Category Archives: Baltimore

Hogan dodges Trump bullet, fracking, ‘road-kill’ & more

By Barry Rascovar

March 27, 2017Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan can thank his lucky stars the bitter and intractable Republican disputes in Washington sabotaged plans to do away with the nation’s current healthcare plan, the Affordable Care Act.

Passage of the Trumpcare alternative – imposing horrific added costs on older Americans, endangering Medicare funding and removing healthcare coverage for 14 million citizens next year – would have had cataclysmic effects in Maryland and placed Hogan on an untenable political hot seat.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

President Trump

Instead, Hogan gets a slight reprieve, which helps his chances of getting reelected next year.

Then again, if the president and GOP hardliners insist on pressing a second time to wipe out the ACA and succeed, Hogan will be in the bull’s eye when furious Maryland Democrats seek revenge at the polls.

Equally ominous for the first-term Republican governor is Trump’s obsession with making exceedingly deep cuts in the federal budget. Even if Congress ignores the president’s budget submission from last week, the administration has its marching orders – cut personnel wherever possible, cut back severely on spending wherever possible and hold back on doling out money for programs run by the states.

Take, for instance, Trump’s budget that eliminates all federal funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Any sizable elimination of funds will infuriate many moderates and independents who voted for Hogan in 2014. Anger toward Trump could be taken out on Hogan on Election Day next year.

Hogan Dodges Trump Bullet

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The Maryland governor’s silence about Trump’s assault on federal spending isn’t helping him, either. Of course he’s in an unwinnable bind – criticize Trump and Hogan’s conservative followers will feel betrayed; support the president and Democrats will unload on Hogan.

It’s a tough time to be a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state. Hogan has his work cut out trying to separate himself from a wildly unpopular president without alienating died-in-the-wool Republican voters.

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From the “sound and fury signifying nothing” department, here are two items of wasted energy by elected leaders in Annapolis who should know better:

Pointless fracking debate

Environmental activists are in a tizzy over their insistence that hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale rock formations deep beneath Garrett County and a portion of Allegany County be forever banned in Maryland.

They’ve made such a stink that Hogan has flip-flopped on the issue – abandoning his efforts to help Republican Western Maryland landowners who might some day benefit from extraction of oil and gas using this “fracking” technique that has been in use for over 60 years.

Yet here’s the reality:

·         There is no fracking taking place anywhere in Maryland.

·         There is no likelihood of fracking taking place in Maryland any time in the years to come.

·         Fracking in Maryland is uneconomical today and will be for a long time to come.

·         Regulations proposed by Hogan are so tough that no exploration companies in their right mind will venture into Maryland unless oil prices soar far beyond $100 a barrel – an unlikely scenario thanks to the glut of fracked oil wells in more hospitable, resource-rich regions of the country.

So environmentalists will win this empty victory and Hogan will win over some environmentalists come Election Day – but he might also lose votes from the Western Maryland landowners he betrayed.

Ludicrous “Road Kill Bill” dispute

Both Hogan and lawmakers are in the wrong here.

The governor has completely politicized a law that is so insipid and toothless it’s not worth arguing about.

The law in question has no enforcement provisions and leaves the governor in full control of road-building decisions. All it does is provide a bit of transparency on the relative value of each project being funded.

Hogan’s empty threat of not funding projects because of this law is strictly for next year’s campaign sloganeering. He’s made a mountain out of a teeny molehill just to win political points with rural and suburban voters.

Democratic lawmakers said they were going to amend the law this year to make it even clearer the law is strictly advisory. They also said they would simplify the evaluation process.

Instead, Democrats in the Senate are pushing for a two-year delay in implementing a toothless law while wasting time studying how to make the law even more meaningless.

The whole thing is pointless and a turnoff to voters of all stripes.

Surely the governor and lawmakers can spend the remaining days of this General Assembly session on something that really is constructive and helps Maryland citizens.

Moxie from the mayor

Here’s a shout-out to new Baltimore Mayor Catherin Pugh, who took an unpopular stand because it was the right thing to do.

She vetoed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage for most workers in the city – a move that would have been an economic calamity for Baltimore.

Hogan dodges Trump bullet

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh at her inauguration in December.

