MD’s Best in 2014

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 29, 2014 — There’s no sense wrapping up the year without a traditional round of “bests” for 2014.

In this case, let’s look at some of the “worsts” as well, in politics and beyond.

2014-calendar

Best Catastrophic Recovery

Isabel FitzGerald and Carolyn Quattrocki

Remember when Maryland’s online health insurance exchange was a national joke in late 2013?

The state’s $261 million computer system crashed in its first hours of operation and never fully recovered.

Lots of finger-pointing ensued and the executive director was pressured to resign. The prime contractor was fired. It was a government nightmare.

Gov. Martin O’Malley jumped in to help jerry-rig a temporary fix that involved dispatching his IT gurus, Isabel FitzGerald and Carolyn Quattrocki, to try to straighten things out.

It was a terrible mess, with inexcusably long waits for anxious Marylanders seeking health insurance.

Still, by the time enrollment closed last April, 263,000 people had received health insurance via the exchange – either through private insurance or Medicaid.

Enrollment for next year, which began in mid-October, topped 136,000 by mid-December. That number will grow considerably prior to the mid-February cut-off.

It wasn’t pretty – and it certainly wasn’t cheap – yet in the end the exchange achieved its purpose. A large chunk of Maryland’s uninsured or under-insured individuals have insurance policies, giving them peace of mind when it comes to health care.

FitzGerald and Quattrocki were handed a lemon of a computer system. They turned it into lemonade.

Best Bit of Chutzpah

Blaine Young

It took real gumption, and a public-be-damned attitude, for Frederick County Commissioner President Blaine Young to connive with fellow Republicans to appoint him to the county’s planning board as his term on the commission was coming to a close.

Frederick County finally is a home-rule county, with a county executive and council. Young tried to become Frederick’s first county executive but he angered so many with his land-use decisions that he lost to Democrat Jan Gardner.

That’s when Young decided to strong-arm his way onto the planning panel, where he could continue to promote his pro-growth, pro-business policies, be a thorn in Gardner’s side and remain politically newsworthy.

Too bad this outrageous bit of chutzpah was illegal, as Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler wrote. Young was “ineligible for the position, and his appointment was ineffective from the outset.” Young also can’t hold two public offices simultaneously.

But Young’s chutzpah persisted.

He showed up at a later commission meeting and confessed to an 18-month affair with the county’s budget officer, who had recently been shifted to a lesser post by Democrat Gardner at a lesser salary. Young wanted a full-fledged investigation of his paramour’s $40,000 cut in pay.

As for confessing his ethically and morally dubious affair and causing his lover intense public embarrassment, Young never flinched. A wrong had been committed, he said.

No wonder voters showed him the door.

Best Vegas Bet

The Baltimore Orioles

Orioles Logo

Who woulda thunk it?

Oddsmakers pegged Baltimore’s baseball Orioles to finish last or next-to-last in the American League’s tough eastern division.

One prognostication group gave the team a 4 percent chance of winning the AL East. Another set the O’s odds at 16 percent.

How wrong they were.

The O’s won the AL East by a country mile, finishing a strong 12 games ahead of the rest of the pack. The team’s chemistry was a joy to behold.

Free-agent acquisition Nelson Cruz crushed more home runs than any other AL player. The bullpen proved miraculous, and the starting pitchers remained solid throughout the 162-game season.

Manager Buck Showalter was named Manager of the Year and General Manager Dan Duquette received honors as the AL’s top executive. Owner Peter Angelos has every right to take pride in his team’s accomplishment.

Now if only we could go back in time and place a bet in Vegas on the O’s winning the AL East this year!

Best Investment

Jim Davis

Once it was the world’s largest steel mill with 25,000 workers, but the sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant that dominated southeastern Baltimore County for a century was shuttered, its parts sold for scrap – until Jim Davis stepped in.

The co-founder of the highly successful Aerotek national staffing firm in Hanover (along with his cousin, Steve Bisciotti), Davis and his partners at Redwood Capital formed Sparrows Point Terminal, LLC, to buy the steel mill’s 3,100 acres for $110 million. He then negotiated a $48 million cleanup with the EPA.

What he got in return was the largest industrial-zoned parcel on the East Coast, with its own railroad line, proximity to I-95 and loads of deep-water access to the Port of Baltimore.

The strategic site – at the mid-point of the East Coast – is being developed as a hub for port-related, energy, advanced manufacturing and distribution uses.

Already, Federal Express is considering a giant warehouse on 45 acres in Sparrows Point. The Port of Baltimore, meanwhile, is eager to annex the former coal pier and surrounding land in anticipation of a shipping boom, thanks to the widening of the Panama Canal. The land is ideal for roll-on, roll-off cargo.

