The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 6, 2016 — It started with such bright promise,  yet as Stephanie Rawlings-Blake leaves the mayor’s office today for the last time there’s a deflated feeling that she failed to live up to expectations.

She came into the mayor’s job with an ideal pedigree — the youngest elected City Council member in history, 12 years as a councilwoman, vice president and then president of the City Council. A lawyer and Public Defender, she learned important lessons from her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, a legendary figure in Annapolis known for his courage and dedicated budget expertise,

The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Outgoing Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Like her father, she was a policy wonk with the determination to make tough decisions for the betterment of the city. Rawlings-Blake followed after her father in doing what’s right, not what’s popular.

She straightened out Baltimore’s red-ink-laced budget, took on the police and fire unions to get the city out of a horrendous pension bind and found a way to cut the city’s too-high property tax rate more than prior mayors.

In case you haven’t noticed, business development is surging in Baltimore. A program is in place to attack vacant housing blight. The city has a $1 billion plan under way to modernize its public school buildings.

Sadly, all this was overshadowed by the mayor’s standoffishness, her failure to enlarge her inner circle of advisers and her arrogant behavior on the day when civil unrest broke out in Baltimore in 2015.

On that day, Rawlings-Blake closeted herself in meetings, refusing to take phone calls from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. about calling in the National Guard.

It was shockingly poor judgment followed by a continuing inability to display the kind of one-on-one contact with distraught citizens that might have helped tamp down the flammable situation.

Insular Mayor

Meanwhile, Rawlings-Blake, despite her years of City Council service, proved unable to win over council members on key issues. She feuded for years with Council President Jack Young and with Comptroller Joan Pratt, and also regularly criticized the governor.

She too often listened only to a small coterie of trusted advisers and longtime friends, then seemed surprised when her ineffective lobbying in Annapolis and in the Council chambers led to failure.

She spent too much time in her last year on official trips, promoting her national Democratic Party standing and grooming herself for a future career as a partisan TV analyst.

What a disappointing way to end her political life. She leaves the mayor’s office after seven years with barely a pulse-beat of citizen support.The Disappointing Mayoralty of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Yet Rawlings-Blake has in many ways set the table quite nicely for new Mayor Catherine Pugh, who will reap the benefits of her predecessor’s courageous budgeting reforms, school construction program and economic development moves.

Future historians will remember Rawlings-Blake far more favorably than Baltimoreans do today. It’s unfortunate that she leaves on such a low note. She performed some valuable services during her tenure as the struggling city’s top elected official. Yet her deeply flawed leadership on the day when Baltimore burned will always be a black mark against her mayoralty record.

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Trump & Hogan Agree: Corporate Welfare Works

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 5, 2016 – Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. may not have supported or voted for President-elect Donald Trump but they agree on one thing: Corporate welfare works.

Throwing money and tax breaks at Northrop Grumman, Marriott International and United Technologies did the trick this past week – along with a good deal of loud, Trumpian threats in the case of UT’s subsidiary, Carrier Corp., in Indiana.

Trump, Hogan Agree

President-elect Trump celebrating deal to keep Carrier manufacturing plant open in Indiana.

To prevent Carrier from moving 1,400 jobs to Mexico, Trump used heavy-handed insinuation of future punishment to deliver a largely symbolic message that he’ll stop at nothing to save American manufacturing jobs.

Hogan’s task was somewhat different and involved persuasion rather than threats – backed by wads of cash.

A $57.5 million five-year package of “loans” and tax credits eventually persuaded Northrop Grumman to keep its 10,280 employees in Maryland – including the 6,800 who work at the massive former Westinghouse electronics complex near BWI Airport in Linthicum.

Meanwhile, a state-county incentive package of some $60 million was needed to keep Marriott’s headquarters in Montgomery County instead of shifting to Northern Virginia.

The bonus here is that Marriott intends to erect a $600 million complex in downtown Bethesda for its 3,500 HQ employees. That number should expand due to Marriott’s recent $13 billion acquisition of Starwood International.

Democratic Roadblock

The two Maryland deals have been in limbo for months due to high-risk brinkmanship by legislative leaders. The idea was to squeeze money out of Republican Hogan for other purposes dear to the hearts of Democrats in exchange for approval of the Northrop Grumman package.Trump, Hogan Agree

That gambit, which was poorly conceived from the get-go, fell apart when the state’s tax collections underperformed, leaving a gaping hole in Hogan’s budget.

Hogan had always balked at legislators’ extortion effort to hold the Northrop Grumman package hostage until local school funds and other goodies were released.

Lawmakers didn’t seemed to care that reneging on the business deal would have sent a terrible message about Maryland’s business climate to corporations thinking about relocating operations.

But the weak revenue figures this fall put an end to this embarrassing folly. There was no money to make the lawmakers’ strong-arm deal work.