We all want every worker to take home a decent paycheck. But not if it means businesses will fire personnel, reduce hours for their remaining staff and consider moving across the city-county line.

Those weren’t idle threats when this well-meaning but idealistic bill passed the naively liberal City Council.

Such an ordinance would leave the city deep in debt, according to its own financial analysts, with businesses fleeing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to take advantage of a lower minimum wage, far lower property taxes and lower insurance rates.

Baltimore City must be competitive. The state’s minimum wage already is scheduled to rise this July and in succeeding years, too.

Besides, minimum-wage jobs are not intended to be permanent positions but rather a starting point for people eager to work their way up the economic ladder to more responsible and good-paying jobs with long-term career potential.

Pugh’s veto protects Baltimore’s economic well-being, even if liberal critics unfairly condemn her.

She’s been quiet and withdrawn during her initial months in office. Yet when it truly mattered, Pugh didn’t hesitate to analyze the facts and make a tough, courageous decision.   ###

Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise, and reward, their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

Re-imagining State Center

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2017–As an early New Year’s gift to Maryland taxpayers, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivered the final blow to an outrageously priced scheme to turn over to private investors the 28-acre State Center complex in Baltimore for redevelopment.

Re-imagining State Center

The $1.5 billion State Center plan rejected by the Board of Public Works.

Hogan’s predecessor as governor, Martin O’Malley, had pushed hard  forthe State Center deal in a way that benefited the developers but left the state with unconscionably high rental payments for the next half-century – beginning at $30 million or more per year and escalating by 15 percent every five years.

O’Malley’s proposal also would have threatened the state’s triple-A bond rating by smashing through Maryland’s debt ceiling.

Additionally, the deal hinged on the state constructing for the developers a high-priced underground garage, costing $28.3 million. The money to pay for the 20-year bonds on the garage would come out of the state’s struggling Transportation Trust Fund at roughly $2 million a year.

As an extra kick-in-the-pants, state workers would have to pay to park in the underground garage even though they now get free parking on surface lots at State Center.

It was a boondoggle of immense proportions disguised as a mixed-used redevelopment of State Center to help revive midtown Baltimore.

Public-Private Partnership

The initial plan, worked out by former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the early 2000s, made sense as a model for smart transit-oriented development. It was the sort of public-private partnership that would benefit Baltimore, the state and the developers – office space, retail, apartments and community amenities centered around two mass-transit lines.

Then came the Great Recession. What had been feasible plans for State Center’s re-birth crumbled. As lingering effects of the recession dragged on, the State Center proposal took on more of a Mission Impossible cast.

When O’Malley revived the concept with new developers and a new set of financing figures, what had been a good deal became more and more suspect.

The legislature started asking questions and looking at the proposal’s details. Analysts for the General Assembly didn’t like what they discovered.

The state was being asked, essentially, to underwrite this massive $1.5 billion project. There would be only one prime tenant in the developer’s lone Phase One building – the state of Maryland, occupying nearly all of the office space.

Even worse, the developers wanted to charge the state unheard of water-view rental rates for a mid-town building in a tenuous neighborhood overlooking other mid-town buildings, a hospital and a public housing project.

Then the underground garage was added to the state’s to-do list by the developers. As the Department of Legislative Services put it, “A significant amount of private investment has been continuously stripped out of the plan.” It was replaced by state taxpayer dollars.

Kopp, Franchot Skeptical

Comptroller Peter Franchot bailed out as a State Center supporter some five years ago, complaining about the exorbitant rents and the fear of losing Maryland’s money-saving triple-A bond rating.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp kept worrying about breaching the state’s borrowing limit by undertaking the capital leasing costs of the State Center project.

Thus, O’Malley no longer had the votes to gain Board of Public Works approval to complete the revised deal with the developers.

When Hogan entered the picture, he tried to work out a fair settlement that would not leave the state holding the bag and the developers reaping all the rewards.

He even turned to mediation with the developers. But the numbers wouldn’t work unless the state contributed heftily to the privately built project.

So Hogan pulled the plug on the State Center arrangement just before Christmas and then sued the developers to leave no doubt the deal has been cancelled.

What Next?

The fate of State Center after the legal finger-pointing ends is an open question.

