The Difference-Maker: Early Voting

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 22, 2014–If Anthony Brown is going to stem the unexpected surge of Larry Hogan Jr.’s gubernatorial campaign he’s got to start pulling out all the stops on Thursday.

That’s when early voting begins in Maryland for the Nov. 4 general election. Running up a big lead by getting his supporters to the polls over the next week is pivotal for Democrat Brown.

Early Voting poster

Here’s why.

In the June primary, Democratic early voters outpaced Republicans by better than 3-1.

If Brown can repeat that now, he’d start on Nov. 4 with a 71,000-vote lead.

Add in absentee ballots (based on the primary election numbers) and the Democratic lead over Republicans would exceed 80,000.

It could be the difference-maker.

Brown has generated scant excitement among Democrats.

This “enthusiasm gap” could translate into low turnout on Election Day, particularly in the Democrats’ Big Three – Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, which contain 854,000 Democrats versus just 175,000 Republicans.

Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown

Brown can overcome that, though, with an full-court press, starting Thursday, to ensure that his campaign workers take full advantage of early voting, which ends Oct. 30. They need to contact supporters, provide rides to the polls and get others to cast absentee ballots.

Baltimore City should be ground zero for Brown.

Republicans are few and far between in Charm City (30,000 out of 325,000 registered voters). That’s why running up a lopsided early-voting total in Baltimore could put Brown in the driver’s seat.

Giving citizens the luxury of additional balloting days is still new to Maryland. It takes getting used to, especially for political organizations.

Early Turnout Drive

Brown and his allies have been preparing their get-out-the-early-vote drive for months. Groups like the state teachers union, organized labor and environmentalists are old hands at identifying supporters and making sure they cast a vote.

They will need to do a first-rate job for Brown to win.

A heavy early vote tally can offset a slim Nov. 4 turnout in the city and other Brown strongholds. That’s what happened in the primary.

Without early voting, the city’s 23 percent June turnout would have shrunk to 18 percent. Prince George’s County’s 19 percent turnout would have dropped to 14 percent. Montgomery’s 17.5 percent primary turnout would have slipped to 14.6 percent.

Brown’s Campaign

This race shouldn’t be close, not in overwhelmingly Democratic Maryland. Brown has no one to blame but himself.

He has run a terrible campaign.

  • He’s let paid consultants apply a national campaign template (go harshly negative) that is ill-suited to Maryland.
  • He’s been the “bubble boy” — cordoned off from the media and from ordinary voters.
  • Brown speaks through campaign mouthpieces who mimic the near-hysterical “Hogan is dangerous” ads.
  • He’s almost never heard speaking in his commercials.
  • He’s becoming a caricature of the “empty suit candidate” — afraid to open his mouth for fear of saying something that might cost him the election.

Yet with all these missteps, Anthony Brown could win because of Maryland voter loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Given the 2-1 dominance state Democrats have in registered voters (2,051,300 party loyalists versus 950,000 Republicans), there’s little more Hogan can do to turn the tide.

Instead, the election is in Brown’s hands.

Early Voting

If he produces a heavy early vote and a well-organized Democratic turnout Nov. 4, the lieutenant governor ought to win.

But if turnout in Brown’s core areas proves disappointing, Maryland’s race for governor could be a nail-biter.

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Junk the ‘Lockbox’ Amendment

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 21, 2015 — Marylanders are being sold a bill of goods under the guise of fiscal accountability.

Voters ought to think twice before approving a constitutional amendment giving transportation priority status over social programs when the economy turns sour.

Conservatives — especially those who are staunch advocates of road-building — want to embed in the Maryland Constitution a high wall preventing the governor from dipping into the Transportation Trust Fund when the next recession creates a budget crisis.

If this amendment passes, it would be extraordinarily difficult for a governor to draw on transportation dollars to avert recession cuts in money flowing to local governments for schools, health care and social services. State workers’ jobs, pay and pensions would be at risk.

