Category Archives: Government

Dems in the Spotlight

By Barry Rascovar

October 15, 2015 – What a contrast between the two recent Republican presidential alley fights and the polite, wonkish policy discussions at the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night in, of all places, a luxurious Las Vegas casino-hotel.

Dems in the Spotlight

Democrats debate (left to right): Chafee, Clinton, O’Malley, Sanders and Webb

Just as Donald Trump seized the spotlight, and kept it, during the raucous GOP debates, Hillary Clinton clearly took center stage and never relinquished her dominance of the five-candidate Democratic field.

There was no doubt who was the most competent and compelling candidate on stage, the only one you could picture sitting in the Oval Office negotiating the fate of the world with Vladimir Putin.

The Others

Wimpy Lincoln Chafee made it embarrassingly clear he would be a lost ball in high grass as president. Jim Webb seemed to have trouble explaining himself. Martin O’Malley (oh, Martin!) too often sounded rehearsed and not-yet-ready for prime time.

Then there was Bernie.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of tiny, rural Vermont, the socialist who turned Democrat at the last minute so he could launch a fervently emotional crusade to rally support for his far-left-of-center utopian ideals.

To Sanders, capitalism belongs in the waste bin of history. Let’s make the U.S. of A. like Denmark!

Similar to Trump, Sanders is capitalizing on public anger over the gridlocked mess in Washington, the dangerously intractable foreign policy quagmires, and the strong dislike people have toward politicians in power. (Sanders may be a U.S. senator but he isn’t allowed to play an influential role.)

Bernie was wonderfully entertaining Tuesday night. He’s a riveting speaker, full of fire and brimstone and loud anger that brought cheers from his fanatical loyalists.

But he was woefully short of proposals that stand any chance of becoming reality. Free college education? Free health care for all? All his ideas would require $19 trillion in new tax revenue. Even Sanders’ relentless demands to tax and prosecute billionaires to the hilt won’t come within a continent of paying for his programs.

Perfect Foil

Sanders is a dreamer and a provocateur. He isn’t going to be president. He’s way too extreme in his notions and way too vague as to how he’d accomplish anything in a Congress that could be controlled by radical Republicans. But his anger and his impossible dreams are perfect foils for the pragmatic front-runner.

Only Clinton stood out as an accomplished presidential candidate who understands the complexities of Washington and recognizes incremental reforms are the only steps that might be possible at the moment.

She came through Tuesday night as someone in command of her facts and her goals — improve life for the middle and lower classes of American society. She is, at this point, the star of a very weak presidential class.

But be aware, we still are over a year away from the general election and over three months from the first primary. It’s a long, long road to the White House and surprises are certain to emerge.

For now, though, the Democratic presidential picture has come into sharp focus. As for the Republicans, we’re still waiting for the three-ring circus to end and real policy discussions to begin.

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Dems Debate — In Brief

[From MarylandReporter.com]

Big Dog Clinton, angry orator Sanders, and O’Malley best of the rest

Dems Debate -- In Brief

Candidates Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Lincoln Chafee (left to right)

By Barry Rascovar

Hillary

October 14, 2015–Throughout last evening’s Democratic presidential debate, the Big Dog in the room was Hillary Clinton.

She started strong and finished strongest, the only one who gave nuanced, pragmatic answers on how to solve vexing, seemingly intractable problems.

She led the charge in denouncing Republicans and the National Rifle Association and made it clear she will fight the hardest for women’s rights.

Bernie

Bernie Sanders wins the blue ribbon for most emotionally compelling rhetoric, though it frequently veered into unreality.

He must have denounced rapacious billionaires a dozen times. He admitted he’s leading a revolution, not presenting proposals that are achievable.

If you want to elect an angry orator, Bernie’s your man.

Martin

As for Martin O’Malley, he was clearly the Best of the Rest. His poll ratings should rise, perhaps even edging into double digits. He achieved his goal after a shaky start with his voice quavering. His defense of his zero-tolerance police policy as Baltimore mayor wasn’t persuasive.

