Medical Marijuana Meets MD’s Spoils System

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 19, 2016 – Maybe Donald Trump is right: The system is rigged. For proof, look at how interest groups are feverishly trying to “rig” Maryland’s choice of authorized medical marijuana growers and processors.

The Black Legislative Caucus wants to “rig” the selection procedure so that people of color get their share (and more) of the lucrative payoff from legalized pot-growing, despite their lack of high rankings in the objective selection process.The Spoils System Returns to Maryland

Others recently got the system “rigged” in a way that denies licenses to a few top-ranked growers who were chosen on merit. Instead, lesser-rated groups in politically sensitive geographic areas were awarded this rich financial prize.

Picking the best, most qualified growers gave way to political “rigging” of the system.

So much for the commission’s carefully planned “double-blind” selection procedure designed to remove political favoritism and eliminate any hint of subjective bias.

Guarding Against Tainted Results

This well-established, scientific method works beautifully in drug-testing and picking the most skilled musicians for the Baltimore Symphony. So why not use this proven way to guard against tainted results in the state’s effort to find the best and most capable cannabis growers and processors?

Silly idea. An honest evaluation of the applicants proved too much for state politicians and lobbyists. Their favored applicants failed to make the cut.

Suddenly, criticism rained down on the medical marijuana commission. The cry went out: Bring back Maryland’s spoils system.

“This is a good modern-day civil rights fight,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Well. . . that’s a stretch.

It’s an effort to ensure that already financially well-off minorities get a slice of the action – regardless of their capabilities for handling the growing, processing and distribution of medical marijuana.

After all, this is expected to be a national multi-billion-dollar business.

To heck with selecting the most qualified cannabis growers. What Maryland needs is some good old favoritism!

Merit Selection Process

The commission tried its best to keep politics out of its decision-making. It came up with a way of choosing winning applicants that was devoid of political pressure and influence-peddling – a double-blind ranking system conducted by an outside group.

Applicants’ names, and their investors’ names, were removed from proposals so the rankings would be based entirely on merit.

It turned out, though, that none of the applications submitted by minority-controlled companies ranked high enough to gain a cultivation license. That’s when impartiality and merit-selection went out the window.

Attorney General Brian Frosh, in an incredibly two-faced action, contradicted his own assistant attorney general and other higher-ups in his agency, who had concluded the commission could not legally tilt the playing field.

Frosh rallied to the side of the Black Caucus. Gov. Larry Hogan expressed concern, too. Word came down from on high: Work something out.

Oh, well, so much for a color-blind government that allows only the best-qualified cannabis cultivators and processors to ply their trade in Maryland.

Gift-Wrapped Permits

The commission quickly buckled under the pressure.

In August, the panel stripped two winning companies of their licenses not because they had done something wrong but because one commissioner argued there wasn’t enough “geographic diversity” among authorized growers.

Lower-scoring applicants with more politically acceptable locations were gift-wrapped these valuable permits.

Not surprisingly, the disqualified applicants are threatening to sue. More litigation is inevitable.

If the Black Caucus succeeds in pulling the licenses of other applicants for the sake of diversity – or gets the entire process re-started – we’ll have enough legal action to set back the cause of medicinal marijuana for a long time.

Yet while minority groups fight for a bigger slice of the cannabis windfall, sick and terminally ill patients in excruciating pain are denied the relief cannabis might provide.

No one seems agitated about that. Mammon rules the day.

It’s a royal mess.

Politicians Get Involved

Years ago, attempts in Maryland to “rig” the system sent a vice president into shameful exile and a governor and several county executives to prison. The quest for money can be a corrupting influence.

So it is with legalizing medical marijuana – at least in Maryland.

Choosing the people who will grow marijuana plants and turn them into safe medicinal products is serious business. It seemed to make sense to pick them based purely on expertise and merit.

But not to the b’hoys in Annapolis.

So now politicians have their hands in the action. The result could be lengthy delays and a more expansive and pliable process that allows Maryland’s spoils system to work its magic.

Is an impartial, unbiased selection system about to be manipulated for the benefit of lesser-qualified applicants who have friends in high places?

You don’t need to be Donald Trump to answer that question.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at

Popular Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 12, 2016 – As Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., starts packing for the friendship/business-development trip to Israel that every Maryland chief executive takes, he can gloat about his crafty propaganda maneuvers that have him sky-high in popularity polls.

Expect more “good news” announcements. There always are when a governor’s entourage makes an economic prospecting tour. These visits don’t take place unless made-in-advance deals are set for unveiling during the VIP procession.

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and wife, Yumi, at 2014 inauguration

Hogan has become a master of positive image-making. He’s got a cheerful public persona, a hearty laugh and a back-slapping camaraderie.

He also recognizes Marylanders are fed up with politicians who flood the airwaves and newspapers with press releases and public utterances. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s declining popularity stemmed in part from the public’s fatigue with his constant campaigning and propagandizing.

These days, people want elected leaders to leave them alone. Staying out of the news is as much a reason for Hogan’s strong poll numbers as anything else.

Popular Side Issues

He’s latched onto tangential issues that sound good to people at first glance. He cut tolls – always a winner with voters – a bit. He lowered some government fees. He ordered schools not to start classes before Labor Day. He held back millions from Baltimore City and Baltimore County for failing to air-condition all school classrooms immediately.

Every one of those actions brought a resounding huzzah and another rise in Hogan’s numbers. At this stage, he looks like a shoo-in for re-election in 2018.

That’s the positive side of the equation.

But here’s the rub. He’s got an abysmal relationship with Democrats who run the General Assembly. Worse, he seems determined to keep it that way into his next term.

Despite phenomenal poll numbers, Hogan can point to few legacy achievements. That’s due largely to his stubborn refusal to seek compromise with opposition-party lawmakers.

Unfinished Business

Yes, he closed the Baltimore City Jail – but he has yet to demolish the eye-sore because he tried to use funds intended for Baltimore-area universities for the jail tear-down. Nor did he bother to consult with community or city leaders about his secretive decision.