It would cost in excess of $200 million for the state to replace its office buildings on the site. That’s capital money the state lacks at the moment.

More sensible would be leasing deeply discounted office space for state agencies in nearly empty downtown high-rises while working with the city on a new residential-and-retail plan for the State Center acreage.

Franchot even proposed a pie-in-the-sky idea: a large sports arena for Baltimore at  State Center. Hogan immediately asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to investigate this remote possibility.

It’s unfortunate a prolonged recession cut the economic legs out from under the original State Center development plans.

But it did.

Now it’s time to start all over.

Let’s re-imagine what State Center could become a decade from now: A catalyst for strengthening midtown neighborhoods, creating a new corridor of residences and shops, and givng state workers quality office space for state workers on the current site or at a more affordable location somewhere in Baltimore’s downtown area.

Hogan faced reality and pulled the plug because the deal on the table didn’t work. His next move will be even more important: defining the future uses for this valuable 28-acre property.

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What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 12, 2016 – Reality is beginning to set in: The political world has been dramatically altered by Donald Trump’s surprise victory on Nov. 8.

Some politicians are adjusting while others are wailing like it’s the end of democracy, organizing pointless protests a full five weeks before Trump even takes office.

In Maryland both kinds of politicos – the realists and the hopeless idealists – have been on display recently.

What Hogan, Pugh & Mikulski Have in Common

Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. at her inauguration in Baltimore’s War Memorial .

Count Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and new Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh among the pragmatists. They want to deal with reality on the ground.

The governor continues to steer an independent course largely free of ideological rigidity and party obeisance. His words and actions in Baltimore over the past week indicate that Hogan now understands the importance of carving out alliances with like-minded pragmatists such as the new mayor.

His gracious words of support at Pugh’s inauguration were followed by a celebratory event in West Baltimore marking a big step forward in attacking the city’s vast vacant-housing problem. Republican Hogan knows he has a quiet supporter in Democrat Pugh and it will be up to him to show her he’s determined to do what he can to uplift Baltimore’s economic development.

Putting Results Ahead of Ideology

For her part, Pugh made it clear she’ll be a non-ideological mayor who is interested first and foremost in results. Going to war with the Republican governor isn’t on her agenda – a marked change from the last City Hall occupant. She’s a lifelong networker who now intends to ask for favors and assistance from those in her wide-ranging list of business, political and foundation contacts.

Rather than snub the president-elect at Saturday’s Army-Navy game in Baltimore, she warmly met him and handed Trump a letter detailing how the “make America great” president-in-waiting can jump-start the city’s lagging economy with some big-ticket infrastructure projects.

She also has expressed the hope that she and Hogan can team up to win over the next president for development programs in Baltimore that create jobs and reduce government dependence.

Pugh isn’t being helped, though, by other Baltimore officials. The new City Council, as its first act, voted unanimously to condemn Trump and his intemperate Tweets and verbal assaults.

That counter-productive move achieved nothing positive and created a hostile atmosphere for Trump two days before he visited Baltimore.

Council Incompetence

It was a sign that the new City Council will pander to liberal political emotions and do little to help Pugh bridge differences with Republicans soon to be running the country.

What the new Baltimore Council members need to keep in mind is that war whoops and fiery denunciations bring nothing in the way of results. The city’s legislature already has a well-earned reputation for incompetence and irrelevancy. Sadly, it may get worse.

When faced with a staggering crime and drug crisis, intensely imbedded poverty and lack of economic opportunity, what action does the Council take on Day One? It alienates the president-elect. Now that’s really going to help address the city’s most pressing needs.

The new members of the City Council should step back and reconsider such rash behavior. They should take a cue from outgoing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who made a strong call for civility and understanding among politicians of differing stripes in her farewell speech on the floor of the Senate in Washington.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Mikulski was a down-the-line liberal Democrat yet she never stopped trying to find common ground with Republicans and conservatives. Getting things accomplished was paramount in her mind.

That’s the lesson the eight freshman Baltimore City Council members need to learn. They’re off to a terrible start – and that soon may be compounded by votes to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage that could prove so onerous businesses will quickly flee across the city-county line.