Miller-Hogan Find Middle Ground

Hogan, though, still needed to gain the support of legislative leaders not only on the Northrop Grumman economic-development package but also the Marriott headquarters proposal.Trump,Hogan Agree

He and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller finally came up with a workable compromise involving $20 million in school pension funds for localities in next year’s budget.

Now it is up to Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to complete their end of the bargain by winning approval for the two business-assistance packages from a legislative panel they control.

There’s plenty of irony here.

Had a Democrat been in the governor’s office, there’s no question Busch and Miller would have rushed to support these economic-development packages, just as they did under former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

But with a Republican in the governor’s mansion, Busch and Miller suddenly found problems with these deals.

Demands to Stay In-State

Liberal Democrats, in particular, blanch at the thought of giving away millions in business-retention packages, labeling it “corporate welfare.”

It’s become customary for large companies to demand payments from local and state governments if those governments want to prevent these businesses from moving elsewhere. Democrats fear that more companies will use the same tactic to pry millions from the state, money Democrats want spent on social programs.

Rigidly ideological Republican conservatives also rail against giveaways to corporations, complaining about government interference with the free-market system. (Over the weekend, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called the Carrier deal “crony capitalism.”)

The thinking goes that if Carrier wants to move its furnace plant to Mexico or to another state to cut costs, the company should have the freedom to do so. That’s how the free market works, fiscal conservatives say.

Yet Trump intervened to make political hay and win cheers from Carrier workers in Indiana.

At the same time, he did nothing to stop United Technologies from closing another Indiana plant, costing 700 workers their jobs.

Nor did he lift a finger to halt Rexnord from shuttering a factory just a mile away from the Carrier building. The job loss there is 300. Rexnord is moving its manufacturing business to Mexico.

A third company, CTS, is also shutting down an electronics manufacturing facility in Indiana, creating unemployment for 200 more workers.

On top of that Carrier is continuing with plans to downsize its Indiana plant, laying off 600 union workers at the furnace factory. Also, despite Trump’s plea Carrier is moving its fan coil-making business to Monterrey, Mexico.

So while Trump can crow about the one plant he pressured to remain open, saving by his count 1,000 U.S. jobs (the actual jobs preserved: 730), he hasn’t done a thing about the other 1,800 manufacturing jobs being lost in Indiana.

Choosing Winners

The downside of corporate bailouts (Carrier is getting $7 million in tax breaks from Indiana to remain there) is that these small triumphs fail to address the larger problem:  U.S. manufacturing plants increasingly find they are unable to compete against low-cost overseas competitions.

Here’s a hint why moving production abroad is happening: The average salary for a unionized Carrier plant worker in Indiana is $30.90 an hour.

Choosing winners and losers, as Trump did in Indiana, solves little and provides job solace for just a fraction of the manufacturing workforce at risk of losing their source of income. A more comprehensive approach is needed.

Since the beginning of 2015, 1,600 American companies have shifted production overseas. In November alone, the U.S. lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs.

Clearly, Trump has a gargantuan task ahead of him in which a partial victory at Carrier’s Indiana plant doesn’t put a dent in the problem.

At the same time, Hogan is having more success keeping large corporations content with their Maryland digs. All it takes is persistent negotiations, expressions of good will and a basketful of state and county tax breaks, job-training grants and forgivable loans.

It’s worked most of the time for both Democratic and Republican governors in Maryland.

Hogan’s job is far easier because he’s only competing against other U.S. states, not Third World, low-wage countries.

Trump has a much more difficult field to plough.

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Advice to Hogan: ‘Take a Deep Breath’

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 28, 2016–Leave it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to make a positive, pro-active announcement and then gum up the works with snide, partisan remarks and a political snub that won’t be forgotten.

Here’s the good news: Hogan reversed course on what to do about the narrow, aging and dangerous Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge in Southern Maryland. He unveiled a $765 million plan to erect a new, wider and safer bridge nearby in just six years.

Advice to Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County

Hip, hip, hooray!

Here’s the bad news: Republican Hogan refuses to work with Democrats on this important construction project. He froze out Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County from the announcement ceremony in a political snub that could come back to haunt him.

He also continued to foolishly rant about a transportation planning law enacted by Democrats over Hogan’s veto that the governor inaccurately describes as potentially destructive to road and bridge projects.

To top it off, Hogan railed against a bill Middleton pushed through the General Assembly last session calling for the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $75 million a year over the next ten years to pay for the replacement bridge.

Pay-Go Proposal

Middleton’s pay-as-you-go approach met with fierce opposition from Hogan and his transportation minions. The bill, SB 907, passed anyway. Then Hogan vetoed the bill, though Middleton and his offended colleagues could override that veto a few months from now – unless Hogan comes to the bargaining table.