Yes, he helped end the 2015 Baltimore civil unrest by sending in the National Guard and touring a few riot-torn streets. But since then he’s been an absentee leader rarely showing his face.

As for a rejuvenation package to aid the state’s most distressed jurisdiction, Hogan has turned a blind eye. Baltimore’s horrific poverty and crime problems remain the albatross around Maryland’s neck – and Hogan is taking the silent, “benign neglect” approach.

Yes, he signed a bill reforming the criminal justice system for low-risk offenders, but credit belongs to Chief Legislative Officer Christopher Shank for that effort at reaching across the aisle to find common ground with Democrats.

The governor talks about joining hands and singing from the same hymnal, but in truth he’s a hard-nosed, partisan Republican who seems to relish insulting Democrats.

Negotiating isn’t in his vocabulary unless it is 100 percent on his terms. His legislative agenda has been thin on substance and thick on unpassable conservative ideology.

Thin Agenda

No wonder Democrats in the legislature have buried much of his agenda. Last session, the governor even ordered his staff not to work with lawmakers behind the scenes to hammer out differences.

There’s been no education package from Hogan in two years, no environmental package, no health-care package, no natural resources package, no major economic-development package, no energy package, indeed no comprehensive proposal except the criminal justice bill.

He killed Baltimore’s mass-transit expansion but has yet to put in place his so-called replacement – a modestly revamped bus system.

Instead, Hogan has directed his energy toward minutia, like feuding with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz over that county’s dwindling number of schools without air-conditioning.

He also humiliated and bad-mouthed the long-time and much-praised director of the state’s school construction program, prompting his resignation.

He has refused on occasion to let foes of his administration’s plans speak at Board of Public Works meetings. Clearly, he doesn’t like to hear criticism.

He issued his executive order mandating that local school systems begin fall classes after, not before, Labor Day without consulting affected educators who overwhelmingly opposed such a move. They say this imperils students’ ability to prepare for national placement tests and could mean an end to spring and winter school breaks.

Appeal to Voters

It’s been a curious year and three-quarters, indeed.

Hogan has picked his issues carefully, keeping in touch with his conservative base, appealing to voters’ base instincts on marginal matters and blaming Democrats for anything and everything that has gone off-track in Maryland.

So far it is a formula for short-term success. Hogan may become the first Republican to serve two gubernatorial terms in Maryland since Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin did it in the 1950s.

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Theodore R. McKeldin (1951-1959)

But McKeldin, a liberal Republican who would be drummed out of the party today, amassed a spectacularly successful record in office thanks in large measure to his ability to work with the Democratic legislature.

Hogan is heading in the opposite direction.

He may rival hapless Republican Gov. Harry Whinna Nice (1935-1939) for his paucity of accomplishments during his time in office. (Nice’s sole, lasting contribution was changing the architectural style of the governor’s mansion from Victorian to Georgian.)

Popular Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice (1935-1939)

Where’s the Beef?

Hogan was elected with great promise and anticipation, but he has yet to deliver.

Where is the promised major de-regulation package that would free businesses and individuals of unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic red tape?

Where is the elimination of waste and inefficiency from state agencies? Where is the reorganization of state departments?

Where is the downsizing of the state’s work force?

Where is the smaller but smarter state spending program?

Time is on Hogan’s side, though.

He still could recognize that cooperation yields more than constant confrontation.

He could get serious about bringing sound Republican principles to Maryland government rather than following bellicose conservative proposals that stands no chance of becoming law.

Hogan has the opportunity to demonstrate what sensible Republican governance means. He hasn’t done much in that direction so far, which is a shame because it could be a lasting legacy.

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A Third Bay Crossing?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 6, 2016 – It was ironic that news of Jerry Wolff’s death this past week coincided with the splashy announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. of a $5 million study to examine the site and funding options for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing.

Wolff was the last all-powerful head of the State Roads Commission during the late 1960s under Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. He was the mastermind behind legislative approval and construction of the parallel bay bridge span.

A Third Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

Jerome B. Wolff, powerful State Roads Commissioner under Gov. Spiro Agnew

That 1973 structure cost $148 million. The original Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which was built after a 15-year battle for a mere $45 million, opened in 1952.

The next bay crossing could cost a staggering $7 billion – and probably double that by the time it opens 10 or 15 years from now.

Or rather, if a third span is ever built.

Mega-bucks Needed

Even with federal assistance, Maryland would be hard pressed to find that staggering amount of money for a project that mainly alleviates monster traffic backups on summer weekends. The rest of the year the existing parallel structures easily handle two-way traffic between the eastern and western shores.

Moreover, a critical part of any funding solution – bridge and tunnel tolls – was cut by Hogan to fulfill a campaign promise to lower taxes.

That means a revenue loss to the Maryland Transportation Authority that could approach $1 billion over the next 15 years – just when a third bay span would need to be financed.

A Third Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

Parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans between Sandy Point and Kent Island, MD

Having foreclosed that pivotal revenue source, how in the world does Hogan intend to pay for this massive undertaking?

Answer: He doesn’t.

Hogan is passing the buck, this time to a study group that conveniently won’t report back to him until 2020. Then Hogan can flip the hot potato of how to pay for such a stunningly expensive construction project to the Democratic legislature and blame them for inaction.

Another ‘Boondoggle’?

Ironically, it was Hogan who killed the Baltimore-area’s major transportation initiative, the $3 billion Red Line project – which had $900 million in federal funding lined up. He claimed it was way too expensive. Hogan sneeringly called the Red Line’s downtown tunnel “a boondoggle.”

Yet now he is promoting a third bay crossing at double or triple that amount at a time when the state is short on transportation funds, in part due to Hogan’s populist toll reductions.

Maryland has other enormously expensive toll-road needs that Hogan doesn’t want to confront – or pay for.

The dangerously steep and narrow two-lane Harry W. Nice Bridge spanning the Potomac River between Charles County and the northern neck of Virginia is 76 years old. It’s not in great shape.