Politics, veteran practitioners tell us, is the art of the possible. Hogan, Mikulski and Pugh understand the truism of that expression. Getting bogged down in emotional ideology and name-calling is a sure sign of a weak political hand – and a formula for continuing failure to produce constructive results and progress.

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

 

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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Baltimore’s Failed Leadership

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 22, 2016–There’s nothing quite as emblematic of Baltimore City’s failed leadership as the out-of-town (yet again) mayor firing her long-serving and super-loyal city solicitor for lacking a crystal ball.

Once again, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake threw someone under the bus rather than take ultimate responsibility for an embarrassment to her administration. She didn’t even have the courage to handle the firing herself.

Rawlings-Blake has not been happy when the now-former city solicitor, George Nilson, gave her unwelcome legal judgment over the years. But that’s no excuse for canning him simply to save face – and then refuse to meet with him.

Failed Leadership in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

That‘s no way to treat your top legal adviser during your entire tenure as mayor.

Can you spell d-y-s-f-u-n-c-t-i-o-n?

The more we learn about the inner workings of the Rawlings-Blake administration, the more grateful we are that she is retiring in less than four months.

Remember this was the mayor who out of arrogance and stubbornness refused for hours to take urgent phone calls from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to discuss calling out the National Guard to quell the 2015 Baltimore riots.

This was the mayor who after the unrest had died down fired her police commissioner because she needed a convenient scapegoat.

This was the mayor who forced out the previous police commissioner who had been widely praised for trying to reform the department by emphasizing community policing.

This was the mayor who bears partial responsibility for the damning Department of Justice report on the sad state of the city’s law-enforcement agency and the community’s deep mistrust of the men and women in blue.

Feuds and Failures

What a mess Rawlings-Blake is leaving in her wake.

Her inability to work constructively with the City Council has empowered that inept group of lawmakers to strike out in directions that could cripple Baltimore’s economic and fiscal future.

Her pointless and counter-productive feud with Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt cost Baltimore millions in wasteful spending on an antiquated telephone system that should have been efficiently replaced years ago.

Her on-going alienation from the Republican governor helps explain his unwillingness to be supportive of a deeply distressed and ailing Baltimore City.

It’s become a shameful record that started out so promising.

One Bad Hire

Rawling-Blake’s latest self-inflicted wound is the firing of City Solicitor Nilson, whose lengthy record of civic and public service to the state and city deserved more than an insulting, back-of-the-hand dismissal by a mayoral assistant.

What set off the mayor was the discovery by the Southern Poverty Law Center that a contract lawyer for the city for the last six months had past ties to a neo-Nazi group. Nilson quickly terminated the lawyer but that wasn’t good enough for the mayor. She needed to lay the blame on someone else.

Nilson was the obvious candidate since he hired Glen Allen, a retired lawyer with a long record of solid legal work for one of the nation’s largest law firms. How was Nilson (or the law firm for that matter) to know of Allen’s dalliances with neo-Nazism or his personal political beliefs?

By asking Allen at his application interview about his political leanings? By checking with the Southern Poverty Law Center on every hire? Until that group discovered Allen’s neo-Nazi connections it was a well-kept secret that had not interfered with Allen’s impeccable legal career.

Trumpism in Baltimore?

Rawlings-Blake apparently wanted Nilson to take the Donald Trump approach to identifying and rejecting undesirable applicants.

Does this mean all future city hires under this mayor will be asked:

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of a hate group, terrorist organization or some obnoxious political affiliate?

“Do you believe Sharia law supersedes the U.S. Constitution?

“Do you look favorably upon National Socialism?”

This is what it would have taken to spot Allen’s dark secret. Such questioning at a job interview for a government position not only would be inappropriate, it likely would prompt a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rawlings-Blake was way off-base in using this one instance of misplaced trust as an excuse to fire Nilson.

He’s carried a ton of water for the mayor during her time in office, just as he did for former Mayor Sheila Dixon. Yet he was canned without even a thank-you.

In his earlier careers as deputy state attorney general and as an assistant attorney general, Nilson proved a rock of stability in providing sound legal judgment for generations of state leaders in both the legislature and executive branch.

He continued that service in the private sector, often chairing reform commissions to make the city and the state better.