Once the transportation “lockbox” is approved, environmentalists will demand the same iron-clad protection for an array of “green” funds.

lockbox

We’re getting our priorities confused.

Is the No. 1 goal of state government protecting highway funds, even in the midst of a damaging recession?

Is that our top priority when state tax revenues dry up and the governor desperately seeks ways to avoid layoffs and deep cuts to schools, colleges and public assistance?

During the Great Recession, Gov. Martin O’Malley repeatedly took money from the Maryland Department of Transportation to keep important social programs afloat without imposing cuts that would hurt the poor and low-middle class.

Conservatives view this as theft. They want to stop governors from draining the transportation fund when recessions lead to deep budget holes.

O’Malley’s Mistake

Part of the problem is that O’Malley went overboard in shifting hundreds of millions from transportation to support other budget priorities.

He didn’t want to repay MDOT and he continually returned to this large source to pay for non-transportation expenses.

As a result, O’Malley ended up short-changing MDOT by refusing until late in his second term to address MDOT’s unmet financing needs.

Yet the extent of this problem has been greatly magnified by road-building advocates.

30 Year Trend

Over the past 30 years, a total of $574 million has been shifted from the transportation trust fund by governors during hard times to cover more important necessities. Over $325 million of that has been re-paid, with another payment due next year.

The problem with the lockbox amendment is that it ties the hands of future governors at the precise moment financial flexibility is essential.

Lock

Putting together a $40 billion budget is like solving a massive three-dimensional puzzle. There are thousands of moving parts.

Protecting government’s core services requires enormous fiscal dexterity in bad times.

The more maneuvering room a governor has, the easier it is to develop a recession-era budget that meets essential needs without creating hardships.

Recession Options

Sometimes that might mean borrowing from MDOT or from environmental programs set up to purchase green space or preserve farmland.

Or it might mean issuing general obligation bonds to free up cash sitting in a transportation or natural resources account.

The lockbox amendment dramatically limits a governor’s ability to meet future budget crises without imposing hurtful budget cuts.

It goes like this: If the governor cannot transfer $200 million from transportation accounts in the next deep recession to balance his budget, he’s got to take unpalatable steps — cutting aid to community colleges and private universities, local health departments and local school systems, medical assistance, pension programs and environmental funds.

Or he’s got to chop tens of millions of dollars from every state agency and dozens of local programs. Or he’s got to reduce support for state universities, which likely means a big jump in tuition. Or he’s got to fire thousands of state workers and eliminate services.

Strait Jacket for Governor

If the lockbox amendment is approved by voters, the governor’s options would be dramatically reduced.

Getting legislative approval to tap into the transportation fund (it would require a “super-majority” vote) could prove near-impossible in the decades ahead.

The governor might be forced to eliminate part of Maryland’s social safety net in the next recession, or make heartbreaking cuts to education and health care that damage people’s lives.

Segregating tax revenue in separate accounts that are virtually untouchable for other uses during economic downturns is unsound public policy.

It’s also poor public policy to plant this ticking time bomb in the state constitution, where it cannot be easily or rapidly removed.

Negative Consequences

At this late stage, though, the lockbox amendment has momentum on its side.

The idea sounds sensible — until you start examining the consequences that could result during hard times.

Chief executives in the public sector — and in the private sector — need a full financial toolbox when revenues plunge and the bills come due.

Creating a transportation lockbox robs Maryland’s governor of a vital tool.

It could make matters much worse in a future recession.

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Was Anyone Watching?

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 20, 2014–It was the best of the three gubernatorial debates, but who’s at home on a Saturday night?

And who’s going to turn to an hour-long program where two politicians sling angry, unfounded charges at one another?

The format and the questions this time were effective. Kudos to Jason Newton and WBAL-TV. Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan Jr. were asked hard questions.

Watching the debate between Larry Hogan and Anthony Brown

Larry Hogan (left) and Anthony Brown

But when they wanted to, they played dodge-ball.

Brown and Hogan have their campaign scripts committed to memory.

Hogan: time for a change, cut taxes, cut spending. Brown: I’m  fighting for working families, let’s keep the momentum going.