Hogan blocked $50 million allocated by his predecessor for planning and design of a new four-lane span, claiming a new $1 billion crossing would be too expensive.

He favors a far cheaper Band-Aid approach to the existing, aging structure, which is a bottleneck and lacks shoulders. Powerful lawmakers, though, are trying to force him to bite the bullet and replace the Potomac crossing.

Then there’s the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge connecting U.S. 40 between Harford and Cecil counties. It, too, is 76 years old. It cost just $5 million when built. But giving it a foundational overhaul will be extremely expensive. Hogan hasn’t allocated a penny for that undertaking.

Playing Politics

Instead, the governor wants to win political points with beachside merchants and summer vacationers headed “downy ocean” by holding out the promise of easy travel across the Chesapeake but leaving the tough funding decisions to someone else.
Already critics are calling Hogan’s plan a new boondoggle.

Even if the state turned to a public-private partnership – which would hand all the revenue and control of the span (and possibly the parallel crossings, too) to a for-profit company – paying the state’s share for a third bay bridge would crowd out virtually every major toll and bridge improvement for years to come.

There’s also the complicated matter of expanding roads leading to the third span on both sides of the bridge. It can’t be done inexpensively or without an environmental cost. Local opposition could be intense.

Hogan, of course, might try to get the job done with a patch-up by adding a single lane to the original bay bridge. But even that falls into the mega-billion-dollar range.

Why a Third Span?

All this begs the question as to whether a third span is essential.

Given the reality of climate change and rising sea levels, by the time a third crossing opens for vehicles much of Ocean City’s beach could be under water. The rush to O.C. might slow dramatically in a quarter-century.

Sen. John Astle, whose Annapolis district includes the western bay bridge approaches, calls this an “impossible problem.” Maryland can’t afford the incredibly high price of a third bay bridge and Hogan has shown zero inclination to raise revenue to pay for it.

Thus, the Hogan study group is likely to produce another report that will gather dust on a shelf. That was true of a study under Gov. Bob Ehrlich and a report under Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Hogan just wants to curry favor with beach-going voters and Ocean City businesses without having to take the unpopular step of raising tolls and other taxes to build a third crossing of the nation’s largest estuary.
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Hogan’s Trump Tendencies

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 29, 2016 – The yin and the yang of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan keep bubbling to the surface.

On the one hand, he’s made it clear he finds Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump offensive. The Republican governor says he doesn’t like Trump, disagrees with his behavior and many of his statements and won’t vote for him.

On the other hand, Hogan continues to dip into Trump’s bag of tricks to win emotional points with voters. Indeed, Hogan was way ahead of Trump in one aspect of propaganda campaigning – the use of a fictitious story as a key election tool.

Hogan'sTrump Tendencies

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Trump has become a master of making it up as he goes along. He’s even better at taking a negative development and embroidering it with a fairy tale of malevolence and evil that rivals the Brothers Grimm.

Hogan does the same thing. The most recent example is the absurd furor he’s prompted over his mis-named “road kill bill.” It’s similar to his virtuoso propaganda winner from the 2014 campaign: Hogan’s mis-named “rain tax” – a savvy fabrication that helped win him the governorship.

Evil Bill?

This time, Hogan has latched onto a toothless bill passed by Democrats in the legislature to bring openness to the process of selecting major transportation projects.

Hogan thinks the bill is evil incarnate. It will wipe out every road project in Maryland, he told reporters and county leaders this month. That’s why he calls it “the road kill bill.”

That’s an intentional distortion of the facts for political purposes.

Hogan wants to use this unimportant bill – which he vetoed but then saw overridden by lawmakers – as a hammer against Democrats. He thinks it will help him win another term in 2018. You might call it the second coming of the “rain tax.”

As a candidate in 2014, Hogan harangued Democrats for passage of a bill that allowed 10 counties to impose a local levy on impermeable surfaces such as roofs and asphalt or concrete driveways because these surfaces generate stormwater runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. The tax revenue would be used to reduce waterway pollution.

But Hogan twisted that bill into something that sounded ludicrous. His TV ads sounded the alarm: Democrats had reached the point where “they’re even taxing the rain!”

Brilliant as a campaign tactic. But untrue.

Better Road Planning

Hogan’s latest invention concerns the Democrat-passed “Maryland Open Transportation Decision Act” aimed at bringing a statistical ranking system to road and bridge projects that the public can understand.

Its preamble sets out the purpose: to create “a public process for transportation planning. . . that provides Maryland citizens with a clear and transparent explanation as to how their transportation taxes and revenues are allocated to fund major capital transportation projects.”

The key phrase: “a clear and transparent explanation.” Not a mandate. Not an order that forces the governor to fund projects he opposes. Just a new planning tool shared with the public.

It could be a useful planning mechanism, just as it is in Virginia and North Carolina, where conservative Republican legislatures passed similar measures. Why? Because it’s a sensible way to get the “biggest bang” for the state’s buck – a very Republican notion.

But Hogan is thinking politics, not government efficiency.

He says the bill will wreak havoc on every county road project. He keeps repeating this flight of fancy. Mentioning “the road kill bill” revs up Republican crowds.

Scaring the Counties

Compounding the situation is an effort by Hogan’s minions to twist reality even further. Deputy DOT Secretary Jim Ports tried terrorizing the counties by claiming none of their projects would be funded next year because of this Democratic-passed law.

Pure buncombe.

To begin with, DOT hasn’t even created the detailed scoring and ranking metrics needed to come to such a conclusion. Most important, these rankings don’t count when the governor names the transportation projects he wishes to finance. He still can do as he pleases.

This is strictly a planning tool, not a funding requirement. The law states quite clearly that the governor can ignore the rankings and toss the list in the trash as long as he “provides in writing a rational basis for the decision.”

Moreover, Ports’ ridiculous assertion that every county’s priority list of road projects would be wiped out by this law is refuted by this wording in the statute: “nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, counties still get to name their top projects and Hogan gets to fund them if he wishes.