But Rawlings-Blake didn’t even have the decency to tell Nilson herself that he was being fired or to explain why she felt compelled to let him go. She never asked to hear his side of the story. After all the years they spent together, Rawlings-Blake didn’t have the courage to hold an exit interview.

She was disrespectful and cruel toward an official who had done so much to give her sound and supportive legal guidance.

What a terrible ending for both of them.

Nilson, though, can return to the private legal sector where he’ll easily triple or quadruple his city pay grade.

Rawlings-Blake, on the other hand, is damaged goods. Her latest display of heartless avoidance of responsibility won’t help her legacy or efforts to resurrect her career in some national capacity.

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Baltimore’s ‘Challenging Moment’

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 15, 2016 – That searing U.S. Department of Justice report on Baltimore’s police agency revealed an ugly truth we’d rather sweep under the rug. There is historic, deep-seated racism in what’s been labeled Charm City and it presents itself most hurtfully in city law enforcement.

What’s clear is that there are two Baltimores – one white, fairly prosperous and contented; the other black, impoverished, crime-ridden and desperate.

The DOJ report laid it out in uncompromising terms. Historic racism led to policing that focuses almost exclusively on black Baltimore. Racism helped create systemic practices that are unconstitutional, violent and discriminatory. No wonder the city’s black community expresses so much fear, hostility and anger.Baltimore's 'Challenging Moment'

Everyone who cares about Maryland’s largest city and its lone urban center should read parts of this report, especially the concise executive summary and early chapters on Baltimore’s perilous situation. The DOJ pulls no punches. It uses facts we don’t want to hear to explain how we got in this dreadful predicament.

Some black critics are using the report to engage in an unhelpful blame game. Their protests outside the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police conference are counter-productive and only increase the “us against them” attitude that could tear the city apart.

Others want to vilify former Mayor Martin O’Malley for turning to a zero-tolerance policing strategy in the 1990s, an approach he adapted from New York City’s successful fight on crime.

Blame Game

Finger-pointing gets us nowhere. It also is unfair to O’Malley, who as mayor faced unprecedented increases in crime. He tried a new approach, the “broken windows” theory of going after every minor criminal offender and loiterer to get “bad actors” off the streets.

What critics conveniently ignore is that this “lock’em up” approach worked, with Baltimore experiencing a dramatic plunge in street crime. O’Malley’s mistake was not converting those short-term gains into a friendlier, long-term community policing strategy.

As a result of the DOJ report, O’Malley’s political career took a major hit. He continues to defend zero-tolerance policing as a legitimate response in the 1990s to unrelenting crime in the poorest sections of Baltimore.

What this means in the current presidential campaign is that O’Malley’s role as a surrogate speaker for Hillary Clinton may fade away. His chances for a highly visible job in Washington after the election don’t look good, either.

But those are secondary concerns.

Opportunity Knocks

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis hit the nail on the head when he said the DOJ report presents Baltimore with “a challenging moment.”

There is, he noted, a tremendous “opportunity to get better” if political and community leaders use the DOJ analysis to make major policing reforms and start addressing underlying causes of Baltimore’s malaise.

Davis, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her soon-to-be successor, Catherine Pugh, all have indicated that’s the direction they’re going to take.

But one leader has remained distressingly quiet, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

He has said nothing about the DOJ report, using the lame excuse he hasn’t read the document.

Hogan knows full well what the report found. He is fully informed about Baltimore’s tenuous plight. It’s just that the Republican governor has little interest in diverting state resources to a Democratic stronghold like Baltimore City. That’s been his record to date.

DOJ Report Summary

The trouble is the police department’s systemic problems and financially strapped Baltimore’s underlying weaknesses can’t be fully addressed without considerable federal and state help.

The city’s predicament is daunting. Just read how the DOJ summed up the situation facing city leaders (italics and paragraphing added):

“Baltimore is the largest city in the state of Maryland with a population of approximately 621,000. The Baltimore metropolitan area’s 2.7 million residents make it the nation’s 21st largest urban center.  The City’s population is approximately 63 percent African American, 30 percent white, and 4 percent Hispanic or Latino.

“While the City hosts a number of successful institutions and businesses, most economic measures show that large portions of Baltimore’s population struggle economically.