Hogan never went beyond the superficial economic themes he harps on. That’s unfortunate.

It raises the question: Is there any meat on the bone?

He won’t tell us.

Occasional Insights

Brown displayed a bit of his policy wonk side and it was welcome. Yet he couldn’t resist reverting to a string of flagrantly false allegations against Hogan. Shame on him.

Thank goodness there were a few moments of insight into their political mindset.

On transportation, Hogan all but said he’d kill the Red Line and the Purple Line and dump transportation cash into roads, not mass transit. This plays to his base — rural voters, who were watching Saturday’s debate.

Brown repeated his emphasis on career education for kids not going on the college.

Hogan championed charter schools over more public school funding; Brown made a strong pitch for voluntary pre-kindergarten.

Brown gave an in-depth response on how he’d close the achievement gap; Hogan mentioned the gap was growing, then failed to give a plan of action.

Both favored a balanced approach on environmental and agricultural issues. Hogan tried to win Eastern Shore votes by attacking sweeping phosphorus management regulations.

Differing from O’Malley

Brown parted ways with his boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley, on the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) issue, calling it a “tremendous economic opportunity” he’d allow if it can be done without “disturbing the rural legacy” of Western Maryland.

Hogan called fracking an “economic gold mine,” which dramatically overstates the case. (Only two small counties would benefit and the returns for land owners could be modest.) He rightly condemned O’Malley’s intentional foot-dragging to appease environmental zealots who want a ban on fracking in Maryland.

Is anyone watching the debate?

Brown, for the first time, said his “No. 1 strategic goal” would be improving Maryland’s business climate – another significant break with O’Malley. But then he hammered Hogan again for daring to seek a corporate income tax cut that would level the playing field with Virginia in the competitive quest for jobs.

Hogan called the Brown-led health exchange rollout every name in the book – “unmitigated disaster,” “the worst in the United States” and “the biggest boondoggle in state history.” All true, but we still aren’t sure how he’d approach health care for the under-insured and uninsured while at the same time making $2 billion in budget cuts.

Campaign Positions

Brown gave specifics for dealing with the state’s heroin epidemic; Hogan merely said he’d call a summit to draw up a plan. Brown responded there already was a statewide confab on the crisis in June.

Both candidates did a good job laying out their campaign positions. But they failed to address Maryland’s economic and fiscal situation honestly and forthrightly.

The next governor isn’t going to have it easy.

The lingering effects of the recession and the federal budget slowdown will make it tough just to balance future state budgets without taking painful, unpopular steps.

Hogan makes spending cuts and tax reductions sound easy; Brown says things are rosier than they are.

They’re both wrong.

Yet one of them is going to wind up running the state of Maryland. The third debate didn’t give us enough clarity as to how they’d do it.

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Debate No. 2 Goes To Brown

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 15, 2014 — Chalk one up – a big one – for Anthony Brown.

In a campaign marked by wild accusations and harsh, over-the-top negativity, the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor finally started talking policy in the second televised debate.

Larry Hogan Jr., left, and Anthony Brown, Debate No. 2

Larry Hogan Jr., left, and Anthony Brown

Two down, one to go.

Brown still focused too much on slamming his opponent with charges that are patently false. But he also started giving voters a clearer picture of how he’d govern Maryland over the next four years.

Sadly, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. didn’t deliver much more than what the Washington Post called his usual “mush.” Hogan missed a prime opportunity to gain ground.

That’s important because Hogan remains stuck somewhere between 3 and 10 points behind in the polls. While that’s surprisingly close for a Republican in Maryland, it’s not good enough.

Few Specifics

Hogan repeatedly failed to offer specifics on key questions: How he’d clean up the Chesapeake Bay; how he’d deal with gun laws he opposes; how he’d attempt to jump-start the state’s economy, and how he’d improve education while at the same time cutting spending.

Hogan completely avoided answering questions about his private meeting with gun advocates and what, if anything he promised them.

