan appealing to his conservative political base, accusing Democrats of pandering to the teachers’ union and resisting wholesale reforms.

On the other side, Democrats are sure to exploit Hogan’s unyielding advocacy of school privatization as part of his effort to diminish state support of public education.

DeVos’ decision on Maryland’s school-improvement proposal could play a prominent role in the state’s upcoming elections, especially the race for governor. It could have ramifications far beyond the classroom.

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

By Barry Rascovar

Gov. Larry Hogan can’t make up his mind.

Last year he was a gung-ho advocate of “soft-on-criminals” reforms aimed at cutting Maryland’s prison population by 1,000 and putting more resources into helping low-level offenders avoid a life of crime.

This time, though, Hogan is sporting his “tough on criminals” campaign button, calling for “truth-in-sentencing” as part of a crime-fighting package he’ll introduce in the next legislative session.

So, is Hogan soft or tough on crime?

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

As the 2018 election campaign draws closer, Mr. Tough Guy wins the day.

It’s good publicity to be seen as eager to crack down hard on thugs and violent offenders making Baltimore City one of America’s crime capitals.

So what if Hogan’s truth-in-sentencing idea negates all the savings of his Justice Reinvestment Act that commences in October?

So what if his plan creates extreme hazardous conditions for correctional guards and for inmates in Maryland’s prisons?

So what if it ties the hands of judges and virtually eliminates the need for a parole board and a probation division?

And so what if Hogan’s idea will do virtually nothing to stem Baltimore’s historic criminal rampage?

Atmospherics Count

It’s all about the atmospherics, the sense that the governor is mad as hell and won’t take it anymore, that he’s fed up with molly-coddling prisoners, that he’s doing something.

Hogan tried to set up city judges as the bad guys. He demanded they attend a criminal justice meeting on Aug. 29 where he’d sternly tell them to hand out lengthy sentences.

After the state’s chief judge informed him no member of the judiciary would attend because it would impinge greatly on judicial independence and the constitution’s separation of powers, Hogan played the role of offended party.

He used their absence to pound on judges as one reason Baltimore’s crime situation is “out of control.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh piled on, too, expressing disappointment in the judges’ absence. “We have repeat offenders continuing to walk the streets,” she said because judges are handing out too many suspended sentences.

If only it were that simple.

Even State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby couldn’t resist taking a shot, indicating that long, long prison terms for violent, repeat offenders would make Baltimore safer. (So would a better record of successful prosecutions by the state’s attorney’s office – a point Mosby artfully ignored.)

View from the Judiciary

Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, later tried to talk common sense in a commentary article but was drowned out by the emotional political rhetoric.

The Truth about Truth in Sentencing

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals

She noted those suspended sentences primarily relate to cases in which the defendant has been convicted of multiple crimes.

This results in an extended prison term on the most serious crimes and a conditional suspension of extra time in prison on lesser offenses.

That means inmates leaving prison still remain under state watch through the parole system for years to come. They’re also required to meet other terms set by judges, such as mandatory drug testing, employment, weekly check-ins, etc.

Hogan is getting pushback from some within his administration on the merits of turning Maryland toward the rigid, “life-without-parole” model.

It’s a huge drain on the prison system’s budget and the prison staff. It increases the chance of recidivism once these inmates are released. And it does very little to stem the rising tide of violence.

Hogan got it right the first time with the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Crime in lower-income communities is a multi-faceted, complex problem. Dealing with it by locking up felonious offenders for lengthy periods won’t change the underlying causes of disrespect for the law.

But it does play well with voters, and 2018 is, indeed, an election year for Maryland’s governor and the city’s state’s attorney.

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