Monthly Archives: August 2017

Hogan’s Trumpian Tendencies

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 28, 2017–There’s a little bit of Donald Trump in Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

Demands of obedience from the co-equal branches of government. His pandering to the far-right of the Republican Party. His refusal to compromise and blame others when things go wrong. His recent descent into the political gutter by giving credence to “fake news.”

The state’s governor continues to perform a delicate balancing act – distancing himself ever so carefully from the Republican president’s offensive behavior and then pandering to Maryland’s hard-core conservative Trump supporters.

One day he opposes the white supremacist actions in Charlottesville, Va., and quickly removes a symbol of racism from the State House grounds.

But he follows up with actions that appeal to law-and-order hard-liners and then makes political points with right-wingers by furthering their “fake news” story about a phantom movement to sack the state flag.

Hogan's Trumpian Tendencies

MD Gov. Larry Hogan

How Trumpian of Hogan.

The president regularly flays Congress and his own party’s leaders for not marching in lock-step behind him. He denounces judges who disagree with him, sometimes in harsh, ugly terms. He feeds the worst instincts of his followers. And he revels in perpetrating outright lies and convincing his followers that straight news reporting is fraudulent.

Hogan’s Commandment

In Maryland, the state’s Republican governor demands that judges in Baltimore City follow his tough-on-criminals commandment: Thou shalt not hand out suspended sentences to gun-law violators.

He set up a meeting with city judicial leaders to lecture them and pressure them to crack down on repeat law-breakers.

The state’s top judge, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, termed Hogan’s request “inappropriate” and cited the judiciary’s code of conduct which states a judge “shall not be swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism.” City judges, she wrote, will not attend.

That didn’t stop Hogan from making political points with his base of angry supporters. He called Barbera’s action “misguided” – since it blew up plans to stage a highly publicized event in which the star of the show would be Larry Hogan.

Now Hogan, like Trump, has an easy target to blame, in this case for the lack of progress in stemming Baltimore’s murderous crime rate. The notion that judicial independence would have been severely compromised didn’t faze him at all.

It’s similar to the way he denounces Democratic Senate and House leaders when his legislative agenda goes up in flames – even though Hogan is as much to blame as House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller.

Perpetuating “Fake News”

But this governor, like Trump, is never wrong and is never at fault when his best-laid plans are sidetracked – sometimes by his own stupidity (such as not allowing administration officials to testify on bills or refusing to honor information requests from Democratic legislators).

Now Hogan has decided to capitalize on “fake news,” another Trump specialty. He happily jumped on board a totally fictionalized assertion by a right-wing website that “radicals” in the state legislature were about to change the state flag due to localized Confederate ties during the Civil War.

The flag, Hogan told his most fervent cheerleaders, “will never be changed as long as I’m governor.”

There’s only one problem: The flag isn’t “under attack” as Hogan’s far-right acolytes maintain. The whole thing was made up by a conservative media outlet to whip its followers into a frenzy and sign a petition to save a state flag that doesn’t need saving.

Thanks, governor, for displaying such strong leadership to further this “fake news” cycle. It’s just what we need in Maryland – another emotionally charged non-issue that deflects from the far more difficult job of governing in perilous times.

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Hogan & Pugh: Doing What’s Right

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 21, 2017 – In this seminal period of American history, it is important for elected officials to display moral courage and leadership rather than more fashionable politics of survival – and a craven pandering to people’s baser instincts.

Both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh took the high road last week, doing what was right even if it proved controversial.

The two leaders acted quickly to remove Civil War-era statues that inflamed public debate, thanks to President Trump’s incendiary comments following a neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally and a later domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Va.

The two Marylanders are getting flak for their prompt, common-sense decisions. They even drew criticism for daring to provide sensible arguments for their actions.

While this dispute superficially involves the removal of statues honoring the Confederacy and slavery, the culture war erupting nationwide is forcing Americans to confront some of this country’s darkest history.

Ever since the end of the North-South confrontation that lasted four bloody years, there’s been a concerted effort to patch things over and get on with “reconciliation.” Southern leaders, meanwhile, have tried to keep the image of the ante-bellum era alive, turning Confederate leaders into hallowed heroes and their traditions into a virtue.