Following The Donald

Calling it “the road kill bill” is a Trumpian tactic. How ironic for Hogan, who has positioned himself as the anti-Trump in Maryland’s Republican Party. Now he’s following The Donald’s lead by ignoring the facts and generating a story-line that fits his political purposes.

Unfortunately, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Hogan’s made-up “road kill bill.” He will continue demanding that lawmakers get rid of the statute – which won’t happen.

Meanwhile, Ports has made himself a prime target of angry Democrats, who are nearly certain to revise the law to make even clearer that it creates merely an advisory ranking system for road projects.

But has Hogan set an unintended trap for himself?

He and Democrats could get into a game of transportation “chicken” in which lawmakers dare the governor to wipe out all county road projects, as Hogan says is required – but isn’t – under the new advisory law.

What does Hogan do then – especially since this would be happening in the run-up to Hogan’s reelection bid?

Only by harming counties can Hogan prove his assertion is correct. That’s a huge risk for an incumbent who at the moment looks like a shoo-in for a second term.

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Baltimore’s Failed Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 22, 2016–There’s nothing quite as emblematic of Baltimore City’s failed leadership as the out-of-town (yet again) mayor firing her long-serving and super-loyal city solicitor for lacking a crystal ball.

Once again, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threw someone under the bus rather than take ultimate responsibility for an embarrassment to her administration. She didn’t even have the courage to handle the firing herself.

Rawlings-Blake has not been happy when the now-former city solicitor, George Nilson, gave her unwelcome legal judgment over the years. But that’s no excuse for canning him simply to save face – and then refuse to meet with him.

Failed Leadership in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

That‘s no way to treat your top legal adviser during your entire tenure as mayor.

Can you spell d-y-s-f-u-n-c-t-i-o-n?

The more we learn about the inner workings of the Rawlings-Blake administration, the more grateful we are that she is retiring in less than four months.

Remember this was the mayor who out of arrogance and stubbornness refused for hours to take urgent phone calls from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to discuss calling out the National Guard to quell the 2015 Baltimore riots.

This was the mayor who after the unrest had died down fired her police commissioner because she needed a convenient scapegoat.

This was the mayor who forced out the previous police commissioner who had been widely praised for trying to reform the department by emphasizing community policing.

This was the mayor who bears partial responsibility for the damning Department of Justice report on the sad state of the city’s law-enforcement agency and the community’s deep mistrust of the men and women in blue.

Feuds and Failures

What a mess Rawlings-Blake is leaving in her wake.

Her inability to work constructively with the City Council has empowered that inept group of lawmakers to strike out in directions that could cripple Baltimore’s economic and fiscal future.

Her pointless and counter-productive feud with Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt cost Baltimore millions in wasteful spending on an antiquated telephone system that should have been efficiently replaced years ago.

Her on-going alienation from the Republican governor helps explain his unwillingness to be supportive of a deeply distressed and ailing Baltimore City.

It’s become a shameful record that started out so promising.

One Bad Hire

Rawling-Blake’s latest self-inflicted wound is the firing of City Solicitor Nilson, whose lengthy record of civic and public service to the state and city deserved more than an insulting, back-of-the-hand dismissal by a mayoral assistant.

What set off the mayor was the discovery by the Southern Poverty Law Center that a contract lawyer for the city for the last six months had past ties to a neo-Nazi group. Nilson quickly terminated the lawyer but that wasn’t good enough for the mayor. She needed to lay the blame on someone else.

Nilson was the obvious candidate since he hired Glen Allen, a retired lawyer with a long record of solid legal work for one of the nation’s largest law firms. How was Nilson (or the law firm for that matter) to know of Allen’s dalliances with neo-Nazism or his personal political beliefs?

By asking Allen at his application interview about his political leanings? By checking with the Southern Poverty Law Center on every hire? Until that group discovered Allen’s neo-Nazi connections it was a well-kept secret that had not interfered with Allen’s impeccable legal career.

Trumpism in Baltimore?

Rawlings-Blake apparently wanted Nilson to take the Donald Trump approach to identifying and rejecting undesirable applicants.

Does this mean all future city hires under this mayor will be asked:

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of a hate group, terrorist organization or some obnoxious political affiliate?

“Do you believe Sharia law supersedes the U.S. Constitution?

“Do you look favorably upon National Socialism?”

This is what it would have taken to spot Allen’s dark secret. Such questioning at a job interview for a government position not only would be inappropriate, it likely would prompt a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rawlings-Blake was way off-base in using this one instance of misplaced trust as an excuse to fire Nilson.

He’s carried a ton of water for the mayor during her time in office, just as he did for former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Yet he was canned without even a thank-you.

In his earlier careers as deputy state attorney general and as an assistant attorney general, Nilson proved a rock of stability in providing sound legal judgment for generations of state leaders in both the legislature and executive branch.

He continued that service in the private sector, often chairing reform commissions to make the city and the state better.

But Rawlings-Blake didn’t even have the decency to tell Nilson herself that he was being fired or to explain why she felt compelled to let him go. She never asked to hear his side of the story. After all the years they spent together, Rawlings-Blake didn’t have the courage to hold an exit interview.

She was disrespectful and cruel toward an official who had done so much to give her sound and supportive legal guidance.

What a terrible ending for both of them.

Nilson, though, can return to the private legal sector where he’ll easily triple or quadruple his city pay grade.

Rawlings-Blake, on the other hand, is damaged goods. Her latest display of heartless avoidance of responsibility won’t help her legacy or efforts to resurrect her career in some national capacity.

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Baltimore’s ‘Challenging Moment’

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 15, 2016 – That searing U.S. Department of Justice report on Baltimore’s police agency revealed an ugly truth we’d rather sweep under the rug. There is historic, deep-seated racism in what’s been labeled Charm City and it presents itself most hurtfully in city law enforcement.

What’s clear is that there are two Baltimores – one white, fairly prosperous and contented; the other black, impoverished, crime-ridden and desperate.

