Monthly Archives: April 2016

MD Democrats: Will It Be Symbolism or Substance?

By Barry Rascovar

April 25, 2016—Tuesday’s primary election in Maryland has more drama and national attention than any in recent memory. Democratic voters, in particular, have an eventful choice to make in the U.S. Senate primary: Will they favor symbolism or substance?

If the election were based on achievements and legislative accomplishments, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County would be a landslide winner. His record is heads and shoulders above that of Rep. Donna Edwards of Prince George’s County, who has little to show for eight years in Congress.

Edwards’ campaign pitch, delivered almost exclusively to African Americans and women, is that she is a crusader for those two groups. Other voters in the state have been largely ignored.

Edwards is pitching the notion that it is more important to elect a symbolic black female than an accomplished male with solid credentials in the fight for women’s rights and equality for minorities.

Protesters vs. Pragmatisim

In many ways, it is the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders divide all over again. Sanders and Edwards are idealists and protest movement leaders. They excel at sweeping denunciations of the status quo and demanding radical change to obviate social injustice.

But as far as finding practical solutions and realistic ways to solve intractable problems, Sanders and Edwards come up woefully short. They are visionaries and crusaders, not worker-bees and negotiators.

They may claim credit for the ultimate reforms but they weren’t in the room doing the hard work of finding a path forward through a thicket of political and societal obstacles.

Clinton and Van Hollen are pragmatists who recognize Rome wasn’t built in a day (legislatively speaking) and that steady progress toward Democratic social goals is the most pragmatic tactic. It’s not an exciting or emotionally riveting approach but it gets you where you want to go.

When he was in Annapolis as a state delegate and then a state senator, Van Hollen was viewed as a rising star. When he went to Congress, it wasn’t long before he became a key member of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle. Why? Because he’s effective. He knows how to get things done and to do so in ways that won’t alienate colleagues or blow up compromises.

Views in Congress

Van Hollen is exceptionally well-liked by those who have worked with him; Edwards is not. Fewer than 10 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed her Senate bid, which is a telling slight. The vast majority of elected black officials in Maryland have cast their lot with Van Hollen as well.

Edwards has given residents of her congressional district the back of her hand, preferring to focus on national feminist and African American causes rather than delivering quality constituent service. She also has spent little time canvassing the entire state, especially in the Baltimore region where many voters wouldn’t recognize Edwards if she bumped into them.

One of the oddities of this Senate primary is the peculiarly myopic position of Emily’s List, which has poured nearly $2.5 million into a drive to nominate Edwards, even though Van Hollen has an equally sterling record in support of women’s rights.

It could come back to haunt supporters of women’s rights because Edwards is the Democrat that Maryland Republicans want to run against. She is viewed as vulnerable in the November election.

Edwards’ base of support is narrow, but in a Democratic primary she is hoping that vast numbers of African American women will exert enough voting power to pull her over the top.

In November, though, the African American vote isn’t nearly as great. Republicans see a legitimate chance to cast Edwards as a far left-wing radical who does not represent the views of mainstream Marylanders.

Anger Among Supporters

Emily’s List opted to divert $2.5 million of its funds from other Senate races where strong female candidates could well oust incumbent Republicans if given a big financial boost.

It was not a smart move and it angered many supporters of the group in Maryland who view the group’s endorsement and financial backing of Edwards destructive to the Democratic Party and overtly sexist.

How this primary race turns out is likely to determine the type of senator Maryland gets for the next six years (or more). Van Hollen is far closer to the image of retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who speaks loudly and gruffly but knows how to work the legislative system to get what she wants for her home state. Edwards has shown no inclination she would follow Mikulski’s formula.

Van Hollen appears to have the advantage – in recent polls, in the support of elected officials, in key newspaper endorsements, in his fund-raising prowess, in the quality of his advertising and in his ground-level election operations (his team knocked on seven times more doors during the week of early voting than Team Edwards).

Turnout could prove telling, but excitement over the presidential races, two hotly contested congressional races in the Washington suburbs, an equally intense race for Baltimore mayor and the Edwards-Van Hollen contest could boost voter intensity all over the state.

Do Democrats in Maryland want a senator who is an eloquent civil rights protester or a practitioner of the practical? The outcome could weigh heavily on the direction of state politics in the years to come.

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Responsive Legislative Actions

By Barry Rascovar

April 18, 2016 – In chalking up results from the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session that concluded a week ago today, it appears lawmakers have much to crow about.

In at least four areas, they achieved major steps forward that should prove enormously beneficial to Maryland residents.

Re-shaping prison sentences and parole

No bill holds more promise than this one, which had the backing of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the governor and lawmakers.

The goal is to unclog prisons by placing minor drug offenders in alternative treatment, counseling and training programs instead of sitting unproductively in a jail cell.

Proponents made a big deal of the supposedly enormous savings in the original bill, which is of minor importance compared to providing offenders with constructive ways to turn their lives around while reserving incarceration for society’s truly bad apples.