Clearly, Hogan doesn’t like to cooperate with those nasty Democrats. He certainly doesn’t like sharing credit at good-news announcements.

Is it any wonder Hogan has been unable to move his priority bills through the Democratic-dominated legislature?

He continues to float the bogus notion he is eager to compromise with Democrats. What he really wants is total agreement on his proposals. That’s Hogan’s version of compromise.

Middleton’s replacement-bridge bill was aimed at getting Hogan to negotiate with lawmakers over how to erect a safer Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. The highly-respected senator has been trying for 15 years to replace the 76-year-old, two-lane bridge.

Advice to Hogan

Sen. Mac Middleton of Charles County

Less-Costly Option

Hogan’s transportation team, though, opposed that plan and backed a less-costly, $150 million patch-up of the decking of the Nice Bridge – easily the state’s most terrifying water crossing. Middleton says the administration argued that not enough people use the Nice Bridge to justify the $1 billion price tag of a replacement structure.

Suddenly, though, Hogan has done a Trump-like flip-flop and essentially conceded that Middleton has been right all along: a new, safer crossing is needed.

Yet the administration continues to twist the truth.

The governor’s spokesperson made the ludicrous statement Middleton wasn’t invited to the announcement ceremony because he had nothing to do with making the project a reality.

What may have changed the governor’s mind was news that a slowly recovering economy has led to far more car and truck traffic on Maryland’s toll roads and bridges, resulting in a $62 million surplus over the past year. The surplus will be used to help pay for the replacement bridge.

If this trend persists the state could save a ton of money on the new bridge, reducing the size of bond offerings. That, in turn, would free up millions for other state transportation priorities.

Friend or Foe?

The situation might brighten even more if Hogan sat down with Middleton to find a middle ground on the two financing approaches. They are not that far apart.

For a governor who has seen his relationship with the legislature deteriorate, it might make sense.

Middleton, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a powerful figure. He could be an important ally for the governor if Hogan wanted to build a partnership. Or he could be a thorn in the governor’s side. The choice is Hogan’s.

Last week’s bridge announcement won plaudits, as it should. A replacement is overdue. The governor found a way to slice 25 percent off earlier cost projections by relocating the planned structure 100 feet to the north over a deeper river channel.

Politically, Hogan’s new bridge plan will help him ramp up support in Southern Maryland as his reelection campaign ramps up late next year.

But the governor still needs to improve his batting average in the General Assembly before he goes before Maryland voters.

Perhaps he should take a cue from what he said following Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 when he advised Marylanders, “Everyone ought to take a deep breath” and give the new administration a chance.

Could this be the time for Hogan “to take a deep breath” and give bipartisanship a chance? It might lead to a compromise on paying for a new Potomac River crossing and open a channel for cooperation in the State House.

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Trump Adopts Hogan’s Campaign Strategies

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 21, 2016 – We should have seen Donald Trump’s huge upset victory coming: He used many of the same tactics and strategies as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. when the Annapolis real estate developer shocked everyone with his big upset in Maryland two years ago.

The similarities are striking.

  • Hogan brilliantly used social media as a rallying point for conservatives and disaffected voters of all stripes. So did Trump.
  • Hogan was outspent 2-to-1 in TV advertising but easily offset that through free advertising via Facebook with his news-making statements that TV stations and newspapers picked up. So did Trump.
  • Hogan was the “change agent” in a year when Maryland voters dearly wanted something different in the Annapolis State House. This year, Trump was the “change agent.”
  • Hogan capitalized on the economic pain many people have been suffering since the Great Recession. Trump doubled-down on that one.
  • Hogan made himself the focal point for people fed up with in-grown establishment politicians who offered trite, tired and shopworn solutions. Ditto for Trump.
  • Hogan’s opponent was uninspiring, lacking in new ideas and tied at the hip to a disliked incumbent. That pretty much described Hillary Clinton, too.
  • Hogan was an outsider who had never held elective office. Trump followed suit on that one.
  • Hogan pounded away mercilessly on the incumbent’s unpopular policy of raising taxes and fees. Trump never relented in tearing down everything the incumbent president stood for.
  • Hogan promised to bring jobs to Maryland. Trump promised to bring jobs to America.
  • Hogan voiced people’s anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. So did Trump, but in a much louder and far more outspoken way.

No wonder Larry Hogan, a conservative Republican in a very Democratic state, won in a rout. He crushed Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in all but the big three Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, plus Charles County in Southern Maryland.

Trump Adopts Hogan's Camapign Strategies

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. (right) and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Hogan’s victory signaled a new day for angry white voters, especially those living in rural and exurban areas and on the outskirts of suburbia. Donald Trump followed a very similar formula. It worked for him in 2016 just as it did for Hogan in 2014.