The DOJ report laid it out in uncompromising terms. Historic racism led to policing that focuses almost exclusively on black Baltimore. Racism helped create systemic practices that are unconstitutional, violent and discriminatory. No wonder the city’s black community expresses so much fear, hostility and anger.Baltimore's 'Challenging Moment'

Everyone who cares about Maryland’s largest city and its lone urban center should read parts of this report, especially the concise executive summary and early chapters on Baltimore’s perilous situation. The DOJ pulls no punches. It uses facts we don’t want to hear to explain how we got in this dreadful predicament.

Some black critics are using the report to engage in an unhelpful blame game. Their protests outside the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police conference are counter-productive and only increase the “us against them” attitude that could tear the city apart.

Others want to vilify former Mayor Martin O’Malley for turning to a zero-tolerance policing strategy in the 1990s, an approach he adapted from New York City’s successful fight on crime.

Blame Game

Finger-pointing gets us nowhere. It also is unfair to O’Malley, who as mayor faced unprecedented increases in crime. He tried a new approach, the “broken windows” theory of going after every minor criminal offender and loiterer to get “bad actors” off the streets.

What critics conveniently ignore is that this “lock’em up” approach worked, with Baltimore experiencing a dramatic plunge in street crime. O’Malley’s mistake was not converting those short-term gains into a friendlier, long-term community policing strategy.

As a result of the DOJ report, O’Malley’s political career took a major hit. He continues to defend zero-tolerance policing as a legitimate response in the 1990s to unrelenting crime in the poorest sections of Baltimore.

What this means in the current presidential campaign is that O’Malley’s role as a surrogate speaker for Hillary Clinton may fade away. His chances for a highly visible job in Washington after the election don’t look good, either.

But those are secondary concerns.

Opportunity Knocks

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis hit the nail on the head when he said the DOJ report presents Baltimore with “a challenging moment.”

There is, he noted, a tremendous “opportunity to get better” if political and community leaders use the DOJ analysis to make major policing reforms and start addressing underlying causes of Baltimore’s malaise.

Davis, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her soon-to-be successor, Catherine Pugh, all have indicated that’s the direction they’re going to take.

But one leader has remained distressingly quiet, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He has said nothing about the DOJ report, using the lame excuse he hasn’t read the document.

Hogan knows full well what the report found. He is fully informed about Baltimore’s tenuous plight. It’s just that the Republican governor has little interest in diverting state resources to a Democratic stronghold like Baltimore City. That’s been his record to date.

DOJ Report Summary

The trouble is the police department’s systemic problems and financially strapped Baltimore’s underlying weaknesses can’t be fully addressed without considerable federal and state help.

The city’s predicament is daunting. Just read how the DOJ summed up the situation facing city leaders (italics and paragraphing added):

“Baltimore is the largest city in the state of Maryland with a population of approximately 621,000. The Baltimore metropolitan area’s 2.7 million residents make it the nation’s 21st largest urban center.  The City’s population is approximately 63 percent African American, 30 percent white, and 4 percent Hispanic or Latino.

“While the City hosts a number of successful institutions and businesses, most economic measures show that large portions of Baltimore’s population struggle economically.

“Compared to national averages, Baltimore exhibits: lower incomes, with a median household income nearly 20 percent lower than the national average; higher poverty rates, with 24.2 percent of individuals living below the federal poverty level; elevated unemployment, with a rate hovering around 7 percent, and average unemployment rates per month that were 50 percent higher than the national average from 2014 to 2015.

“Baltimore also scores below national averages in education: 80.9 percent of the population has graduated from high school, while 27 percent has a bachelor’s degree or higher. In most grades and subjects, the percentage of students below basic proficiency in Baltimore was twice the rate seen in Maryland as a whole.

“These socioeconomic challenges are pronounced among Baltimore’s African-American population, owing in part to the City’s history of government-sponsored discrimination. 

“Schools and many other public institutions in the City remained formally segregated until the 1950s, and stark residential segregation has marked the City’s history.

“In 1910, Baltimore became the first city in America to pass an ordinance establishing block-by-block segregation, a policy that was followed by other discriminatory practices, including restrictive covenants, aggressive redlining, a contract system for housing loans, and racially targeted subprime loans. This legacy continues to impact current home ownership patterns, as Baltimore remains among the most segregated cities in the country.”

Historic Cop Problems

The situation within the city’s police department over the past century and a half has been even more depressing. The DOJ report doesn’t go into that sordid history.

After World War II, a half-dozen investigations of city policing found corruption on a massive scale, mismanagement and incompetence. More than a few commissioners were shown the door. Nothing really changed.

By 1964, here’s what Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Levine wrote in a detailed investigative series: “The Baltimore Police Department is manned, equipped and financed heavily enough for modern warfare on crime yet it is waging a primitive kind of guerrilla action marked by inefficient administrative procedures, haphazard planning and lax discipline. . .”

Jump ahead 30 years and ace Sun investigative reporter David Simon found a déjà vu situation in the police department – poor management, confused priorities and chaotic staffing policies: “Burdened by a lack of resources, devoted to strategies many veteran officers view as flawed and battered by record rates of violence and drug abuse, the department is watching its most essential function – its ability to deter crime –inexorably diminish.”

No wonder O’Malley turned to a tougher law-enforcement method. But the DOJ report makes clear that only exacerbated racial alienation.

Fixing the Baltimore police department’s systemic problems can’t be done without tens of millions of new dollars the city doesn’t have. It will require massive re-training and education of officers, additional staffing and state-of-the-art equipment.

That’s where Hogan could make a difference. Baltimore’s limited tax base and underlying poverty means it must depend on greater support from Annapolis (and Washington).

Otherwise, Baltimore will remain the weak link in Maryland’s fiscal and socio-economic world, a tremendous drag on efforts by Hogan and others to portray Maryland as “the land of pleasant living.”