State senators hesitated to give full support to the advocates’ liberal “get out of jail card” approach, worrying hardened criminals might be getting breaks they don’t deserve and return quickly to a life of street violence.

In the end, they agreed to give it a try, but the issue is certain to return to the State House next year to close unintended loopholes and weaknesses in the bill that won’t appear until the law is fully implemented.

Underwriting a Baltimore renewal program

One of Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s worst moments this past session was his failure to present a city revival package to the General Assembly. Given the governor’s no-show on this vital issue, Democratic lawmakers stepped in and fashioned their own combination of aid bills.

It includes state money to upgrade city parks; mentoring for promising middle-school students; a guaranteed, multi-year housing demolition aid package; youth summer jobs, and longer library hours.

It’s a step in the right direction to engage city youth in positive activities and improve life in their communities. But far more needs to be done on the state level to help the city launch an economic revival in distressed, unsafe communities. Whether Hogan views this as an imperative remains a huge question mark.

Enlarging UM’s College Park-Baltimore research ties

No, it’s not a merger between the University of Maryland, College Park and UM’s impressive professional schools university in Baltimore. Instead, the legislation fully opens the doors for collaboration between talented researchers previously separated by insular university system politics.

Equally significant, the bill allocates millions of dollars to identify promising breakthroughs and get them on the commercial development fast track. That translates into jobs and strong economic growth.

The partnership bill also provides an overdue financial boost to two underfunded campuses that have become stars in the state’s higher education constellation – Towson University and UMBC. There’s also research-development money for Morgan State University.

Almost forgotten is the bill’s mandate that Bob Caret, chancellor of the vast UM system, move his office from the College Park area to downtown Baltimore. This holds immense significance. Caret will immediately become a key figure in city business and leadership groups, an advocate for Baltimore and a potent force in leveraging the university system’s brainpower to help reverse Baltimore’s fortunes.

A healthy Baltimore City remains pivotal to Maryland’s well-being. Taking steps to rejuvenate the city puts Maryland government in a stronger position to lure companies – and jobs – to the area, to boost the quality of life for the region’s citizens and to bolster the state’s tax collections in and around Charm City.

Thwarting repeat drunk drivers

It’s about time. From now on, individuals who get caught driving while seriously inebriated will be forced to install ignition interlock devices on their cars. If they ever abuse alcohol again and try to get behind the wheel to drive home, they won’t be able to start the engine.

The bill makes our streets safer and might persuade more abusers to think twice before imbibing alcoholic beverages away from home.

That’s an impressive foursome of major legislation. Missing from this list is any tax reduction – which actually is good news.

Maryland’s economic rebound remains uneven and modest, despite the solid March jobs report. It is wiser to till next January before messing with tax cuts. With luck, Hogan will have a much bigger pot of cash to use for this purpose – a welcome move as he starts gearing up his reelection efforts.

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

 

 

 

Ceding Power to the Legislature

By Barry Rascovar

April 11, 2016 – It’s been an unusually contentious 90-day Maryland General Assembly session. The Republican governor and Democratic legislature are pulling in starkly different directions.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has made it clear he’d just as soon do away with those pesky lawmakers and rule by executive fiat.Ceding Power to the Legislature

His propaganda pitch is simple: I’m immensely popular right now and that should be enough to sweep away all opposition to my policy proposals.

Hogan, the most powerful governor in America when it comes to budget-making, wants even more unfettered ability to do as he pleases in cutting mandated aid programs.

He mocked lawmakers repeatedly during the session, even comparing them to college-age pranksters at one point.

Scant Progress for Hogan

In most cases, he refused to let his underlings work with lawmakers behind the scenes to improve the final work product and reach a compromise.

He kept demanding total surrender by Democratic legislators on a host of conservative Republican initiatives.

No wonder Hogan made scant progress on his agenda. It was too ideological, too partisan and too in-your-face bad-mouthing.

Indeed, Hogan’s decision to play Lone Ranger politics rather than work cooperatively with Democrats in the General Assembly has set the stage for what could be a momentous power shift in the Annapolis State House.

Throughout Maryland’s history, legislatures have let the governor take the lead in setting the agenda for the state’s annual General Assembly session. Lawmakers followed the old adage – the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

But this time Hogan failed to lead. His 13-point initiative was long on Republican talking points featuring lots of tax cuts, fee cuts and tax credits for businesses as well as impossibly idealistic conservative goals such as wiping away state spending mandates and stripping the Democratic legislature of any power over the decennial redistricting process.

It’s no surprise Hogan met failure on the majority of these items.

Filling the Void

What did come as a surprise was legislative leaders’ determination to jump into the policy void created by Hogan.

Where was the comprehensive gubernatorial aid package for riot-torn Baltimore City –the most pressing problem confronting the state?

Where was the gubernatorial package of bills to improve the environment, public schools, state universities or health care?

On these critical issues, Hogan was missing in action.