Hogan’s use of Facebook as a key communications and news-making tool was novel at the time. He created his Change Maryland page nearly four years before the election. Back then, he told Len Lazarick of MarylandReporter the page was “born out of frustration.”

Hogan had nothing to lose. He was the longest of longshots, similar to Trump’s status at about the same time.

Voters Wanted Change

“A lot of people are not happy with the direction of this state,” Hogan told Lazarick in a column published on MarylandReporter June 13, 2011. “Some businesses have closed and left the state. Others have just given up.”

In another interview back then, Hogan said, “We need a voice for people who don’t seem to have one” – almost exactly what Trump expressed over and over in his presidential campaign.

Hogan excoriated Gov. Martin O’Malley for his tendency to solve Maryland’s post-recession problems by raising an array of taxes and fees. Hogan said enough, already – let’s head in a new direction.

That’s what Trump promised voters, too.

By the time Hogan won his election, he had 120,000 Facebook followers – twice the number O’Malley had after eight years in office. Today, Change Maryland has 269,000 likes and the governor counts 7,431 Twitter followers.

Trump had astronomical success following the identical approach.

Trump Adopts Hogan's Campaign Strategies

President -elect Donald J. Trump

So clearly Trump, either directly or indirectly, learned from Larry Hogan’s trail-blazing 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Ironically, Hogan refused to support Trump as a candidate or as the GOP nominee for president. Not my cup of tea, the governor said, recognizing The Donald’s unpopularity with Democrats in Maryland (he gained less than 35 percent of the Free State’s vote on Nov. 8).

Yet the similarities in the Hogan and Trump campaign approaches are stunning – and so were the results.

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

 

Political Maryland’s Democratic Cocoon

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 14, 2016 – A Martian landing in Maryland on election night never would have guessed that Donald Trump was about to pull off the upset of the century.

That’s because Maryland is an outlier, an exception to what happens in presidential elections in the rest of the country.Political Maryland's Democratic Cocoon

Trump got slaughtered in Maryland, receiving just a little over a third of the vote. Only a few other heavily Democratic states, like Massachusetts and California, saw such lopsided Democratic victories in the presidential race won by Republican Trump.

The election map in Maryland looked surprisingly similar to the 2012 election map. Democrats have such overwhelming majorities in the densely populated Central Maryland subdivisions that this provides a protective cocoon for the party’s presidential candidate.

Central Maryland Landslide

Just in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in the Washington suburbs, Hillary Clinton ran up a lead of over half-a-million votes.

Overall this Democratic cocoon gave Clinton a big enough lead – even with a reduced turnout – to come close to matching Trump’s entire total in Maryland. Put another way, the Democratic cocoon allowed Clinton to build an advantage of roughly 800,000 votes. In the rest of the state, Trump beat her by just 177,000 votes.

Clinton won nearly 60 percent of Maryland voters. Trump finished at 35 percent – a little worse than Republican Mitt Romney performed in 2012’s presidential election.

Voting patterns this year indicate the Democrats’ cocoon may be expanding slightly. For the first time since 1956, Anne Arundel County went Democratic in the presidential race – by 1,500 votes.

Four years ago, Anne Arundel voters favored Republican Mitt Romney by a mere 203 votes. And in 2008, Arundel went for Republican John McCain by 4,667 votes.

Large Red Victories

At the same time, two Central Maryland counties continued to swing strongly in the Republican direction. Harford County gave 60 percent of its votes to Trump while his winning total in Carroll County was 76 percent.

Those Republican wins, however, could not come close to matching results in the Democratic cocoon subdivisions – Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles County.

Everywhere else in Maryland, red Republican voters ruled by substantial margins. While these counties hold the vast territorial mass of Maryland, the state’s population centers in the central corridor easily held sway on Election Day.

That population bulge is highly urbanized and suburbanized – ideal Democratic terrain. The rest of the state – mostly exurban and rural – is ideal ground for Republicans.

That was the pattern throughout America last week. The difference: In the rest of the country there were just enough rural/exurban Trump voters to fend off Clinton and win the presidency for the New York real estate developer.

Clinton captured the popular vote but lost the electoral count to Trump. While the nation is evenly split between the two political parties, Republicans hold a substantial state-by-state advantage.

Matching Clinton

In the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Chris Van Hollen pretty much matched Clinton’s vote totals across the Free State. Once again, the Central Maryland cocoon provided a highly protective shield for the Democratic nominee.

Van Hollen ran slightly ahead of Clinton percentage-wise, 60 percent to 59 percent; Republican Kathy Szeliga ran just ahead of Trump, 36 percent to 35 percent.

How the 2016 results in Maryland affect the full slate of local Maryland elections in 2018 is hard to determine two years out.

Central Maryland is growing a bit more Democratic and its population numbers are growing, too. The rest of the state is becoming more Republican but the population rise there – if any – is slowing.