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The One and Only Helen Bentley

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 8, 2016 – She was crusty to a fault. Outrageously opinionated. Cantankerous. Indefatigable. Unrelenting. Incredibly effective. Helen Delich Bentley was truly sui generis.

That’s a Latin term meaning “without a counterpart or equal; unique.” Bentley, who died Aug. 6 at the age of 92, indeed was one of a kind.

The One and Only Helen Bentley

Helen Delich Bentley

Where would the Port of Baltimore be without her? For a stunning 70 years she fought like a tiger in every way imaginable to promote Maryland’s biggest and most important economic engine.

Her journalistic coverage at the Baltimore Sun of the port created a national and international reputation for Charm City’s maritime business and for Bentley.

In the process, she shattered the glass ceiling for female journalists, entering the masculine world of the docks in the 1940s with such effectiveness she become the only female maritime editor and the best-known shipping reporter in the world.

Along the way she found time to write, produce and narrate an award-winning television series about the Port of Baltimore that ran for a stunning 15 years.

Maritime Boss

Bentley could cuss like a sailor, ream out union bosses for threatening the port’s stability and talk turkey to shipping executives about the urgency of maintaining labor peace. She settled more than one strike and gained widespread applause for ending Baltimore’s sorry reputation as the only port where longshoremen refused to work in the rain.

Then it was on to Washington, where she bulled her way into the chairmanship of the Federal Maritime Commission – the highest female appointee in the Nixon administration. She spouted off about protecting U.S. trade and building more ships in U.S. ports like Baltimore. Meanwhile, Bentley used her salty language often enough that Time magazine colorfully referred to her as “Tugboat Annie.”

Bentley’s political activism nearly got her in serious prosecutorial trouble when she delivered a bag of illicit cash to Republican campaign higher-ups during the Watergate era.

She bounced back, though, and ran for Congress against entrenched Democratic Rep. Clarence D. Long, an ardent foe of expanding Baltimore’s port if it meant dumping dredged spoils at Hart and Miller Islands off the coast of eastern Baltimore County in his district.

As usual with Bentley, her persistence paid off and she beat Long on her third attempt. She used her time in Congress to bash Japan and Asian nations for their trade policies, pushed hard to gain appropriations for the Port of Baltimore and fought to empower women.

Ten years later, Bentley entered the race for governor as the heavy favorite only to lose shockingly in the Republican primary to ideological conservative Ellen Sauerbrey. Bentley, a pragmatic conservative, was pilloried for daring to have worked with Democrats – especially Gov. William Donald Schaefer – to further the Port of Baltimore.

Bentley’s anger and bitterness over this betrayal of all she had done over the decades to uplift the state GOP led to severed relationships that were never restored.

Port Business and Antiques

But again, she bounced back, getting more involved in her husband Bill’s large antique store on York Road and opening a highly successful consulting business where she continued to be an implacable force for the Port of Baltimore. Somehow she juggled conflicting connections to the Maryland Port Administration, shipping companies and local and international labor executives.

Now wonder Gov. Bob Ehrlich named the Port of Baltimore after Bentley. It was an unexpected honor richly deserved.

I first encountered Helen when she was winding up her newspaper career and I was starting mine.

She would rush into The Sun’s city room close to deadline like a Nevada cyclone, a whirlwind of passion returning from the docks with a hot story to pound out on her typewriter and a maritime section to oversee. Never pausing to take off her hat – a cross between a Mexican sombrero and an Easter bonnet that was made to impress – Bentley started screaming at her staff in her usual scatological way, sending some scurrying while others simply returned her epithets.

It was a daily sight to behold, especially for a naive reporter unused to the Bentley phenomenon.

Over the years, I got to know Helen quite well, covering some of her political races and interviewing her frequently after I joined the editorial page. She was always fun to interview and always full of frank, pointed opinions.

Crusty but Lovable

Helen Bentley also had a soft and endearing side. While she could be infuriatingly brutal with her staff, she could be touchingly sweet to them moments later.

After I reluctantly took a buyout from The (Setting) Sun, Helen not only showed up for a farewell party some friends put together, she gave me one of her favorite antiques – a statue of a young British newspaper “hawker.”

She was, indeed, sui generis.

Even in her final weeks, Bentley continued to defy predictions, hanging on relentlessly like she always did. I visited her with one of her closest friends, David Blumberg, within the past month and found her as feisty as ever.

“What do you think the expanded Panama Canal means for business at the Port of Baltimore,” I asked Helen.

“Not a damn thing,” she acerbically replied. Bentley never beat around the bush, even while battling brain cancer.

Soon afterward, to my surprise, a letter appeared in The Sun from Helen voicing full support for Republican nominee Donald Trump. She never stopped pushing the ball forward, even while in hospice care.

The Port of Baltimore never had a better friend. Helen Bentley accomplished so much in so many ways.

People living in Baltimore and Maryland are the recipients of her largesse. Her lighthouse may have been de-commissioned, but her deeds stand as a permanent reminder of what she gave us.

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Tale of Two Conventions

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 1, 2016 – The past two weeks have given us remarkable contrasts of political polar opposites and stunning role reversals. This country’s Democratic and Republican presidential nominees haven’t been this far apart in our lifetime.

The contentious and fearful GOP convention might have set back Republican hopes for victory in November, but Democrats’ more unified and positive gathering sent spirits rising. In the process, you may have noticed Maryland delegates played a largely silent role in Cleveland but a highly visible and important role in Philadelphia.

Tale of Two Conventions

That’s no accident. It reflects the state’s mirror-like standing within the two political parties.

Republicans know Maryland is hostile territory for their presidential candidates. This year, Donald Trump is even persona non grata at the Republican governor’s mansion. The national GOP and Trump strategists have largely written off heavily Democratic Maryland.

No wonder Marylanders were missing from the GOP podium – except for ex-Marylander Ben Carson, now residing in Florida, who energized his fans with a typically rambling speech that included a baffling reference tying Hillary Clinton to Lucifer.