“Compared to national averages, Baltimore exhibits: lower incomes, with a median household income nearly 20 percent lower than the national average; higher poverty rates, with 24.2 percent of individuals living below the federal poverty level; elevated unemployment, with a rate hovering around 7 percent, and average unemployment rates per month that were 50 percent higher than the national average from 2014 to 2015.

“Baltimore also scores below national averages in education: 80.9 percent of the population has graduated from high school, while 27 percent has a bachelor’s degree or higher. In most grades and subjects, the percentage of students below basic proficiency in Baltimore was twice the rate seen in Maryland as a whole.

“These socioeconomic challenges are pronounced among Baltimore’s African-American population, owing in part to the City’s history of government-sponsored discrimination. 

“Schools and many other public institutions in the City remained formally segregated until the 1950s, and stark residential segregation has marked the City’s history.

“In 1910, Baltimore became the first city in America to pass an ordinance establishing block-by-block segregation, a policy that was followed by other discriminatory practices, including restrictive covenants, aggressive redlining, a contract system for housing loans, and racially targeted subprime loans. This legacy continues to impact current home ownership patterns, as Baltimore remains among the most segregated cities in the country.”

Historic Cop Problems

The situation within the city’s police department over the past century and a half has been even more depressing. The DOJ report doesn’t go into that sordid history.

After World War II, a half-dozen investigations of city policing found corruption on a massive scale, mismanagement and incompetence. More than a few commissioners were shown the door. Nothing really changed.

By 1964, here’s what Baltimore Sun reporter Richard Levine wrote in a detailed investigative series: “The Baltimore Police Department is manned, equipped and financed heavily enough for modern warfare on crime yet it is waging a primitive kind of guerrilla action marked by inefficient administrative procedures, haphazard planning and lax discipline. . .”

Jump ahead 30 years and ace Sun investigative reporter David Simon found a déjà vu situation in the police department – poor management, confused priorities and chaotic staffing policies: “Burdened by a lack of resources, devoted to strategies many veteran officers view as flawed and battered by record rates of violence and drug abuse, the department is watching its most essential function – its ability to deter crime –inexorably diminish.”

No wonder O’Malley turned to a tougher law-enforcement method. But the DOJ report makes clear that only exacerbated racial alienation.

Fixing the Baltimore police department’s systemic problems can’t be done without tens of millions of new dollars the city doesn’t have. It will require massive re-training and education of officers, additional staffing and state-of-the-art equipment.

That’s where Hogan could make a difference. Baltimore’s limited tax base and underlying poverty means it must depend on greater support from Annapolis (and Washington).

Otherwise, Baltimore will remain the weak link in Maryland’s fiscal and socio-economic world, a tremendous drag on efforts by Hogan and others to portray Maryland as “the land of pleasant living.”

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Memorial Day Musings

By Barry Rascovar

May 30, 2016—A number of thoughts while celebrating the contributions of the men and women who served or serve in our nation’s military:

Baltimore City’s elections on May 27 offered two striking lessons for politicians and state election officials.

Provisional Mistakes

Yes, there was a terrible screw-up: Over 1,100 provisional ballots were mistakenly counted before the legitimacy of voters casting the ballots could be checked.

Memorial Day Musings

City election board officials have been pilloried for this mess. Fair enough, since it is clear there had not been nearly enough education or training of election judges.

But the state election board is culpable as well.

Converting from an electronic, computer touch-screen system – where voting errors are few – to an old-fashioned paper-ballot system that is known to be error-prone – was ripe for confusion and mistakes.

Not one city election-day judge had ever worked with the state’s new paper-ballot/automated counter system before. Baltimore City had used the old lever mechanical voting machines before jumping directly to the computer touch-screens. The city never held a paper-ballot election in anyone’s lifetime.

State election officials knew this. They also knew the city historically has voting snafus.

Yet state officials failed to take extra steps to help the city election board adapt to a brand-new voting system. Nor did they dispatch personnel to assist with training or offer more supervisory help on Election Day.

Instead, the state board and its staff sat back and watched the easily-predicted train wreck occur.

The main problem – confusion over how to handle those casting provisional ballots – could have been avoided if the state board had used treated paper for provisional ballots that the counting machines automatically rejected.

This and other ideas were scotched by the state board in Annapolis.