That could pose a problem for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., a very popular politician these days despite the fact he’s a Republican in a very blue state.

Much will depend on the job Donald Trump does in Washington.

What Happens in Two Years?

If Trump surprises people and has a successful couple of years in office, Hogan will be the beneficiary.  But if Trump remains an immensely controversial figure, Democratic Maryland could prove hostile to Republican candidates in 2018.

Indeed, an argument can be made that Hogan might have been better off under a Clinton presidency, since he wouldn’t have faced any presidential backlash against local Republicans if things go awry in Washington over the next few years.

Still, Hogan has proved a remarkably agile politician, even refusing to endorse or vote for Trump this year. Defeating this independent-minded Republican in 2018 still remains an uphill challenge for Democrats.

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

Buckle Your Election Seatbelts!

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 7, 2016 – Okay, so Maryland’s votes don’t really matter in tomorrow’s tumultuous climax to an unpredictable, deeply divisive political campaign for president.

We already know the outcome in heavily Democratic Maryland. The record-breaking flood of Democrats during early voting is a clear sign it could be another wipeout for Republicans running statewide.

The two GOP candidates, Donald Trump (for president) and Kathy Szeliga (for U.S. Senate) need a miracle-and-a-half to win in the Free State this year.

It ain’t gonna happen.Buckle Your Election Seatbelts!Maryland’s 10 electoral votes are safe for Democrat Hillary Clinton. There’s been no turn of events strong enough to dissuade state Democrats from supporting their party’s presidential nominee.

It’s one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia that have gone Democratic in each of the past five presidential races.

That would place Clinton at 240 electoral votes – 30 shy of what she needs for victory. A combination of wins in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada could do the trick.

Getting to 270 Electoral Votes

Clinton also holds out hope in Arizona. A local race for county sheriff involving the controversial anti-immigration incumbent Joe Arpaio could prompt a heavy Hispanic turnout that might put Clinton over the top.

In Georgia, only a record turnout in the Atlanta suburbs could bring Clinton victory. Those areas are home to college-educated professionals and middle-income African Americans – two voting segments overwhelmingly for Clinton this year.

Trump’s road to the White House is far more difficult. He’s got to break through in one of those “Solid 18” Democratic strongholds, such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Polls so far haven’t shown that it likely to happen.

Trump also needs to fend off Clinton in the toss-up states and pretty much sweep the board.

It’s a tall order, but not impossible.

His base of support remains white, less well-educated males (and some females) who have suffered from the Great Recession and feel government has ignored their plight while government accommodates immigrant and minority groups.

Can Trump Turn Out His Voters?

Trump has lit a fire under these “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” voters. But will they come out and vote in overwhelming numbers? Are there enough of this “silent majority” to overcome the growing voting strength of minority groups throughout the country?

Trump’s greatest weakness is in the suburbs surrounding big cities, home to college-educated professionals. For decades, these communities have been solidly Republican in presidential races. Not this time, though.

Donald Trump has turned off women in these households with his coarse language, racism, sexist remarks and disdain for females in general. It could cost him the election.

Szeliga, meanwhile, always faced an uphill battle of long odds running against U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, a popular politician for several decades who has unified the Democratic Party behind him and has made no mistakes in this campaign.

Once Trump’s balloon deflated in Maryland with the state’s leading Republican, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., angrily walking away from him, Szeliga’s chances faded dramatically. Her only hope was a sweeping victory by Trump in Maryland behind a unified GOP. She needed to catch a rising Trump tide. She also needed Van Hollen to alienate part of his party’s faithful, which never happened.

Yet despite the lack of drama in Maryland’s vote-counting tomorrow night, it’s still anyone guess who will occupy the White House.

Polling Confusion

Polls have been terribly misleading and contradictory. Highly suspect polling methodology by some organizations has compounded the situation. So has the sudden glut of polls released by colleges we’ve never even heard of before.

Tomorrow you can throw all those supposedly accurate polls away. None of them can predict with any degree of accuracy the human factor when it comes to casting a presidential ballot. That’s especially true when it comes to that other unpredictable factor – turnout.

So buckle your seatbelts and get ready to stay turned late into the night on Tuesday. It’s even possible we won’t know the outcome till the votes are counted in Alaska, where the polls close at 1 a.m. our time.

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Early Voting Tsunami: What It Means

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 1, 2016 – Well, now we know how to get Americans to vote in impressive numbers – present them with a choice between an outrageously controversial narcissist and an outrageous political shader of the truth – and then let the media turn the whole shebang into a smarmy Reality TV circus.

It’s worked wonders in propelling early voting across the country to record numbers this fall.

Early Voting Tsunami: What It Means

In Maryland, prior early-voting marks have been shattered every day. In just the first three days of early voting here, more citizens cast ballots than in the entire April primary early-voting period.