Democratic Doings

Compare that to the frequent Marylander sightings at the DNC in Philly: Retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski delivering a rousing farewell from the podium as well as nominating Clinton for president; Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake presiding over the roll call of state delegates; Rep. Elijah Cummings blasting Trump from the podium, and forgotten former Gov. Martin O’Malley starting a political comeback with a slashing, crowd-pleasing anti-Trump denunciation.

The most surprising performance came from O’Malley. Twice before he bombed as a convention speaker. He laid a giant egg as a presidential candidate this year, too.

But his righteous anger and overblown theatrics played well last week (at least with those in the convention hall) as he lit into Trump with vigor and fiery indignation. The partisan crowd roared.

Will this be the break O’Malley needs to re-start his stalled political ambitions? Perhaps. Speculation has O’Malley being named the permanent new DNC chair, where he could continue ramming Trump with gusto.

More likely, the Clinton brain trust will want more than a one-dimensional firebrand, especially since O’Malley delayed endorsing Clinton. His best shot at a prominent Washington post in a Clinton administration is to take up the role of a pent-up surrogate for the Democratic ticket.

That way he could continue the retail politicking he loves and hopefully impress Team Clinton with his sincerity and effectiveness.

Surrogate Heaven

Surrogates will play a big role in Hillary Clinton’s 100-day campaign.

Whereas Donald Trump pretty much is a one-man show featuring The Donald extemporizing at large pep rallies and on Twitter, the Democrats are turning to a star-studded list of Trump attackers: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Team Clinton is portraying Trump as an imminent danger to American society and world peace, a from-the-guts speaker with no political experience but plenty of wild, unprincipled and impractical ideas.

Democrats start with an unexpected advantage. Dissension within the GOP and Trump’s unpopularity with several traditionally Republican core groups – women and college-educated males – give Clinton a rare opportunity to appeal to a far broader audience than usual for a Democratic nominee.

Trump’s unorthodox and extreme views has left the GOP adrift, no longer anchored to some of the party’s historic planks – free trade; a muscular foreign policy; a hostile attitude toward Russian autocrats; limited government spending; restrictions on presidential powers and respect for traditions and constitutional precedents.

Playing the Reagan Card

No wonder Clinton, in her acceptance speech quoted Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt, both icons of modern-day Republicans. The Democrats’ position on many issues is now more in sync with the GOP’s historic traditions than is Trump’s.

Reagan spoke repeatedly of enlarging the Republican Party’s base to include discontented Democrats and independents. This was his “Big Tent” theme.

Clinton has embraced the Reagan strategy while Trump has opted for an approach that excludes appeals to minority groups – the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Instead, he is pinning his presidential hopes on winning over vast numbers of discontented white blue-collar voters.

If Trump triumphs, he’ll have to do well across the country among that demographic group, including in Maryland. He’ll have to exceed expectations in the Baltimore region and even the Washington suburbs.

That’s a tall order, especially when Trump’s limited resources aren’t likely to be spent in the Free State. At the moment, he’s targeting pivotal states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. Yet two of these states haven’t gone Republican in a presidential election in over 20 years.

Clinton, meanwhile, may have secured victory in the battleground state of Virginia by choosing Old Dominion Sen. Tim Kaine for her ticket.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court last week unanimously banned North Carolina’s discriminatory voter ID law, a ruling that may now give Democrats an unexpected bump in that toss-up state.

Yet with over three months still to go, this year’s presidential race remains unpredictable and very much up for grabs. Trump may appear as the underdog, but no one expected him to seize the GOP nomination, either. We’re in for a wild ride between now and early November.

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Fear ‘The Donald’!

By Barry Rascovar

July 25, 2016 – “Fear the Turtle” is the University of Maryland’s slogan for rallying support at Terrapin sports events. In Philadelphia this week, Maryland delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be using a different slogan to get them energized: “Fear The Donald!”

Fear 'The Donald'!

Donald J. Trump, Republican presidential nominee

What draws Democrats together faster than anything – be they Bernie Sanders delegates or Hillary Clinton supporters – is the pit-in-the-stomach fear Republican nominee Donald Trump, whose over-the-top rants have made him a lightning rod of controversy, will somehow win the November presidential election.

Trump’s bleak, scary and angry rhetoric was on full display when he delivered his 75-minute acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week.

His deep pessimism and loud, sweeping denunciations of President Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for everything that has gone wrong in the world made it clear that in Trump’s mind, only he can act as this country’s savior.

That ought to be more than enough to end internal Democratic divisions. It won’t, though, because the liberal vs. pragmatic split within the party remains as deep as ever.

Philadelphia Divide

Sanders devotees have plenty of misgivings and wounded pride to prompt unruly demonstrations, bitter floor debates and pandemonium in the streets. They may not be content to leave Philadelphia united behind Clinton.

Still, the Trump factor could override all other Democratic concerns once the general election campaign heats up after Labor Day.

By then, this week’s spat over dismissive party e-mails about Bernie Sanders and party donors will be ancient history; controversial party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will be long gone.

There are more important thing to worry about than liberal Democrats’ misgivings about Clinton’s middle-road approach and her middle-road running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

As Sanders put it on Sunday, “To my mind, what is most important now is the defeat of the worst candidate for president that I have seen in my lifetime, Donald Trump, who is not qualified to be president by temperament, not qualified to be president by the ideas that he has brought forth.”

Bernie on ‘The Donald’

For Sanders, “Fear The Donald” is real and paramount.

As Trump was delivering his long acceptance speech last week, the Vermont senator tweeted a series of zingers:

Those who voted for me will not support Trump who has made bigotry and divisiveness the cornerstone of his campaign.

Trump: “I alone can fix this.” Is this guy running for president or dictator?

What a hypocrite! If Trump wants to “fix” trade he can start by making his products in the US, not low-wage countries abroad.

Trump’s economic plan: $3.2 trillion in tax breaks for millionaires, cut programs for low-income Americans.

What psychiatrist Sigmund Freud referred to as “transference” is going on. Sanders no longer directs his ire and outrage at fellow Democrat Clinton or the DNC but at Republican Trump.