And he made the biggest gaffe of the evening, mistakenly saying that Bashir Assad (rather than Vladimir Putin) had invaded Syria — undermining his credibility on foreign policy.

Still, our man Martin performed well enough to spread the word that he could be an up-and-coming future star of the party.

It would take a major miracle for him to become a real contender this year, but as the late Judge Edgar Silver would remind him, “The best is yet to come.”

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Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

By Barry Rascovar

October 5, 2015 – Good intentions and wishful thinking will not get advocates of redistricting reform very far. They fail to grasp that the process is 100 percent political. The sweeping changes they seek won’t happen.

Reporters, editors and editorialists are strongly on the side of the reformers. So are political science academics and supporters of “good government.”

None of that matters one iota.

Ever heard of a homeowner relinquishing ownership of half his acreage so his neighbor can construct an obnoxious tennis court and swimming pool that increases the neighbor’s property value but decreases yours?

Ever heard of a politician putting his reelection in grave jeopardy by giving away his most loyal precincts?

Self-protection is a natural human response. Asking someone to place his or her career in harm’s way – especially a politician – is counter-intuitive.

Gerry’s Salamander

From the inception of political parties in this country, redistricting has been ruled by each major party’s burning desire to gain every conceivable advantage to win elections.

Thus in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard G) re-drew state senate districts to help his Democratic-Republican (Jeffersonian) Party. One of Gerry’s distorted Senate districts wrapped around Boston like a salamander.

At least that’s how the Boston Gazette depicted it in a now-famous cartoon, giving birth to the conjoined name, “gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

Famous redistricting cartoon from 1812 turning Gerry’s new state Senate district into a salamander.

The scheme worked, keeping the state Senate in Democratic-Republican hands.

Over 200 years later, little has changed.

Rules laid out by the courts require equally populated districts after each Census and due regard for forming majority-minority districts when feasible. In each state, local courts and laws set out additional mandates for state legislative districts, such as respect for geographic boundaries and communities of interest.

But ever since the early 1800s, one thing has remained constant in the United States: the political imperative of the party in power to tilt redistricted lines heavily in their favor every ten years.

Each Party is Guilty

In Republican-dominated states like Texas, that means grossly distorted political boundaries that throw most elections to Republican candidates. In Democratic Maryland, it means the reverse.

Maryland Democrats used their dominance in Annapolis to re-draw congressional lines in some weird ways after the 2010 Census.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s current congressional districts. Rep. John Sarbanes’ gerrymandered district is the one shown in light green.

Republicans were packed heavily into one district dominated by the Eastern Shore and conservative parts of Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Meanwhile in sparsely populated Western Maryland, dominant Republicans found themselves outnumbered in a new district that joined them to heavily Democratic and urbanized Montgomery County.

All the other congressional districts were tailor-made to keep Democratic incumbents in office. Not surprisingly, Democrats won seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats (although the margin in the Western Maryland-Montgomery district last time was razor-thin).

The same tactics were used by Democrats in Annapolis in re-drawing General Assembly districts.

Is Reform Possible?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has made a big deal about reforming the redistricting process. What he really wants to do is elect more Republicans and contort future redistricting maps in the GOP’s favor.

He’s got a redistricting commission holding hearings across Maryland, listening to disgruntled citizens and interest groups seeking a more equitable system. They’re also hearing from Republican outsiders who want to get inside the political tent.

The panel’s work is for naught.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly won’t listen to recommendations for an impartial redistricting process. There is no hope of changing their minds.

Hogan understands this reality, but he knows a good political theme when he sees one. He’s happy to campaign for “fair elections” and point to the prime example of horrendous redistricting – the bizarre congressional boundary lines Rep. John Sarbanes helped draw for himself.

Hogan has a winning campaign pitch with no effective push-back from the other side.

Still, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch aren’t about to commit political hari-kari to satisfy Republican Hogan and redistricting reformers.

They hold the high cards in this game of brinkmanship.

What to Do?

There’s no getting around the fact that Maryland’s congressional districts are Exhibit A in what’s wrong with gerrymandering.