City election officials say they have learned the hard way and will make sure this doesn’t happen again in November. Perhaps the state election board will do more, too, and start acting like a cooperative partner instead of a stern superior.

New-Age Electioneering?

The May 27 city election held a lesson for young politicians as well. Some of them counted heavily on social media connections to springboard them to victory.

DeRay Mckesson was the most prominent social media star convinced that his heavy Facebook and Twitter presence was all it took to win at the ballot box. Local media made a big deal of his entry into the mayor’s race.

He and others forgot that while millennials might run their lives with a constant eye tuned to social media, the vast majority of voters aren’t plugged in. Indeed, Mckesson’s campaign turned into an embarrassment.

Despite his national Facebook renown, Mckesson received just 3,445 votes – a mere 2.6 percent of the votes cast.

The message is clear: You have to earn voters’ support the old-fashioned way, at least for the next decade or two.

Eye of the Storm

Lucky Elijah Cummings. He gets a starring role at the Democratic National Convention.

Now the bad news: He’s chairing the convention’s Platform Committee, where the hell-hath-no-fury-like-Bernie-Sanders-scorned protests will be heard.

It could get messy, angry and even violent.

Here’s one example. Two Sanders delegates on the committee are determined to have Democrats on record as condemning Israeli violence toward the Palestinian cause. That could set off a cataclysmic response from Jewish delegates and Clinton supporters.

So congratulations to the Baltimore area’s long-serving congressman. But he’d better bring a thick skin and a heavy gavel with him to Philadelphia in July.

Edwards Still in Denial

Defeated Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who lost badly to Congressman Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary for United States Senate, remains bitter and angry. She’s gone public now with her sour grapes and excuses as to why she failed to advance her career.

Edwards thinks there’s a “glass ceiling” for black women like herself. That’s why Van Hollen won.

Donna Edwards

Rep. Donna Edwards

Maybe it had something to do with the lousy constituent service Edwards provided for her Washington-area constituents, her grating personality that alienated House colleagues and her failure to sell herself to voters in the Greater Baltimore region.

Maybe her loss had something to do with her meager record in Congress versus Van Hollen’s all-star record.

Elections are won on the basis of merit and executing a solid campaign plan, not proportional representation based on race and gender.

Edwards needs to stop blaming others for her deficiencies. She lost because her campaign focused almost exclusively on race and gender rather than persuading Maryland Democratic she was the best candidate.

School Board Secrecy

Baltimore City’s school board decided to hide its business from the public. So it intentionally circumvented its own rules and picked a new school superintendent in total secrecy. The board didn’t even feel it necessary to tell the public it had fired the incumbent school chief months earlier.

It was a process more suited to the old Soviet Union than the U.S. of A.

What will the board do next behind closed doors?

All sorts of public officials are wringing their hands and criticizing the school board while proclaiming nothing can be done about this outrageous display of heavy-handed secrecy.

That’s not true. There’s plenty both the governor and mayor could have done.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., who appoints half the board members, could have picked up his telephone and read the riot act to school board members for acting in such a cavalier and undemocratic manner. He could have hinted that any shadowy repetition would have consequences when it comes to state funds for city schools.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could have picked up her telephone and shouted at school board officials, too. Then she could have demanded an end to secrecy. She could have gotten the near-certain next mayor, Sen. Cathy Pugh, to echo those sentiments and make clear more secret actions would jeopardize budget support from City Hall.

Both Hogan and Rawlings-Blake dropped the ball.

Hogan doesn’t spend time worrying about what happens in Baltimore City anyway; Rawlings-Blake has been missing in action since announcing her plans to retire.

Transparency and openness in government be damned.

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Post-MD Primary: Insiders and ‘The Donald’ Triumph

By Barry Rascovar

May 2, 2016 – On primary election day, Maryland Democrats sent a strong message that for them experience and proven ability in public office are what count most. Frustrated Maryland Republicans, though, opted to follow a charismatic Pied Piper with wild ideas and zero elective experience.

That’s the biggest take-away from the April 26 balloting in the Free State. Except for Donald Trump’s easy triumph in the GOP presidential primary, Maryland voters came down heavily on the side of polished politicians whom they feel they can trust to deal with society’s intensely complex problems.