Davis could be sitting on a gold mine, producing at least 2,000 jobs for the region within five years, by one estimate.

Best at Blowing a Sure Thing

Anthony Brown

Think about this: In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, with a huge advantage in campaign funds, with a giant party infrastructure to get out the vote, and with all the benefits of holding statewide office for eight years, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown got the stuffing beaten out of him by Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Everything went wrong for Brown in the governor’s race.

He proved his own worst enemy. He hired terrible campaign advisors. He ignored on-the-ground reports of trouble from veteran Democratic politicians. He gave the little-known Hogan millions worth of free advertising in a shameful attempt to smear the Republican.

Brown thought the election was in the bag. He didn’t campaign some nights so he could be home with his kids. He avoided contact with the media. He rushed out of meetings to make sure he didn’t have to answer audience questions.

He gave voters little exciting or innovative to think about. He refused to aggressively defend his administration’s record. He never explained why so many taxes had to be raised. He stuck to his prepared remarks and his bland campaign speech.

He looked and sounded robotic. His strategy was wrong and his tactics proved disastrous.

It was the worst gubernatorial campaign of the century.

Perhaps there’s something to the Curse of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office after all.

Best Gambler

David Cordish

MD Live logo

Competition be damned!

The ultra-competitive David Cordish fought like a tiger to delay or prevent new gambling facilities from opening in the Central Maryland corridor.

Yet his Maryland Live! Casino now has a rival in Baltimore with another arising near the Potomac River.

It didn’t faze Cordish.

Maryland Live! continued its aggressive expansion and marketing, raking in more gambling dollars than any other casino in the Mid-Atlantic region — $605 million through November, of which the casino kept $304.5 million.

The opening of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore was expected to chop a third off Cordish’s receipts. Instead, Maryland Live!, with 4,200 slot machines and 198 table games, took in more this November, $53.8 million, than in the comparable month a year earlier.

Now Cordish is embarking on a $200 million expansion that includes a 300-room hotel and spa next to Maryland Live! to help ward off competition from the $1 billion MGM National Harbor that could open in mid-2016. He’s also building a $425 million casino in South Philadelphia.

The key? Huge amounts of free parking, Cordish says, for both suburban and urban patrons.

Best of Baltimore

War of 1812 Bicentennial Celebration

Sure, it was two years late (sort of), but Baltimoreans knew how and when to commemorate the epic defense of Fort McHenry that helped turn the tide against the British in the War of 1812.

Baltimore was saved 200 years ago by the strategic blockade of the inner harbor, the savvy defensive lines thrown up in Patterson Park and the sure shots of Privates Daniel Wells and Henry McComas in targeting the British commander, Gen. Robert Ross, at North Point.

Charm City celebrated those events for months.

The long-forgotten history of that 1812-1814 military engagement was resurrected repeatedly at events around town. Francis Scott Key’s poem, now the National Anthem, was given more attention than ever before. The Battle of Baltimore, and other clashes of the war, were recounted in books and at historic re-creations.

A giant fireworks display highlighted Fort McHenry’s portion of the celebration, as did an impressive display of Tall Ships in the Inner Harbor.

It was an event to remember.

Best Losing Candidate 

Dan Bongino

He came within a whisker of knocking off the Democratic incumbent in a district re-drawn to favor the incumbent. Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent with a knack for publicity and relentless campaigning, almost succeeded in mining the discontent of Maryland voters to win a seat in Congress.

Bongino benefited from an outpouring of Republican and independent support in the Western Maryland portions of the Sixth Congressional District for GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan Jr. Both of them zeroed in on Maryland’s high taxes, high government spending and anti-business attitude. Bongino benefitted from anti-Obama sentiment.

Thanks to an exceptionally low turnout in the populous Montgomery County part of the district — where Democrats dominate — Bongino almost pulled an upset over first-termer Rep. John Delaney, losing by a little more than a percentage point.

Will Bongino try again in two years? Will the atmosphere then be just as conducive? Turn in to find out in 2016.

Most Pointless Power Play

Jack Young

Leave it to the Baltimore City Council — and especially President Jack Young — to top the list for ridiculousness.

Young maneuvered through two controversial bills and won council approval by near-unanimous margins. The only “nay” votes were cast by veteran Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector.

That was too much for Young.

Spector not only had voted against his wishes but posed pointed and astute questions at Young: Why wasn’t there a separate hearing on the last-minute amendment to ban all plastic grocery bags from the city? Why not listen to the mayor’s objections?

Young, proving Spector’s point that he’s a bully, stripped her of all committee assignments.

It gets dumb and dumber in Baltimore’s legislative branch.

No wonder the City Council and its hapless presiding officer are the town’s laughingstock.

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