That could be overcome if Hogan drops the pretense that he can achieve a redistricting revolution and instead starts dealing realistically with the two Mikes.

Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, why not see if there’s common ground for removing the most flagrant abuses of redistricting?

Why not agree on a panel of six representatives – two pragmatic Republicans and four pragmatic Democrats – with the goal of producing for the governor and legislative leaders new congressional lines that eliminate salamander-like boundaries, that keep districts as compact as possible and that don’t hopscotch all over the state?

The results might be the same – six or seven Democrats and one or two Republicans – because that’s roughly the breakdown of the two party’s voter-registration strength in Maryland.

Yet giving voters compact districts that no longer divide communities three or four ways would help immensely. People might actually know, when asked, who represents them in Congress.

A similar gubernatorial-legislative panel could help the competing parties draw more sensible state legislative district lines.

The idea should be to eliminate the worst aspects of redistricting. That’s doable. Eliminating gerrymandering entirely in Maryland is a non-starter.

2020 Census

In the next redistricting fight after the 2020 Census, Hogan (if he’s still in office) could create headaches for Democrats, especially if Republicans win enough General Assembly seats in 2018 to uphold Hogan’s veto threat.

But Democrats are not going to give away the farm. They won’t sacrifice their built-in advantages.

What we have now is sanctimonious comments from the governor on the need for redistricting reform and support from shiny-bright, good-government supporters and Republican hardliners looking for a way to do in Democrats.

Lots of sound and fury signifying very little.

How nice it would be if Hogan momentarily set aside his political predilections and Miller and Busch did the same. Then they might reach a common-sense compromise that straightens out – somewhat – Maryland’s gerrymandered districts.

That, at least, is a realistic possibility.

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The Air-Conditioning Fight

The following column was published September 30, 2015 by the Carroll County Times in the newspaper’s Community Times weekly edition.

By Barry Rascovar

Thank goodness for the cool breezes of fall.

That’s what thousands of students and their parents are saying these days in Owings Mills, Pikesville and Reisterstown, where some county public schools still lack air-conditioning.

It’s not a new situation. I wrote about it this summer. The problem goes back several decades.

Yet no one in county government sees an urgency in coming up with a solution ASAP.

Now Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been criticized by Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Hogan called the lack of school air-conditioning “absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable.” Franchot, who complained years ago about this situation, said, “It’s a question of leadership, management and priorities.”

They’re right. Yet neither state official is providing any help to resolve this vexing problem in Baltimore County, where four dozen schools don’t provide air-conditioning in classrooms.

That’s not a concern these days with crisp, cool weather heralding a welcome change in the seasons.

But come mid-May through June and late-August through mid-September next year, schools without A/C will broil, leaving students struggling to learn.

Kamenetz, unlike his predecessors, has embarked on a $1.3 billion school improvement program that eventually will bring air-conditioning to nearly every education building, including four schools in our area – Bedford, Campfield and Church Lane Elementary Schools and Franklin Middle School.

But Kamenetz is unwilling to break the bank to pay for an immediate fix. His plan could take a decade to achieve.

That’s where Hogan can play a major role.

He’s got the power to recommend set-aside funds in Maryland’s public school construction program for air-conditioning.

That would be a huge boon for Baltimore County as well as Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioned classrooms.

Impoverished Baltimore City cannot afford to place window air-conditioners in all of those schools and Baltimore County would be strapped to take that approach on its own, too.

Hogan, though, can place funds in his next budget in January to ensure that every school in Maryland has either central air-conditioning or window A/C units.

Unfortunately, this debate has produced a hash political tone, with Hogan threatening to withhold all school construction funds from Baltimore County unless immediate steps are taken.

That’s unwise posturing. It ignores the reality that Hogan, not Kamenetz, is in the best position to put up funds to see that every Maryland classroom is air-conditioned.

Hogan also can help schools that are showing their age if he puts up extra money to address physical defects in Maryland’s oldest public education structures. Owings Mills Elementary School, for instance, was built nearly 90 years ago and ranks near the bottom among the county’s schools as far as physical condition.