He refused to say if he told gun advocates that he intended to name a new State Police Superintendent so he’d make it easier to obtain a concealed weapon permit.

Details didn’t seem to concern Hogan in this debate. He repeated the same campaign fluff he’s been spouting for months.

He offered little beyond his distaste for past tax increases, his pessimistic view of Maryland’s economy and his wish to create more jobs.

Fill in the Blanks

That worked for Hogan in the Republican primary but he’s got to fill in the blanks if he wants to win over Democratic and independent voters in suburban Baltimore and Washington.

During the debate, Hogan offered no concrete examples of how he’d cut state spending or how as governor he would pump up Maryland’s economy.

He left viewers pondering this question: Where’s the beef?

There was no meat to chew on.

Brown, at least, stopped finger-pointing long enough to give a hint of how he’d run things.

He provided a brief but cogent explanation of the botched health exchange rollout and a defense of Obamacare, i.e., giving 400,000 more Marylanders health insurance.

Brown’s Pledges

He far outdistanced Hogan in his response to protecting Maryland waterways against stormwater pollution.

He repeated his pledge to use tax credits and tax cuts to spur small business development.

He defended his call for universal pre-kindergarten through a phased-in program. (Paying for it remains unanswered.)

He committed to mass transit expansions in the Baltimore and Washington regions that Hogan wants stopped.

He placed emphasis on career and technical education (the old vocational-tech courses) to make high school students job-ready if they’re not college-bound.

We heard little of such substance from Hogan other than his usual grand themes.

In contrast, Brown finally started turning to the specifics voters crave. He came across as competent and knowledgeable. It was his best performance to date.

For Brown, it was Mission Accomplished.

#  #  #

 

Lying to MD Voters

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 13, 2014 — Whoever is elected Maryland governor on Nov. 4 will have some s’plain’ to do to the state’s citizens.

Why have you been lying to us?

Why did you make wild allegations out of whole cloth?

Why did you deceive us?

Both Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan Jr. are guilty as charged, though Brown is by far the worse offender.

Democratic candidate Anthony Brown

Democratic Candidate Anthony Brown

He not only manufactured false charges against Hogan on abortion, gun control and school construction, his campaign has kept screaming those invalid accusations in a propaganda blitz dominated by “Big Lie” tactics.

Debate Deception

Brown continued his campaign of falsehoods at the first TV debate last week.

Out of the blue he accused Hogan of pledging to cut $450 million from school construction funds. That is patently false. Hogan never said any such thing.

Hogan had issued an error-filled list of “examples,” culled from audit reports, of “waste, fraud and abuse” in state government, including school construction, to show how cost-savings could be achieved.

Republican Candidate Larry Hogan Jr.

Republican Candidate Larry Hogan Jr.

Brown’s advisers turned that into “he’s against education” allegations. Then Brown repeated the bogus charge in the debate. Talk about a leap of logic. . .

The Maryland Democratic Party’s campaign’s motto seems to be “smear Hogan. . . and then smear him again.”

Inflammatory Environment

Even more shameful: Brown got both the state teachers’ union and House Speaker Mike Busch to condemn a budget-cut promise by Hogan that he never made.

Busch and the union know better. They are contributing to a dangerous, inflammatory campaign environment in which truth is the casualty.

Instead of setting a positive tone in the debate and detailing his positions, Brown stuck to his advisers’ script: go negative, denounce Hogan, keep him on the defensive — even if the charges aren’t true.

What an appalling way to win an election.

‘Big Lie’ Precedent

It’s the worst “Big Lie” campaign in Maryland since John Marshall Butler defeated longtime Sen. Millard Tydings in 1950 — during the height of the Red Scare era — by distributing a doctored, composite photo showing Tydings with the leader of the American Communist Party.

Fake photo Tydings-Browder

Fake Photo of Sen. Millard Tydings with Community Party Chief Earl Browder

This end-justifies-the-means mentality is deeply offensive in a democratic arena. It may work on the battlefield, but Army Colonel Brown knows it is totally inappropriate in an American political campaign.