Post-MD Primary: Insiders abnd 'The Donald' Triumph

The “mad as hell” euphoria sweeping parts of the country against establishment figures didn’t flood into Maryland. Pragmatic insiders got the nod over impractical outsiders.

Top of the Ticket

–In the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton walloped Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. No “feel the Bern” groundswell of support for the far-left socialist-democrat in Maryland. He lost by a whopping 30 percentage points – one of his worst drubbings outside the Deep South.

That bodes well for Clinton in Maryland this November. She will benefit from solid Democratic support in a heavily Democratic state as well as the ABT (Anyone But Trump) factor: Two out of three Americans tell pollsters they view “The Donald” unfavorably.

–In the Republican president primary, Trump trumped two weak contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. It was easy pickings in Maryland for the outspoken billionaire real estate developer. He’s popular in rural areas (where he held his only Maryland campaign events) but he is detested in the state’s population centers. Maryland won’t be on his November list of winnable states unless his advisers live in the same world of unreality as the candidate.

United States Senate

–In the Democratic race for U.S. Senate, voters overwhelmingly favored Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who blew away Rep. Donna Edwards by a far wider than expected margin. Edwards won African-American jurisdictions but not by stupendous totals. She got clobbered everywhere else, especially in the Baltimore suburbs and in the state’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

Van Hollen’s easy romp on May 26 will make it nearly impossible for the GOP nominee, state Sen. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, to compete in a November election where Democratic turnout could set a record. The ABT effect could severely undercut her chances, too.

Congressional Primaries

In two suburban Washington congressional primaries, Democratic voters again opted for well-qualified and proven establishment officials.

–In Montgomery County, state Sen. Jamie Raskin defeated two Democratic outsiders, a wine-business multi-millionaire, David Trone (who tried to buy the election by spending a record $13 million), and a former local news personality, Kathleen Matthews.

Raskin isn’t flashy or charismatic. But he’s a solid constitutional law professor and an ultra-liberal who learned in Annapolis how to work effectively within the legislative system. His legal smarts could prove a decided plus in the House of Representatives.

He and his wife, Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin, also could become one of Washington’s most prominent power couples after November, since Raskin is virtually assured of victory in the general election.

–In heavily Democratic Prince George’s County, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown won a close congressional race against former two-time State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey. The two insiders far outdistanced the field, which included a vocal Latino-rights candidate.

Voters in Prince George’s clearly preferred the tried and true, remembering Brown’s quality service in the county as a two-term delegate rather than his weak performance as lieutenant governor and his abysmal run for governor in 2014.

Mayoral Race in Baltimore

–In Baltimore City, a stampede of candidates filed for the Democratic nomination for mayor but only two were taken seriously by voters. The non-politician outsiders, exemplified by lawyer Elizabeth Embry and multi-millionaire financial investor David Warnock, failed miserably to gain traction.

Warnock ran an uplifting campaign but he never persuaded voters he has what it takes to turn around a troubled, aging urban city. His advertising symbolism – driving through Baltimore in an old pickup truck – befuddled rather than enlightened viewers.

Embry, meanwhile, kept harping on criminal justice reforms – a misleading platform since Baltimore’s mayor plays a minor role in this area. That’s the job of the state’s attorney and the state legislature. Her smarmy last-minute advertising blitz portraying the two leading candidates as virtual criminals was a black mark in an otherwise constructive campaign.

Seven out of ten city voters supported the two most experienced insider candidates, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and state Sen. Cathy Pugh. That’s a ringing endorsement of competence in office over protesting voices from outside the government arena.

Pugh very narrowly defeated Dixon by winning over the city’s white voters and business community. Dixon ran strongest among African Americans who remembered her decades of constituent service and who deeply believe everyone deserves a second chance.

The city should benefit from Pugh’s victory, which all but officially makes her the next mayor in December, given the Democrats’ lopsided voter advantage in Baltimore. She is on friendly terms with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and key state lawmakers and will have an open door in seeking help from Baltimore’s business and civic leaders.

On April 26, Maryland proved in most cases an island of sanity and stability in an election season marked by bizarre and hard to explain developments. The state’s voters, by and large, seem to have their feet – and their senses – planted firmly on the ground.

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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.