Those divergent initiatives led to Confederate statues arising around the country. Four in Baltimore now have been removed as has one on the State House grounds in Annapolis.

Lee-Jackson on Horseback

The Lee-Jackson equestrian statue in Wyman Park dell near the Baltimore Museum of Art should have come down long ago. It was an embarrassment, an ode to two military men who betrayed their country and sought to tear it asunder.

Their actions do not merit a salute on public city property. Neither Robert E. Lee nor Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson showed up in the vicinity of Baltimore during the Civil War. There’s no reason for this statue to be in a Baltimore park.

Hogan & Pugh

Lee-Jackson Monument at its former site in Baltimore.

Pugh hit a home run when she suggested the equestrian bronze rightly belongs on the Chancellorsville battlefield in Spotsylvania, Va. That is where Lee and Jackson concocted a brilliant strategy that pulled off a surprising victory – one that was marred by Jackson’s friendly-fire wounding and subsequent death.

As for the two statues of Roger B. Taney (1777-1864), the issue is more complex. Taney, the fifth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stands out as the most prominent Marylander to serve in high federal posts for an extended period of time.

After election to the Maryland House of Delegates, state Senate and then to the office of state attorney general, Taney took on the role of President Andrew Jackson’s attorney general and later secretary of the Treasury. He was the most influential member of Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet” and architect of Jackson’s campaign to abolish the Second Bank of the United States.

This was a pivotal issue in Jackson’s election and re-election. Taney provided a glide path for President Jackson, who was the Bernie Sanders of his time – a populist intent on bringing the voice of the common man into the White House.

Taney on the Supreme Court

Jackson then chose Taney to succeed the giant of Supreme Court chief justices, John Marshall. It was a position Taney held for over 28 years.

A state’s rights constitutionalist, Taney broke new ground in commercial law, the enforcement of legally binding contacts and the decision-making authority of popularly elected state legislatures.

One landmark written opinion, though, left Taney’s reputation in tatters. From the moment the Dred Scott decision was announced in 1857, it was excoriated for its harsh and inhuman characterization of African Americans.

Scott, Taney wrote, had no standing to file a lawsuit because African Americans – both freedmen and slaves – possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Hogan & Pugh

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

From today’s vantage point, there’s no doubt of the terrible wrongness of Taney’s declaration. But in the context of his times, Taney’s viewpoint was supported by many Americans, including six other Supreme Court justices who supported Taney’s majority opinion.

According to an amazingly timely account of the Taney statues in the spring/summer issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine, Taney’s bronze image came about as a result of diametrically opposed drives by state legislators: One group sought reconciliation after the war by honoring Maryland’s most famous national figure. The other group had clear white supremacist goals, using Taney’s Dred Scott opinion as the rationale for their racist views.

Bronzes are Born

William Henry Rinehart, a renowned Maryland sculptor, cast the Taney bronze in his Rome workshop. It cost taxpayers $10,000 (about $250,000 in today’s dollars). The statue’s unveiling in 1872 was a major state event. A duplicate of Taney’s head, neck and shoulders, with alterations, was later commissioned for Baltimore, crafted by the brilliant American Beaux-Arts sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

These are historically accurate and important works. Demagogic demands by gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous and Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott to melt down those artistic creations are despicable attempts at modern-day book-burning. Such demands bring into question these individuals’ temperament as public figures.

Both Hogan and Pugh placed the controversial statues in storage until an appropriate home can be found. Flame-throwers on both the far-right and far-left would love to make these statues a cause celebre to further their opportunistic objectives.

No wonder the bronzes were moved overnight from their sites. Public safety was at risk.

Appropriate Replacements

Now the question becomes: What should replace these discredited public monuments?

Why not commission statues of unifying figures from Maryland’s recent past, such as political giants:

  • William Donald Schaefer (four-time Baltimore mayor and two-time governor),
  • Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin (two times both governor and Baltimore mayor),
  • Barbara Mikulski (feminist ground-breaker and longest-serving female member of the U.S. Senate), and
  • Charles “Mac” Mathias (seminal centrist politician in both the U.S. House and Senate).

Or perhaps we should replace the Baltimore bust of Taney with a bust of the most recent Maryland Supreme Court justice, Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American jurist on the nation’s highest court.