That’s quite a feat given the relatively small number of early-voting sites in Maryland even in high-density, heavy-voting counties.

Stone Age Technology

Making it even more arduous to cast a ballot is the state’s “new” voting system with a “Back to the Future” retro feel: You have to use a black pen to mark ye olde paper ballot.

Voters would be astounded to learn how much this Neanderthal-era system cost: $27 million.

The good news is that there’s a record of each vote cast, in case disputed close races require re-counts.

But the “new” voting process can be painfully slow, especially when lots and lots of citizens are anxious to cast a ballot in this nasty, steamy presidential election.

Not only do Marylanders have to stand in line to sign in, then stand in line a second time to mark ballots the old-fashioned way, they also have to stand in line a final time to feed their marked ballot into the recording machine that, among other things, takes a picture for posterity.

Too bad the touch-screen computer voting machines Maryland had used since 2002 couldn’t be adapted so they’d print copies of each vote cast. (It couldn’t be that hard: I can print anything at home from my little computer. But why question the ostensible wisdom of state solons when it comes to spending an extra $27 million for a clunky, backward-looking voting system.)

Early Voting Proving Popular

The latest estimates are that 50 million Americans could vote early around the country in the 2016 presidential election. This doesn’t count the mail-in balloting which is now standard for all voters in Oregon and Colorado.

Folks who analyze early voting to pinpoint trends are in agreement there are many promising signs for Democrat Hillary Clinton in party registration numbers among early voters in battleground states. Clinton also has surged ahead in the number of newly registered Democratic voters in key states.

For Republican Donald Trump, the positive spin is that early voting is much preferred by older citizens – a category that favors Republican candidates.

The early voting numbers in Maryland illustrate why the Free State is such difficult terrain for Republicans running statewide. The most populous and most Democratic jurisdictions are dominating early voting tabulations by wide margins.

Moreover, the number of Democrats voting early is three times greater than the number of Republicans statewide.

Heavy early voting in Maryland is somewhat surprising given the lack of contested local offices up for grabs. Nearly all the state’s local elections take place in non-presidential years, the next one coming in 2018.

Yet people are flocking to cast a ballot.

Why Voters Show Up Early

The intensity of voters this fall is something to behold. Most have made their minds up and are chomping at the bit to vote. They want to hurry the process along so they can be done with this brutally ugly campaign that has dragged on unnecessarily for a year and a half.

No one looking at Maryland realistically expects Trump to win or even come within a country mile of Clinton.

He has alienated many GOP faithful, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and his presence seems to have energized the state’s hefty minority vote and liberal Democrats. They are deeply fearful of what a Trump presidency would mean for the nation’s safety and their well-being.

Trump supporters, meanwhile, are die-hard fans of the billionaire with the “say anything” attitude. They feel underappreciated and underrepresented in Washington. This is their chance to have their sentiments heard. They will vote for sure.

There just aren’t enough Trumpites in Maryland.

For instance, in the first four days of early voting more than 50 percent of the ballots cast came from heavily Democratic jurisdictions – Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard and Baltimore counties. Not a good sign for the GOP.

We’re still a week away from E-Day. That means there could well be more surprises and twists for one or both of the presidential candidates. In politics you should always expected the unexpected.

So it’s wise to remember what my favorite social philosopher, Lawrence Peter Berra, once said: “It’s not over till it’s over” – on the night of Nov. 8.

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Medical Miracle in Largo?

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 24, 2016—It took over three years to surmount the bureaucratic, regulatory and political hurdles but it finally looks like a half-billion-dollar, state-of-the-art regional medical center will rise slowly in populous Prince George’s County.

It’s way overdue. For a county of 900,000 people, Prince George’s lacks a premier hospital. No wonder so many local residents go outside the county for their medical care.

The organization that runs aging

Medical Miralce in Largo?

Aging Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly

medical facilities in Cheverly, Bowie and Laurel, Dimensions Health Corp., has been a disaster for the county over the past quarter-century. Political hacks and cronies filled management posts. The quality of health care suffered.

For a jurisdiction with a high rate of chronic diseases and the second-largest pool of indigent patients in Maryland (after Baltimore City), there’s long been a crying need for dramatic change.

Now it finally may be coming.

Last week, the Maryland Health Care Commission gave unanimous approval to the 205-bed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo Town Center. The 11-0 vote masked the enormous, complicated struggle that preceded it.

Plenty of Political Resistance

For years, county politicians with vested interest in maintaining the status quo fought furiously to block efforts to overhaul the Dimensions system. The group’s tentacles extended into the county executive’s office and the county council.

Compounding the situation was the war cry of these officials that white outsiders were trying to oust black Dimensions leaders. In a county with a large African American majority, this vocal objection proved loud enough to ward off reforms.