You can expect a lot of re-directed anger in Philadelphia, kicking off Monday night with kicking off with Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and First Lady Michelle Obama through Thursday night’s acceptance speech.

Dominating News Coverage

Donald Trump is the perfect target. Indeed, Trump relishes being in the Democrats’ bull’s eye. Why? Because it keeps him in the spotlight.

A long time ago a veteran Maryland campaign warrior, George P. Mahoney, pulled me aside after I had written a critical article about his manipulative actions chairing the new State Lottery Commission. He wasn’t mad at all, Mahoney said. “I don’t care what you write about me as long as you spell my name right.”

That, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump’s approach to politics.

Any publicity, in his eyes, is good. He monopolizes the 24/7 news cycle of this Internet Age by posting outrageous tweets and Facebook screeds day and night.

It worked in the Republican primaries. Trump firmly believes in this precedent-setting method of communicating with voters.

Still, Trump will be a hard sell in heavily Democratic Maryland, though Republicans in Cleveland came away thinking otherwise.

GOP Optimism in Maryland

Kendel Ehrlich, wife of former GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich, saw Trump as a “change agent” in this election versus Clinton representing the status quo. That, she feels, could determine the outcome.

Other delegates said Trump appeals to blue-collar Democrats – the sort of (D) voters who helped elect Ronald Reagan.

Still, the situation in Maryland is daunting for Trump.

State Republicans already are split in their loyalty to the GOP nominee, with Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford opposed to Trump. That will hurt statewide organizing and fund-raising efforts.

Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party under former Del. Bruce Poole has had a resurgence in preparing a well-orchestrated get-out-the-vote effort.

The Republicans’ nearly 2-1 voter registration deficit hurts badly, too.

Democrats’ Challenges

So while Trump is expected to do well in underpopulated, rural Maryland and in outlying suburbs, Clinton should have a lock on Maryland’s major population centers, especially in Baltimore City and the Washington suburbs.

The big challenges for Democrats lie in two areas:

1.) Leaving Philadelphia determined to make sure Trump gets trumped in Maryland, and

2.) Ensuring a large, perhaps record-breaking, turnout of Democrats in Central Maryland. That’s where elections are won or lost in the Free State.

Eight years ago, Republican John McCain got less than 37 percent of the Maryland vote. Four years later, Republican Mitt Romney’s vote total dropped below 36 percent.

November’s election looks like a steep, uphill climb for Maryland Republicans. But their candidate is sui generis – a unique, charismatic populist willing to break the mold in presidential politics.

That poses a unique challenge for Maryland Democrats, a point that will be hammered home repeatedly in Philadelphia this week.

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Trump All the Way

By Barry Rascovar

July 18, 2016 – This is a big week for Republicans – their quadrennial national convention in Cleveland. For Maryland’s conventioneers, it’s “Donald Trump All the Way.” Nary a discouraging word will be heard from them – unless they’re talking about Hillary Clinton.

Trump All the Way

Republican National Convention delegates meet in Cleveland this week.

The state’s GOP delegates’ loyalty to Trump, the party’s flamboyant and controversial presumptive nominee, was sealed when the New York real estate tycoon thrashed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the April 26 Maryland primary.

Most of the GOP convention-goers from Maryland are chosen by congressional districts. They are bound to the primary winner in that district in the opening rounds of balloting.

Trump made the math easy, though: He won all eight congressional districts handily.

He took the Maryland primary with 54 percent of the vote, scoring a high of 63 percent in the Eastern Shore-Harford County First Congressional District and a low of 46 percent in the Baltimore City-dominated Seventh C.D. and the Montgomery-Frederick counties Eighth C.D.

His lowest margin of victory, 14 percentage points, occurred in the liberal Seventh Congressional District.

Unity in Cleveland

If there are rumblings of discontent among Maryland’s GOP faithful, those dissenters are staying far away from Cleveland.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., who grudgingly told the media he would not be voting for Trump (though he still hasn’t explained precisely why), has found an ideal excuse: the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield – the can’t-miss high point of Maryland’s political summer season.

Hogan hasn’t been a big fan of building up the state GOP infrastructure, anyway. He has yet to attend a Lincoln Day fund-raiser supporting local central committees. He also skipped the last two big annual Republican fund-raisers.

That makes sense, since Hogan was elected after running an outsider campaign on Facebook through his Change Maryland organization. Hogan’s novel approach may have set a new paradigm for statewide GOP campaigns and debunked the value of relying on the local party apparatus for support and backing.

Some Maryland conventioneers remain angry at Hogan’s “no” vote on Trump and his refusal to give silent assent in Cleveland.

Hogan’s Sidestep

But he would have done so at a cost. Democrats were itching to tie Hogan to Trump and the nominee’s sometimes insensitive broadsides. Hogan safely sidestepped that problem by staying home and announcing he’s washed his hands of national politics.

While some die-hard Trump supporters say they won’t forget Hogan’s snub of their hero, they are small in number next to the horde of Democrats and independents he might alienate through a Trump endorsement.

Maryland, after all, is a heavily Democratic state. For Hogan to win a second term, he can’t afford to turn off the state’s large pool of centrist voters. They helped him win in 2014.

Hogan’s second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, won’t be in Cleveland, either. He’s made it clear that Trump “is not my choice at all.” Rutherford will be joining his boss at the Tawes schmooze-fest.

Kittleman’s ‘Strong Feelings’

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has been the most prominent Maryland Republican to cite emphatically his disapproval of Trump’s sometimes racist comments.

Kittleman, whose father Bob was one of Howard County’s most prominent civil-rights leaders, stated that Trump does not represent his “strong feelings” on civil right and diversity. “That’s not how I was raised.”

Still, those voices of dissent won’t be heard on the Cleveland convention floor or in the convention hotel hallways.

This is Donald Trump’s moment to shine and he’ll get no argument from his staunch delegate supporters from Maryland.

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