Not that Hogan’s antics deserve a silver star.

His much-ballyhooed attack on the Democratic administration’s “40 tax increases” is wildly inflated. His $1.75 billion listing of “waste, fraud and abuse” is irresponsibly inaccurate and filled with stunning errors. His misleading attacks on the “rain tax” perpetuate a Republican fiction. His data to prove Maryland’s economic decline badly overstates reality.

Finger-Pointing

What’s lacking from both candidates is a compelling, detailed argument for why they should be governor. Instead, we get finger-pointing and shrill, over-the-top charges of extremism.

This campaign has been about extremism — extreme name-calling. And it’s worth reiterating that Brown is doing far more than Hogan to put this campaign in Maryland’s Political Hall of Shame.

Recently, Brown issued his own cost-cutting, “government efficiency” program, making sure it was released on a football Sunday, guaranteeing that few paid attention.

Flight of Fantasy

It’s a disgraceful document, nearly as bad as Hogan’s much-discredited budget-cutting plan.

It assumes future savings that may never materialize. It makes giant leaps of faith that aren’t supported by any credible documentation.

It incorrectly counts savings by local governments as state budget savings. It makes wild assumptions that employee suggestions will save tens of millions of dollars each year. It attributes huge savings to decriminalizing marijuana — a flight of fantasy lacking in hard evidence.

Given all the fraudulent assertions by each candidate, neither deserves to move into the governor’s mansion.

But that’s not an option for voters.

We’re left picking between the lesser of two evils. What a sad commentary on the current state of Maryland politics.

#   #   #

Barry Rascovar’s commentaries can be found at www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.

A Debatable Debate in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 8, 2014 — This is the best we’ve got?

It was a painfully thin performance by both Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan Jr. in Maryland’s first gubernatorial debate of the month Tuesday night.

They followed their handlers’ terribly misguided advice to trash one another. They went out of their way to go negative and too often repeated their trite attack lines and glaringly erroneous accusations.

The result: Neither candidate presented a compelling argument for becoming governor.

“Vote for Me”

Instead, they all but proclaimed to voters: “If you don’t like what the other guy stands, then vote for me.” What a horrible way to waste an hour of valuable debate time on statewide TV.

Brown clearly bested Hogan on the environmental question of the night.

He gave a detailed and cogent explanation of efforts to protect and clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan’s response — delaying bay cleanup efforts while he sues Pennsylvania and New York to force upstream sediment removal in the Susquehanna River — was an evasive and weak answer to the question.

Republican Larry Hogan Jr. - Debate in MD

Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan had by far the better response on crime.

He zeroed in on Maryland’s heroin epidemic, summarized the crisis and called for a summit to find answers.

Brown rattled off past successes against crime, which rang hollow given the state’s continuing struggle to stem the violence.

The saddest part of the evening may have been each candidate’s exaggerations to the  point of fabrication.

Each used budget-saving ideas and fiscal numbers based mainly on hot air.

As for the biggest mistake of the evening, that belongs to Anthony Brown’s. “There will be no new taxes under the Brown-Ulman administration,” he said.

Brown will rue the day he made that campaign promise.

There’s no way he can govern eight years without increasing the state’s revenue base.

It was another of what Hogan correctly called Brown’s “phony promises” that ignore Maryland’s $405 million deficit, recent dips in revenue collections and the state’s ballooning expenses over the next four or five years.

Moving the Economy

Both candidates overpromised when it came to reviving Maryland’s economy.

No governor has the ability to do that, though a governor can nudge things in the right direction long-term with wise tax reforms.

Brown’s closing remarks were pathetically weak (the “American dream” shtick). Hogan’s closing was far superior in making the case for change.

Still, the bottom line is that Brown didn’t mess up in Debate No. 1.

As the Democratic candidate, he’s got a built-in advantage in deeply blue Maryland.

The race remains his to lose.

#  #  #

Barry Rascovar has been reporting on Maryland politics for over 40 years. His columns can be found at www.politicalmaryland.com.