Maryland made a wise decision 40 years ago when the late Gov. Marvin Mandel relieved the counties of an enormous financial burden by having the state contribute most of the funds for public school construction.

Only Hawaii matches Maryland’s largess. It is a step that makes sure Maryland children are educated in decent facilities with modern conveniences.

But the job is not done. Older schools with deteriorating roofs, bad plumbing and no air-conditioning should be a state priority.

Hogan and Franchot want Kamenetz and county school superintendent Dallas Dance to appear at the Oct. 7 Board of Public Works meeting to explain why so many county schools lack air-conditioning.

Is this a publicity stunt? Let’s hope not.

Hogan, Franchot and Kamenetz should focus on coming up with answers that will get air-conditioning in all county classrooms by next spring.

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Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 21, 2015 – In a bizarre twist, we might witness a preview of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign at the next Board of Public Works meeting.

Then again, a threatened confrontation between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz may never occur.

 

Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz

Even more bizarre is the issue that could bring these potential foes into a debate arena: air-conditioning.

Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, his tag-team partner in beating up on unsuspecting officials at BPW meetings, blame Kamenetz for allowing thousands of Baltimore County children to swelter through hot, humid early- and late-summer days because their schools lack A/C.

Four dozen Baltimore County schools still have no air-conditioning, which is shameful.

But Kamenetz is not to blame, nor is current county school superintendent Dallas Dance.

Hogan and Franchot are pointing accusing fingers at the wrong individuals.

$1.3 Billion in Upgrades

If the two men did some basic research they would find that Kamenetz and Dance are trying hard to rectify this sorry situation, which has been festering for decades.

They have embarked on a $1.3 billion school renovation program that will bring A/C and other upgrades to 99 percent of county schools within a decade.

Accelerating the county executive’s remediation plan – and how to do it — ought to be the focus of this debate.

More likely, though. is a battle of angry words with Hogan and Franchot having a field day criticizing Baltimore County’s mistreatment of school kids.

On the surface, Hogan and Franchot are right. No child in today’s public schools should have to sit all day in classrooms that top 90 or 100 degrees.

But what are Hogan and Franchot doing to eliminate this intolerable situation other than voice displeasure?

Neither official has lifted a finger to bring A/C to more schools in Baltimore County.

And what about Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioning? Why aren’t Hogan and Franchot livid about that even more appalling situation?

The reason is politics.

2018 Political Foes?

Hogan sees a chance to embarrass a likely opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Franchot sees an opportunity to tarnish a potential rival for the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.

Odd bedfellows, indeed.

The two men not only denounced Kamenetz for Baltimore County’s un-air-conditioned schools, they requested that he and Dance appear before the Board of Public Works in early October.

But there’s nothing on the board’s agenda that requires Kamenetz and Dance to show up in Annapolis on Oct. 7. Neither the governor nor the comptroller can force such attendance.

Still, it makes for good theater when politicians call-out a potential foe.

If the confrontation takes place, it may not be a propaganda victory for Hogan and Franchot. Indeed, they could end up with egg on their faces.

Problem-Solver

Kamenetz complained about the lack of air-conditioning when he ran for county executive five years ago. Since taking office, he has reduced the percentage of no-air-conditioned schools from 52 percent to 20 percent with enough money appropriated to lower that figure to 15 percent.

By 2021, he wants A/C in nearly every one of the county’s 173 school buildings, or at least have the money in hand to begin the work.

Clearly, Kamenetz and Dance are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

If Hogan and Franchot want to blame someone, they should chastise former Baltimore County school chiefs and former county executives Jim Smith and Dutch Ruppersberger. They are the ones who dropped the ball and failed to make air-conditioned schools the county’s highest priority.

Indeed, the real culprits are bureaucrats in the county’s school system who made some astounding blunders beginning 15 or 16 years ago.

Back then, school officials hired an out of state company to analyze the physical defects of county schools. The estimated repair costs, including air conditioning: $130 million.

