Monthly Archives: November 2017

Downsizing That Hurts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 27, 2017 — We live in a Trumpian world of propagandizing and denial of reality, with the accusers distorting the truth and calling it “fake news.”

Unfortunately, some of this manipulation is taking place in the Maryland State House. Far too often, spokesmen for Gov. Larry Hogan engage in blame-pointing rather than fess up to the cold, hard truth.

Case in point: The adamant denial that Maryland state government is suffering from huge personnel vacancies in some of its key agencies.

“Nonsense,” said the governor’s spokesman. There’s no shortage of state workers, he asserted, as he questioned the validity of the Department of Legislative Services report.

Denying the Obvious

Yet there is a glaring problem — according to data from Hogan’s own government agencies, a judge and state prison officials.

Instead of admitting the obvious and explaining what’s being done to find creative solutions,  Hogan’s office sought to denigrate a non-partisan research office with a sterling tradition of “calling it like it is.”

The “fake news” is coming from Hogan’s suite, not Legislative Services.

The argument is over the size of state government in Maryland.

Hogan, a believer in conservative budgeting, has consistently clamped a lid on state spending, including hiring. Part of this effort is grounded in the old Republican saw that government bureaucracies are always “bloated,” overflowing with people filling make-work jobs.

That has led to a drive to hold down new hiring, even in cases where there is a dire need for more personnel.

Contempt of Court

Take the Maryland Department of Health, where top brass nearly went to jail after they repeatedly they failed to hire enough psychiatric nurses and physicians to handle all of the patients being sent to state hospitals for court-ordered mental-health treatment.

This has been a longstanding problem that started well before Hogan. His aides could have pointed that out.

Instead, the governor’s minions circled the wagons and refused to cooperate with the judge — until the state health secretary was held in contempt of court.

Or take the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which continues having a devil of a time finding qualified prison guards with clean records. Over 1,700 vacant positions exist in the department — a whopping vacancy rate of 9 percent.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances but there’s a critical shortage of guards in state prisons. There was no effort by the governor’s office to explain how the administration is working to proactively meet this serious challenge.

Instead, the governor’s spokesman put the onus on the prior Democratic administration.

That line of attack ignores the fact that Hogan has been in office nearly three years — more than enough time to craft an effective plan to remedy this dangerous worker shortage.

Too Many Unfilled Jobs

DLS reported to a legislative committee that in a number of key agencies — corrections, health, human services, juvenile services and the State Police — the vacancy rate is more than twice the norm — over 7 percent.

That should be viewed as unacceptable by leaders of the executive branch. Instead, Hogan seems fixated on budgetary hold-downs — and denying there is a problem.

The English would describe his view as “penny wise and pound foolish.”

It makes sense to trim the size of government if it is done carefully. Problems begin when the needs of individual agencies are ignored for the sake of downsizing and budget cuts..

The Hogan administration may succeed in papering over most staffing shortages until after next year’s elections. But eventually lack of skilled job-holders could diminish state government’s ability to perform basic obligations. There’s a limit to downsizing in the public sector, a point Hogan’s team may have started to reach.

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MD’s Transportation Travails

By Barry Rascovar

Nov.  20, 2017 – When it comes to improving transportation for citizens and businesses in Central Maryland, the state has dropped the ball.

A crucial east-west connecting subway line in Baltimore was summarily cancelled, foregoing $1 billion in federal dollars to save the state money.

An east-west light-rail line to relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway and provide more public transit access for less-affluent citizens in the Washington suburbs was reduced dramatically to save the state money.

A much-needed revamp of Baltimore’s third-rate bus system remains controversial and so far hasn’t produced any new riders.

A plan to experiment with high-tech traffic controls on busy state roads is so modest that the impact on the driving public could be virtually nil.

MD's Transportation Travails

Baltimore’s century-old Howard Street Tunnel

And now CSX, the railroad born and bred in Baltimore as the B. & O., has pulled out of a plan to enlarge the Howard Street Tunnel, sacrificing potentially enormous future benefits for the sake of short-term, cost-saving profits for its stockholders.