Finally, the current county executive, Rushern Baker, pressed hard for a Dimensions housecleaning. He brokered a deal with the University of Maryland Medical System to assume control – of both the medical and management staffs. It wasn’t easy getting the Dimensions higher-ups to agree.

Capital contributions from Annapolis proved daunting as well. Lawmakers and governors have been reluctant to pour big bucks into the Prince George’s medical system as long as Dimensions remained in control.

Then Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. objected to paying $20 million a year to Dimensions to keep the existing medical centers afloat until a regional medical facility can be built.

The legislature eventually had to mandate an annual state contribution to keep the current medical facilities in operation until the opening of the new center in 2020.

Total cost: $543 million, with $208 million coming from the state, $208 million from the county and $127 million in bonds issued by the new hospital entity.

Downsized Project

The total would have been higher but for the fact Robert Moffit of the health care commission, who carefully reviewed and analyzed the project, insisted that the new facility be financially viable. The size of the high-rise was reduced and so was the price – by $100 million.

What sealed the deal, though, was the fact UMMS now will be the owner-operator of the regional medical center. With its close ties to the state’s largest medical school, UMMS dominates Maryland’s hospital landscape.

It has a proven track record of turning around deep-in-debt medical centers and bringing superb talent and health care to under-utilized facilities it manages.

Such a reversal still is some years away but already UMMS’ presence at Dimensions hospitals has improved the quality of care and brought down operating expenses.

Medical Miracle in Largo?

Proposed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo

But UMMS faces another challenge: attracting enough physicians and physician groups to the county to minister to this underserved population. That’s a slow process but the work has begun.

Once the new regional medical center is fully staffed by UMMS personnel and filled with the latest in medical technology, physicians and patients are likely to develop a magnetic attraction to the Largo facility – which Moffit of the health care commission termed an “excellent” location in the heart of the county’s population.

Now that the worst of the regulatory and political barriers seem to have been surmounted, there is light at the end of this long tunnel – and the prospect of greatly enhanced health care for people living in the state’s second-largest jurisdiction.

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Business Comes First, Education Second

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 17, 2016 – He’s at it again! Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. issued another executive order that makes it even clearer he intends to usurp the powers of the Maryland State Board of Education and every local school system in the state.

So far, no one is challenging Hogan’s decree setting the start of the school year statewide after Labor Day and the last school day no later than June 15.  Nor is any school system threatening to defy his order, which screams “overreach.”

There is no valid education reason for Hogan’s action.

Business Comes First, Education Second

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The two orders are designed to bring cheers from Ocean City businesses and parents happy to take their kids to the beach in late August instead of getting them ready for an early return to classes.

Yet even Hogan’s own appointees to the state board are complaining the governor wants to neuter the board and that his order is not grounded in any education rationale.

Larry Hogan is, indeed, the “Maryland is Open for Business” governor. Perhaps his next slogan will be: “In Maryland, Business Comes First, Education Second.”

Perplexed School Leaders

Local school boards are in a quandary. Following Hogan’s directive means a loss of control over the school year. It could be just the first step in more gubernatorial dictates on which holidays to honor, what to teach in classes and what to forbid in local schools.

For instance, Hogan has repeatedly lashed out at teacher unions and accused them of calling the shots on education policy. Will he use future executive orders to crack down on them and strip from the school calendar the “professional training days” now built into the school schedule as days off for kids?

Will he dictate what he will allow the supposedly independent state school board to do on its own and what he intends to unilaterally mandate from his second-floor state House office?

Hogan has never been regarded as an education expert. His pronouncements on the subject have been few and far beyond –usually encapsulated in a brief one- or two-sentence quip.

He hasn’t even claimed his school-year decree is designed to improve the learning environment. For him, the executive order is all about boosting summer business sales and winning popularity for extending the summer season. Those are his priorities.

Hogan’s Power

The problem for local school systems is that Hogan can be vindictive if challenged. He might withhold millions in school construction funds for petty reasons. After all, he’s already done it to Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

He could hold back other education dollars from systems that refuse to knuckle under and instead honor their commitment to crafting a school calendar that furthers students’ ability to learn.

There are other flaws in the decrees. What if there’s a harsh winter that forces many more lost school days than anticipated? Or other emergency closures? Even stripping spring break to the bone might not be enough to avoid post-June 15 schooling. What happens then?

Hogan hasn’t said and he’s taken the power away from the state school board.

If a school system ignores Hogan because it feels the executive orders are unlawful intrusions on local education autonomy, what happens?

Does Hogan direct more executive orders at the wayward school system? Does he call out the National Guard to enforce his orders? Does he pull a Trump-like tantrum and say to the local school board members he appoints, “You’re fired”?