But county officials delayed acting on those expensive recommendations. Each year, work was put off. Nearly a decade later, the county asked the state for funds to begin the long-overdue school renovations.

Yet no one updated the original report to account for soaring construction costs.

Lack of Funds

Thus, when engineering firms were hired to start the school repairs, the county found itself woefully short of funds.

Then the county goofed again, asking the engineers to fix only the highest priority items at each school. Plumbing defects, leafy roofs and dangerous electrical wiring took precedence, not air-conditioning.

The engineering firms complained that this made no sense. Why not use available funds to totally renovate the schools in the worst shape and ask the state for more money to renovate the other county schools over the next few years?

Those complaints were ignored.

A renovation at Ridgely Middle School under Smith’s admiistration somehow managed to overlook the need for air-conditioning and windows that opened for ventillation. Franchot heard about that debacle and showed up at the school to lend support to the angry parents.

Not until Kamenetz arrived as county executive in 2010 did air-conditioning become a priority.

Solutions, Not Complaints

At this stage, what needs to happen is for Kamenetz and Hogan to agree on a speed-up of the county’s air-conditioning timetable. How that will be financed is the key question.

Both of them must put more school construction money on the table, even if the money goes toward window air-conditioners in some schools until a more permanent fix is completed. (Anne Arundel County air-conditioned 20 of its elementary schools with window units, getting a huge discount by making a bulk purchase of commercial air-conditioners.)

Hogan, though, has been Scrooge-like in spending state dollars. Kamenetz, too, has shied away from spending that could mean a tax increase.

The time has come to fashion a solution rather than using school children as political pawns.

The campaign for governor can wait. There’s no reason to begin the blood-letting at this early stage.

But there is every reason to try to come up with a solution that will bring air-conditioning to every classroom, not only in Baltimore County but in all Maryland schools.

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Void in Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 14, 2015 — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s retirement announcement last week turns next April’s election into a free-for-all among a group of imperfect, little-known or inexperienced candidates.

Void in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

It reveals the reality of Baltimore’s sorry class of politicians. There are no lions in this crowd, no movers-and-shakers.

Few have much elective experience. Few possess proven management skills to run a complex, $2 billion organization.

So far, no one in the list of putative or announced candidates has shown the sort of leadership charisma Baltimore sorely needs.

Rawlings-Blake will be remembered more positively by historians than she is today. Her once bright political future lies in shambles, the result of a series of poor decisions and her laid-back demeanor during April’s civil unrest.

Burned Out

She’s not the first Baltimore mayor to lose her appetite for Baltimore’s top elective office following days of destructive rioting, looting and arson.

Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, from an illustrious political family, gave up a bright future after one term as mayor. He was burned out emotionally and physically by the strains of the 1968 conflagration after the assassination of Martin Luther King — and the massive effort required to restore order, rebuild and convince citizens that Baltimore had a bright future.

It was left to William Donald Schaefer to take on that monumental task, which he did brilliantly.

Rawlings-Blake was too cerebral (much like former Mayor Kurt Schmoke) and too deliberative to deal effectively with a terrible crime wave and civil unrest that required quick, firm decisions and public assertiveness.

She botched one key element of her job, public safety, by forcing into retirement a popular and successful police commissioner (Fred Bealefeld), replacing him with a West Coast outsider who never hit it off with the community or rank-and-file, and then turning Anthony Batts into a scapegoat following her administration’s botched handling of disorder in West Baltimore.

She trusted only a handful of intimates with policy decisions, blocking the kind of broad networking and communications good CEOs need.

She exhibited a coolness and unapproachability for a job requiring just the opposite. Her calm, dispassionate demeanor came across as uncaring. She never struck the right chord with Baltimore’s citizens or with the business community.

She lacked outward warmth, humor and emotion — three essential elements for successful leadership.

Keen Eye for Budgets

Nevertheless, she was an excellent fiscal steward for Baltimore. Much like her father, Rawlings-Blake knows how to dissect a budget and take steps to get government’s financial house in order.