Those first four items are bad news for Jane and Joe Citizen; the last item is terrible news for Baltimore’s vital maritime industry, which badly needs a better way to move more shipping containers to and from the Port of Baltimore.

Priority No. 1: Highways

The Hogan administration is clearly interested in highways over mass transit. But even there, improvements could be a long way off.

Take the much-publicized $50 million upgrade of traffic signals. The governor called it “transformational.” But the “Smart Signals” program doesn’t do much more than experiment with signaling technology that holds great promise but may not be fully ready for prime time.

The sites picked for this upgrade won’t help drivers much, if at all. Take the upgrade in Towson – Charles Street between the traffic light at Kenilworth Drive and I-695 – a mere 1,200 feet. Not much will be gleaned from that “improvement.”

Or take the upgrade in Brooklyn Park, where the new technology will control traffic lights on just an eight-block stretch along Ritchie Highway.

Look at the Annapolis smart signal corridor, extending through just four intersections along Route 2 south from Annapolis Harbor Center. Not much help for drivers there, either.

It’s great the administration is embarking on “smart” transportation technology. If fully implemented, this technology could possibly reduce idling time and carbon dioxide emissions as well as speed commutes. But the choice of such short driving distances means citizens will benefit minimally from this $50 million investment.

Traffic Jam for Buses

Similarly, the much-heralded, $135 million re-make of the Baltimore bus system hasn’t markedly improved travel time for bus commuters. It has done little to effectively connect city residents to suburban job centers. It’s another expensive transportation exercise that seems stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, CSX’s new CEO has delivered a crushing blow to the governor’s hopes for an economic boost through a public-private effort to enlarge the century-old Howard Street Tunnel. He is out to prove to stockholders he can slash costs, boost quarterly profits and boost stockholder profits.

The $425 million tunnel project became a victim of Wall Street’s lust for short-term earnings gains even if it seriously erodes CSX’s long-term ability to capitalize on Baltimore’s booming container shipping traffic.

Getting federal approval for this project may have been a longshot anyway, according to Mark Reutter in the Baltimore Brew. Yet give the Hogan team credit for pushing ahead in the quest for a solution to the freight-traffic bottleneck caused by the antiquated tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the governor is pushing forward on an impossibly expensive ($9 billion), largely privatized plan to widen the Capital Beltway, I-270 to Frederick and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Yet the obstacles are immense, the price-tag is sure to rise substantially and the benefits have been called into question by members of the Montgomery County Council.

Even if these improvements are in place a decade from now, the rapid evolution of travel technology may make these super-expensive construction projects obsolete before they open.

Driverless cars are coming sooner than you think, which could create a radical transformation of American highways. Among other things, those “Lexus” toll lanes could fail to live up to revenue expectations.

So while the publicity from the governor’s suite promotes a positive image for Hogan’s transportation programs, not much is going smoothly. There have been more detours and bumps in the road than progress.

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Bad Omen for GOP?

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 12, 2017 – No one predicted it: A tidal-wave election last Tuesday swept through numerous states, sending even entrenched Republican incumbents into retirement and shocking the most optimistic Democrats by the enormity of their party’s sweeping victories.

Does this foretell a similar tsunami a year from now, when control of Congress could be at stake? Does this indicate Maryland’s popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, faces a far more daunting challenge in 2018 than previously expected?

Before we get carried away by the surprising results, let’s keep in mind that all elections are not created equal.

Some are endowed with predictable outcomes while others are swayed by outside forces.

Last Tuesday, outside forces held the winning hand.

If you’re looking for one, overriding factor in all these election upsets, it’s the guy living in the White House.

With the latest polls showing barely more than one-third of voters approving of Donald Trump’s performance as president, it had to be expected that anti-Trump sentiment would show up in the November balloting.

Surprising Results

What came as a stunner was the breadth and depth of anger toward Trump – from enraged Democrats who showed up to vote in far larger than expected numbers, from independents who sided by a lopsided margin with Democrats, from college-educated women in the suburbs who have been turned off by Trump’s boorish and destructive behavior.

The result: Anti-Republican sentiment that wiped out even well-meaning moderate Republican officeholders.