Why Brown Could Lose in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 6, 2014 — Is Democratic gubernatorial nominee Anthony Brown about to blow a “sure thing” in Maryland?

Anthony Brown

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Anthony Brown

On the eve of the first governor’s debate, is the lieutenant governor “pulling a Townsend” similar to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s implosion in the 2002 governor’s race that gift-wrapped the election for Republican underdog Bob Ehrlich?

To date, the answer is “yes.”

The Brown campaign is badly off-track.

In a Cocoon

Its professional staff has hermetically sealed their candidate in a tight cocoon, isolating him from the media and all voters except the most loyal Democratic groups.

They’ve picked the wrong issues to run on. Abortion rights and gun control laws are settled matters in Maryland. Even Republican gubernatorial nominee Larry Hogan Jr. agrees on that.

The “pocketbook issues” will decide this election — or as advisers to Bill Clinton put it in the 1990s, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Big Mistake

According to Patrick Gonzales’ latest poll, the most pressing matters for voters — by far — are the economy and taxes. These are precisely the themes heavily promoted by Hogan and ignored by Brown.

That’s a huge mistake, a giant failure to understand what’s troubling Marylanders.

Brown hired national campaign specialists when he should have turned to local pros. While abortion and gun control still might be dominant issues in Kansas or Georgia, they aren’t in Maryland. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Meanwhile, Brown’s handlers have isolated him from the public at large.

Hiding Brown

While Hogan is happy to talk with reporters, Brown runs from them. He’s shielded from the media by his aides.

His handlers even hide Brown from the public in the campaign’s media messages.

And, oh, those dreadful commercials. Harsh. Negative. Hostile. Incendiary. The sky is falling if you vote for Hogan!

It’s a gigantic turn-off for voters. This is an intelligent electorate. These folks aren’t fooled by  misguided campaign propaganda.

Hogan’s Message

Larry Hogan isn’t “dangerous” and he isn’t “radical.” He comes across as a likeable, engaging and gregarious fellow with a simple message — let’s get a handle on excessive government spending and then let’s see if we can lower taxes.

Larry Hogan Jr.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Larry Hogan

Compare that with the Brown campaign’s near-hysterical messages on abortion and gun laws.

During the 2002 campaign, then Lt. Gov. Townsend seemed to get in trouble every time she opened her mouth. Apparently, Brown’s handlers are worried he’d do the same thing if given a chance.

So they’ve sealed him off from the outside world — except for appearances before adoring Democratic crowds where he delivers a stock speech or reads from a prepared text.

With Brown, there’s no sense of humanity, no sense he’s a flesh-and-blood candidate with emotions and feelings. He comes across as stiff, robotic, programmed and unable to think on his feet or engage voters in ordinary conversations.

Mystery Man

With Brown, there’s no innate connection with voters, particularly in the all-important Baltimore region.

Despite serving eight years as lieutenant governor, Brown remains a mystery man to Metro Baltimore residents. He’s the invisible candidate — never seen, never heard from and never known.

Combine that with his lack of a specific program that voters can grasp for fixing the state’s economy and averting future tax increases and you can see why Hogan is running close to Brown in the Gonzales poll. (Brown’s government efficiency proposal announced Sunday contains more empty promises: pie-in-the-sky projected savings, sweeping assumptions and few realistic numbers.)

If Brown is going to re-gain the initiative, he needs to do more than take wild, roundhouse swings at Hogan that aren’t coming close to hitting their target.

Brown needs to deliver positive reasons why he’s the best candidate for governor. So far, he’s been a silent campaigner in TV ads, letting others do the talking for him.

That’s not good enough.

Deeply Democratic

By all measures, Brown ought to win easily in November. Maryland is a deeply Democratic state.

But if he continues to come across as arrogant, aloof and unwilling to speak directly to ordinary voters and to the media, Anthony Brown could, indeed, “pull a Townsend.”

He might end up handing the governor’s mansion to Hogan.

# # #

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