Instead, House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller became the initiators, setting their own achievement goals. For the most part, Hogan was left on the sidelines where he shouted nasty criticisms of the players but never offered to join them on the field.

Aggressive Legislators

The legislature’s Baltimore aid package, while far from ideal, offered the first tangible evidence of Democratic lawmakers imposing their will on the governor, not vice versa.

It could be the start of a more aggressive approach by legislative leaders, making demands on the governor or even requiring gubernatorial actions.

In the past, lawmakers were deferential and passive partners in the law-making process, giving the governor the primary role in formulating policy and pushing legislation to fruition.

That has started to change.

Over the next two legislative sessions, Hogan’s influence will wane as the 2018 elections draw near and political reelection becomes the driving force. Democratic lawmakers will be less willing to grant Republican Hogan what he wants if it involves partisan goals and initiatives, as seems likely.

His agenda could be put on the shelf as legislators fashion their own package of priority legislation and steer it through the House and Senate with enough votes to override a Hogan veto.

Who Will Be in Charge?

By the time Hogan finishes his first term, he may have created a legislative monster for future chief executives – a General Assembly more capable of replacing the governor as the initiator of major legislation. Their power could increase; his could diminish.

It is likely Hogan can continue to milk his popularity by belittling Democratic lawmakers, portraying himself as the victim of their misguided actions and positioning himself as the advocate of lower taxes and less intrusive government. It’s worked so far.

Yet at the same time, if the chasm between Hogan and legislative leaders widens the governor may not have much in the way of achievements to show voters. By 2018, a cynical public may not view him so positively.

A more powerful state legislature seems on the horizon, and that’s not good news for any governor – unless he is willing to collaborate and compromise. Hogan has shown a lack of interest in either.

The verdict on the governor is still out. He’s shown he can retain his popularity. But can Hogan get major legislation approved while taking a confrontational approach toward a more assertive General Assembly?

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Hogan’s April Fool’s Joke?

By Barry Rascovar

April 4, 2016—On April Fool’s Day, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. played a whopper of a prank on the Maryland General Assembly: He vetoed a bill that brings public accountability and transparency to an important state government decision-making process.

Surely, Hogan wasn’t serious about this veto. Right?

 

Hogan's April Fool's Joke?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

After all, Republican legislatures in Virginia and North Carolina have passed similar “openness in government” laws.

Besides, the Maryland bill he vetoed doesn’t weaken Hogan’s power to do as he pleases in selecting transportation projects.

It’s a “feel good” bill that merely requires that Hogan’s team develop a ranking system for transportation projects and then explain if programs low on the list are given priority status in his budget.

Transparency but No Enforcement

Is Hogan against transparency in government? Does he really want to run a more secretive administration?

Of course not.

Is Hogan serious about terming this toothless bill “the worst kind of policy making”?

Is he sincere when he says this flimsy bill will block needed road and bridge projects?

No, of course not.

It’s got to be an April Fool’s joke.

The bill passed by the legislature is decades overdue. Had such transparency in road projects been in place, the corruption scandals involving Spiro Agnew, Dale Anderson and Joe Alton might never have happened.

Shining a light on government decision-making helps avoid shadowy actions by the governor’s staff that are based on political favoritism or cronyism. The public deserves to know how important choices are made. That builds trust in Maryland’s elected leaders.

Trumpian Statements

Hogan’s comments are so far afield from the facts that it’s all got to be a gigantic charade.

Indeed, Hogan’s rantings about this unenforceable transportation transparency bill are so extreme that he sounds almost Trumpian.

Let’s examine some of his claims.

Does this bill strip power from the governor? No.

Does this bill give more power to the legislature? No.

Does this bill block the governor from choosing any road or bridge project he wants? No.

Does this bill harm any Marylanders? No.

Does this bill harm business development? No.

Does this bill infringe on the governor’s right to identify local road projects he wants to fund? Absolutely not.

So why is Hogan in such a lather? Why did he veto a bill that will be overridden promptly by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly?

Partisan, Republican politics, pure and simple.

Energizer Issue

Hogan is using this bill as a device to energize his followers and true-believers. It is part of Hogan’s ideological drive to portray himself and his supporters as victims of those evil Democrats who control the legislature.

He’s arguing on the basis of emotion, not facts. And he’s sounding distressingly like Donald Trump.

Hogan is correct that Democratic lawmakers are becoming more and more distrustful of his actions, such as cancelling the federally-approved Red Line transit route, the terrible appointments he made to the Baltimore City liquor board, the questionable appointments he made to the state’s handgun control board, the suspect actions of his nominee to the Public Service Commission, and his de-emphasis of mass transit in his budget in favor of road projects in Republican counties.

The transportation transparency bill stems from that distrust. If Hogan continues along this path, distrust of Hogan could grow rapidly, with many more objectionable bills reaching his desk.

Hogan knows he’s going to lose this fight with the legislature. He also knows his powers remain fully intact. It’s all for show – and for political gain.

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