Bad Omen for GOP?The two governorships up for grabs, in New Jersey and Virginia, went to Democrats by very large numbers. A tight race in the Old Dominion turned into a rout and Democrats came achingly close to re-capturing the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time in decades.

Some of the most conservative and longest-serving officeholders in those states got walloped by candidates from the other end of the political spectrum – a transgender, a Peruvian immigrant and a 32-year-old African-American woman who had never run for office before.

In a “wave election” anyone on the wrong side of the wave is vulnerable.

That could include Larry Hogan next year.

Demographic trends throughout the country and in Maryland may have been accelerated by Trump’s distasteful actions as president. Suddenly millennials, Latinos, African Americans, gays and college-educated suburban women are taking the time to show up at the polls and register their anger.

Frederick and Annapolis

Look at Annapolis, where incumbent Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides should have had smooth sailing to another term. Instead, he got clobbered by Australia native and restaurateur-businessman Gavin Buckley, a first-time Democratic candidate. Pantelides lost by a stunning 24 percentage points.

The same thing happened in Frederick city, where Democratic Alderman Mike O’Connor ousted two-term Mayor Randy McClement in a runaway race (22 percentage points). Democrats swept all five alderman seats by landslide margins, too.

Upsets are bound to occur in politics. But when so many long-established Republican figures are defeated in one-sided elections across the country, the GOP had better take notice.

Even Hogan, despite his popularity, could find himself a victim of the “send Trump a message” sentiment that dominated on Nov. 7.

Still, Maryland’s governor won’t be a sitting duck for Democrats next year. He’s proved to be a crafty, difficult-to-categorize politician who remains a staunch conservative but knows how to appease moderates.

He’s still an overwhelming favorite next year, but now there’s an asterisk attached to his name:

*If the country remains deeply angered by Trump’s presidency in November 2018, it won’t matter that Hogan is a likeable guy with sky-high approval numbers. He could be swept out to sea in spite of the fact he parted ways with the president long ago.

The same might apply to other moderate conservative Republicans with high popularity numbers, such as Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. If Democrats can find a decent Eastern Shore candidate to run against far-right conservative Rep. Andy Harris, the incumbent also might find the going rough next year.

No Republican is immune. The Trump influenza could infect all sorts of unsuspecting Republicans.

Different Issues

But don’t expect 2018 to be a carbon copy of 2017. The issues will be different. Congressional seats will be at stake with huge sums of GOP money thrown into races to preserve Republican control of Capitol Hill.

Hogan will vastly outspend his Democratic opponent. He’s also got the power of incumbency, which can’t be ignored.

Still, Hogan has to be having a sense of déjà vu: In 2006, incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich, with approval ratings nearly as high as Hogan’s, was shown the door, receiving just 46 percent of the vote.

In short, the only thing Larry Hogan has to fear is fear itself – in the persona of Donald Trump. This year’s astounding results could be a preview of things.

Or next year’s results could mark as return to the status quo for Republicans.

The one thing we know is that the world will look quite different in 12 months when voters get another chance to express themselves.

Either way, Republicans are on the hot seat. Much like football’s Baltimore Ravens, they had better up their game.

Otherwise, 2018 could be a blowout year in which candidates such as Hogan and Kittleman might be lucky to avoid turning into collateral damage.

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Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

 

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 6, 2017 – Once upon a time, campaign endorsements mattered. Some of those nods of approval even tilted elections. That’s no longer the case in Maryland.

The power of an endorsement is waning as the communications revolution provides multiple sources of information about candidates running for office. Millions are spent on advertising in every media format to be sure voters hear from candidates directly.

That wasn’t true years ago, when the main form of getting your political message to voters was by mail and through the newspaper. Televised debates sometimes gave you a brief glimpse into the thinking of contenders for the top office.

Back then, an endorsement by a trusted group gave a voter reassurance and direction.

Today’s gubernatorial race on the Democratic side so far has been a rush by some candidates to gain endorsements. They seem transfixed on what may turn out to be a desert mirage.

Brief Notice

This summer, Benjamin Jealous grabbed TV face-time and news stories with endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Corey Booker. That gained Jealous brief public notice 10 months before the Democratic primary. But little beyond that.