What about Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi – the Baltimore daughter of a three-term mayor and five-term congressman, Thomas “Old Tommy” D’Alesandro, Jr. – who rose to the highest rung of the U.S. House of Representatives as the nation’s first female Speaker of the House?

Or maybe we should avoid political figures and honor in bronze the likes of James Rouse, the pioneering urban planner (the new town of Columbia, Harborplace, Cross Keys, Mondawmin and Harundale Mall – the first enclosed shopping center east of the Mississippi).

Why not a bronze statue commemorating philanthropists like Johns Hopkins, Enoch Pratt and George Peabody, whose selfless contributions to the Baltimore region have endured for over a century?

It’s time to move on from 150-year-old Civil War divisions.

Let us find proper, appropriate sites for controversial statuary art from that era.

Then let us honor and commemorate men and women of all races who have made metropolitan Baltimore and Maryland better because of their dedication and hard work for the common good.

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

Pension Investing: Goldilocks vs. Chicken Little

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 14, 2017–Separating fact from fiction, headline-screaming hype from on-the-ground reality isn’t easy in this 24/7/365 media-frenzied world, especially when it comes to reporting on government and politics.

Take, for example, the world of state pension fund performance. Returns on these investments have been pretty meager in recent years and the nation’s governors and legislatures have resisted pumping hundreds of billions of dollars to achieve “full funding” for these pension accounts.

In Maryland, it has become an annual rite of August for critics to lambast state pension trustees when they fall short on their investments. The biggest lament is the state’s huge “unfunded liability,” which stands a bit below $20 billion.MD Pension System: Goldilocks vs. Chicken Little

Wow. That’s a mighty hefty number. Is the pension program for 387,000 state workers, teachers and retirees going broke as doom-and-gloomers insist?

Or are we being fed “fake news” in which the “sky-is-falling” screams are based on a false premise?

It’s more the latter than the former. The $20 billion number is based on a scenario that will never happen. It assumes every eligible state worker and teacher retires tomorrow. In other words, government virtually shuts down and everyone starts collecting retirement benefits.

Future Gap in Payouts

It is true the state’s retirement agency pays out more in benefits each year than it takes in from employee contributions and state and local governments. In good years, that gap is closed by investment income. In bad years, the agency withdraws funds from its $49 billion in assets.

This past fiscal year was a very good one for Maryland’s retirement fund. Investments yielded a 10% return – a $3.6 billion increase in net assets. Over the past 10 years assets have grown by $10 billion.

Still, critics assert Maryland’s pension trustees should be far more aggressive. Instead of middle-of-the-road investing compared to other states, they also insist the trustees could make billions more by shifting investments into static index funds.

That would achieve two things. Management fees would be markedly lower, since index funds require very little work for fund managers once they are set up. Second, index funds perform exceptionally well in flush economic times since they reflect overall stock market booms.

Maryland pension officials have resisted this shift and here’s why. In bad times, index funds are hit much harder than actively managed funds.

State officials have been cautious over the years in an attempt to reduce extreme highs and lows by diversifying their portfolio. Only half the agency’s money is tied up in equity funds. The rest goes into much safer, and thus lower paying, investments such as government bonds, real estate and cash.

Over the past 30 years that approach has returned an 8% return per year.

To Index or Not to Index?

Still, critics are pounding the retirement agency for not fully indexing its accounts to lower management fees.

Those critics are ignoring worrisome storm clouds many economists see on the horizon. T. Rowe Price, for the first time in 17 years, is pulling back on its stock investments and increasing investments in bonds – a sign the company sees a downturn coming our way.

T. Rowe Price actively manages its funds so that if the economy starts to tank, it can shift out of stocks and increase its cash reserves. That shelters shareholders from the worst of bad times.

But if you are fully invested in index funds, there’s no way of avoiding a direct hit when the stock market plunges 20% or more.

Comptroller Peter Franchot has warned trustees against taking too many risks to achieve higher returns by buying stocks when their valuations are sky-high. His caution reflects the consensus of the retirement fund’s trustees.

At the moment, Maryland’s pension program is 70% fully funded and the board has instituted a 25-year-plan to close the remaining gap. But this liability is more an academic concern than something to lose sleep over.