Education Losses

Meanwhile, the governor’s school-calendar mandate will hurt students’ ability to prepare for standardized tests whose dates cannot be changed. Kids lose ground in their learning when the long summer break is extended. Poor kids lose out on decent meals they don’t get at home. Research has clearly established those facts. But Hogan doesn’t seem to care.

It is unfortunate Attorney General Brian Frosh took a dive when asked to examine the legality of Hogan’s attempt to extend his power. Frosh’s agency issued an opinion that failed to give clear guidance, even though it concluded:  “. . . it is likely that a reviewing court, if presented with the issue, would conclude” Hogan exceeded his authority.

What Hogan has done is unprecedented. It could set a dangerous precedent.

Even if the orders are not challenged in court, there’s a strong chance the General Assembly will pass legislation sharply restricting and defining the limits of the governor’s power to issue executive orders, especially on matters pertaining to education. Lawmakers also are likely to pass such a law early in next year’s session so they can override an almost certain Hogan veto before adjournment.

Hogan’s handlers relish the chance to blame Democratic legislators for denying families a longer August vacation with their kids.

But it won’t be lawmakers reestablishing a longer school year that starts prior to Labor Day. Instead, they will simply return decision-making power to local school boards and the state education board – where it belongs.

Hogan may be looking for a way to win political points in this ludicrous dispute, but in the end all he’s doing is hurting Maryland school children’s ability to learn.

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More Reasons for Marylanders to Vote

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 10, 2016 – This year’s apparently one-sided presidential election in Maryland may encourage some people to consider not voting.

Polls consistently have Democrat Hillary Clinton ahead of Republican Donald Trump by a whopping 30 percentage points – and this was before release of Trump’s X-rated remarks about his sexual pursuit of women.

While there are few other races of consequence on most local ballots, there are plenty of other reasons to show up at the polls or cast an absentee ballot.

This is especially true for Republicans who may have had enough of Trump’s over-the-top sexism and egomania. The worst thing they could do would be to take a pass on voting.More Reasons for Marylanders to VoteThis year’s election will be a good barometer on the GOP’s efforts to build a more competitive party in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Hogan’s Coattail

The party has a wildly popular governor, Larry Hogan, Jr., who isn’t on the ballot but has endorsed some Republican nominees who share his moderate-conservative philosophy.

How close will these candidates come to pulling an upset?

That could tell us much about Hogan’s “coattail” abilities and set the stage for an even better GOP performance in 2018 when he is up for reelection.

In the U.S. Senate contest, Democrat Chris Van Hollen is a heavy favorite over Republican Kathy Szeliga. But Szeliga, a state delegate, has Hogan’s endorsement. Will voters who tend to support moderate politicians see Hogan’s backing as reason enough to support her?

Or will voters be turned off by Szeliga’s “having it both ways” comment about Trump’s sexism? She has deplored Trump’s outrageous sexual remarks but says she still is voting for him.

Hoeber vs. Delaney

In the Sixth District congressional race (far Western Maryland and a chunk of western Montgomery County), Republican Amie Hoeber, also endorsed by Hogan, is seeking to upend incumbent Democrat John Delaney, who barely won reelection last time. His margin of victory in 2014: less than 2 percentage points.

Hoeber, 74, is a defense expert on chemical and biological warfare and has poured substantial sums of his family’s money into her campaign. A heavy turnout in Republican portions of the district and Hogan’s backing might draw her closer to Delaney than expected.

In Baltimore City, a Republican has a legitimate shot at winning a City Council seat for the first time in 74 years. Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-1 in the city yet Republican Matt McDaniel is competitive in Southeast Baltimore’s First District.

Hogan won this area two years ago, 53 percent to 47 percent, and he has endorsed McDaniel over Democrat Zeke Cohen. Will Hogan’s support prove pivotal? Or will the heavy Democratic registration figures and Cohen’s activism in the community give him a decided advantage?

Questions on the Ballot

Two ballot questions hold considerable interest in important counties – Howard and Montgomery.

In Howard County, public financing of elections for county executive and county council will be up for voter decision. A positive outcome could set a trend in other large subdivisions with a liberal voter base.

Term limits is the issue in Montgomery County. Perennial political gadfly Robin Ficker has petitioned to the ballot a question on forcing the county executive or members of the county council to step down after three four-year terms. That might benefit outsiders like Ficker and Montgomery Republicans.

There’s also a statewide ballot question on filling attorney general and comptroller vacancies that pits Democratic legislative leaders against Republican Hogan.

The proposal would strip Hogan of his current power to name a replacement of his choice – almost certainly a fellow Republican – if there’s a vacancy in either office (both now held by Democrats).

Instead, the constitutional amendment would require Hogan to name a temporary replacement from the vacating official’s political party and then set a special election to fill the office for the remainder of the term.

So there are plenty of reasons beyond the presidential election to cast a ballot. Early voting in Maryland begins in a little over two weeks.

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