Booker is a popular though second-tier New Jersey senator whose backing for Jealous has even less weight in the Democratic primary for governor than his support from the militant National Nurses United and Maryland Working Families.

Jealous also has the ringing endorsement of the hero of far-left Democrats, Bernie Sanders. That is to be expected since Jealous toured the country as a Sanders surrogate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) and Benjamin Jealous

Bernie’s support does help Jealous identify himself as a Sanders acolyte but remember, Sanders got just 34 percent of the Maryland primary vote. Still, in a crowded campaign that slice of the party vote could prove important.

Yet there’s no assurance Sanders backers will flock to Jealous’ side just because the failed presidential candidate supports him. It doesn’t work that way in this era. In the top races, today’s voters don’t like being told what to do.

Endorsements from labor unions used to be a potent force. For instance, what the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers union said mattered to members. No longer. Donald Trump gained few labor endorsements yet blue-collar workers strongly backed him.

Jealous’ endorsement from the service workers’ union, SEIU, could help produce volunteers for his campaign, especially in parts of Baltimore City. Yet the impact of that endorsement could prove modest statewide.

Similar Views on Education

Similarly, the backing of the Maryland State Education Association – a coveted honor contenders for governor badly want – will provide the honoree with some manpower and organizational help, but the vast majority of teachers will make up their own minds. They aren’t going to be dictated to by their union, especially since all the Democratic candidates have quite similar pro-education and pro-teacher positions.

The primary is still eight months away yet the cycle of endorsements began last summer – way, way before voters start contemplating the party’s gubernatorial candidates.

Even worse, the primary campaign could change dramatically before the filing deadline in late January, leaving early endorsers in a bind.

For instance, Emily’s List last week gave an early endorsement to a little-known candidate with zero elective experience, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings. This was more a function of the candidate’s inside-the-beltway networking skills than anything having to do with the Maryland governor’s race.

Emily’s List can provide a chunk of money for the endorsee, which will be helpful. But what if the campaign landscape takes an unexpected twist before the filing deadline?

Perhaps former Rep. Donna Edwards decides to switch races and files for governor rather than run for Prince George’s County Executive.

What if former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, an icon among feminist groups, finds retirement boring and runs for governor?

What if former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake takes a look at the gubernatorial field and jumps in?

What does Emily’s List do then?

Early endorsements can backfire. They also have little influence if announced hundreds of days before the actual balloting.

Taking a Chance

One endorsement that could continue to hold weight is Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s public backing for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Van Hollen and Baker have worked together politically for decades. Baker took a risky step by endorsing Van Hollen over Edwards in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary. (He won by 14 percentage points).

Now the senator is returning the favor.

Here’s the real significance: Van Hollen is a respected and popular officeholder, especially in his longtime home, Montgomery County, which is a key jurisdiction in the Democratic primary.

His support of Baker will matter there, especially if Van Hollen campaigns for Baker in the Washington suburbs, where the party’s political fulcrum now rests.

Harry Who?

Newspaper endorsements used play a pivotal part in elections. Having the backing of the Baltimore Sun or Washington Post was BIG news. One Baltimore politician once told me that gaining The Sun’s endorsement in his legislative district could mean as much as 10,000 extra votes. Now that’s power.

Dwindling newspaper readership, though, has altered that perspective. No longer are newspapers the main source of campaign information. Nor do voters trust newspapers the way they did in past decades.

Even in the case of Maryland’s most famous newspaper endorsement – the Baltimore Sun’s surprise backing of Harry Hughes for governor in 1978 – the potency of that front-page editorial turned out to be more legend than fact.

No, The Sun and The Evening Sun didn’t “elect” Harry Hughes. The endorsement wasn’t the difference-maker (he won by nearly 4 percentage points).

It did, though, add to the momentum for Hughes, a trend that had started weeks earlier. It gave him credibility.

Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

News-American story, by David Ahearn, on Harry Hughes’ surprise victory in 1978 Democratic primary for governor.

A post-election analysis by a respected pollster concluded, “The newspaper endorsement made Hughes a plausible candidate and the voters did the rest.”

So take this round of 21st century Maryland gubernatorial endorsements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

They aren’t what they used to be. In some elections, endorsements may not matter much at all.

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