Maryland state pension fund trustees continue to ignore the Chicken Littles screaming that “the sky is falling.” Instead, the trustees are following the tried-and-true Goldilocks formula: “Not too hot, not too cold, j-u-s-t right.”

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John Delaney for . . . President??

By Barry Rascovar

Donald Trump may have started an unwelcome trend. An outsider who started as a joke rather than a serious contender in the wide-open GOP presidential primaries last year, Trump pulled off America’s biggest upset. Today he’s president and now just about anyone thinks he, or she, can do the same thing.

Exhibit A is Maryland Congressman John Delaney. He thinks he should be president. He is giving up his seat in Congress to run for Trump’s job – though his odds at this point are slim and none – and Slim just left town.

Delaney’s credentials are exceptionally modest. Yes, he’s serving his third term in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from a district encompassing Western Maryland and parts of Montgomery County. That’s his only fling at public office. Previously he started, ran and then sold two financial service companies, making him super-rich.

John Delaney President??

U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland

But given Trump’s even more meager political resume, Delaney apparently thinks experience no longer counts.

The difference is that Trump is an exceptional reality TV personality, a charismatic, loud-mouthed know-it-all who captivated America’s heartland with his unconventional sales pitch and aggressive, unapologetic rhetoric.

Delaney, by contrast, is more phlegmatic than charismatic. He’s been in office over five years yet still is unknown in most of Maryland.

Congressional record

He’s also got little to show for his three terms in Congress.

His claim to fame is a proposal to rebuild U.S. infrastructure by encouraging corporations to re-patriate, tax-free, billions of profits stashed overseas in exchange for buying special infrastructure bonds that support a giant public works agenda.

Great idea but that’s all it is after five-plus years. Delaney’s brainchild hasn’t matured into a viable plan of action in the Republican Congress.

All Delaney offers Democratic voters at this point is a more moderate, pro-business view of the world than any of the likely presidential candidates in the 2020 primaries.

He does have two advantages: 1) He’s the first to jump in, giving Delaney oodles of time to romance caucus delegates in Iowa and voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina – the early primary states; 2) he can self-fund the next few years of his campaign while building a fund-raising operation.

Even then, it is hard to imagine  Delaney making much headway. He has all the makings of Maryland’s last presidential wannabe, former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who performed so miserably he got just 0.6% of the Iowa caucus vote – and dropped out. It was a huge humiliation for O’Malley, an end to a once-promising political career.

Now Delaney seems headed in the same direction. With a few more terms in the House of Representatives, he might have been an influential congressman. Or he might have used his wealth to become the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee next year.

Instead, he could end up a footnote – an also-ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary season.

That’s insane, but holding public office, or wishing to hold public office, does strange things to an individual’s ego.

Gubernatorial Wannabes

How, for instance, does a Washington lobbyist like Maya Rockeymoore think she is qualified or has the electability skills to become Maryland’s next governor?

How does a little-known “technology policy expert,” Alec Ross, who wrote a best-selling book (“The Industries of the Future”) and advised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on matters of technology, believe his background is sufficient to persuade voters he’s the most qualified person to fix problems bedeviling Maryland?

And how in the world does a 37-year-old former policy staffer to Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, Krishanti Vignarajah – with no prior experience whatsoever in Maryland – believe her modest resume (she ran Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn Initiative”) proves she is capable of running a complex state government?

If Trump can pull off a miracle electoral victory, then just about anyone else can, too. That seems to be the mindset.

It’s as though relevant experience no longer counts. Some captivating sound bites, colorful ads and outrageously out-of-the-box ideas and, voila, the presidency, or the governorship, is mine.

All these contenders see is opportunity – even though they lack the background traditionally expected of elected chief executives in this country.

The last time John Delaney faced a tough electoral fight, in 2014, he won reelection (in a gerrymandered, pro-Democratic district) by a slim 2,774 votes. That’s not an encouraging sign for his uphill battles in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The other wannabes have zero prior experience in running for public office, much less any measure of success. That’s a discouraging sign for their gubernatorial hopes and dreams.

But it’s also a discouraging sign for voters, who must separate the lighter-than-air candidates from the legitimate contenders.

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