She negotiated a long-term deal with the state to embark on a $1 billion, long-overdue school-building and renovation program. She sharply lowered teen pregnancies and recruited a highly regarded health officer.

She had the guts to implement pension reforms that threatened to bankrupt the city. She cut property taxes. She halved the city’s structural deficit.

Rawlings-Blake made the right choice in declaring she will not run for reelection. Restoring Baltimore’s equilibrium between now and the time she leaves office late in 2016 won’t be easy, especially with more unrest looming if the results of police jury trials displease local hotheads.

America’s Curse

Concentrating on getting reelected instead of the nitty-gritty of governing would have been irresponsible.

It is one of the curses of America’s electoral system that incumbents are asked to do the impossible — govern and campaign simultaneously. You can do one or the other well, but not both.

Rawlings-Blake now can focus her undivided attention on the needs of Baltimore as it tries to pick up the shattered pieces of progress after April’s disturbances.

It was a logical and thoughtful move that placed her personal political desires on the shelf.  The mayor deserves applause: The city will have a full-time mayor for the next 15 months.

Baltimore is the winner.

Who’s Next?

But who will succeed Rawlings-Blake? So far, the list of candidates and potential candidates is depressingly unimpressive.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon has the management experience to run the city in a highly effective manner. She is dogged, though, by her theft conviction of gift cards for the poor and homeless. Still, she is one of the few people in the race who has run citywide, has a broad-based organization and name recognition.

Carl Stokes is a seasoned city councilman who has run for mayor before, but his too-obvious ambition may turn off voters.

Cathy Pugh is a shy state senator and former councilwoman who has done solid work in Annapolis but lacks an appealing, outgoing personality.

Nick Mosby is only in his freshman term as a councilman and is married to the most polarizing figure in Baltimore.

There’s not a bona fide lion in the bunch.

Baltimore used to have plenty of political heavyweights but these days the list has dwindled. Barbara Mikulski is retiring. Martin O’Malley is quixotically running for president. Elijah Cummings is ensconced as a powerful voice for African Americans on Capitol Hill. Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman, hasn’t shown any previous interest in becoming mayor.

Uphill Challenge

Perhaps someone will emerge with strong backing from the legal or business community, much as Schmoke did when he came out of nowhere to defeat an incumbent state’s attorney.

Perhaps Mfume will look seriously at running for mayor this time.

The next mayor faces a daunting challenge. Baltimore is a poor city with huge, unmet needs. It is the last refuge for the region’s underclass — the homeless, the unemployed, the dispossessed. Much of the city’s former middle class now lives in the suburbs. A conservative governor in Annapolis shows little desire to make Baltimore’s needs his priority.

It’s a bleak picture. Whichever candidate voters select had better be up to this Herculean task.

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Furniture, Iran & Mandel

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 11, 2015 — Odds and ends covering Government House furniture, the Iran odd couple and Marvin Mandel miscellany:

‘Junk’ Mansion Furniture

How quickly they forget!

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s criticism of the bargain-basement deal outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley got on distressed Government House furniture (beds, lamps, mirrors, chairs, desks, a couch) is a great political sound-bite but distorts the facts — and ignores history.

Furniture, Iran & Mandel

Government House, Annapolis

Hogan’s minions penned words for him about O’Malley’s unseemly stripping from the governor’s mansion of “expensive, beautifully used furniture.”

The stuff cost $62,000 new and after being appraised and declared “excess property” and “distressed” by a veteran Department of General Services employee, it was bought by O’Malley for $9,638.

Hogan thought that was an outrageously cheap grab of mansion furniture he could have used in his private quarters.

Fair enough.

But the check the state got from the ex-governor represents 15 percent of the furnishings’ original value.

My wife, who has done interior decorating and interior design for a living, tells me the going rate for furniture drops dramatically once it leaves the showroom. She says used furniture sells for about 10 percent of its original value, especially if it has some age on it.

Most of the O’Malley pieces were eight years old.

So maybe the state actually got a good deal.

It’s also worth remembering — which Hogan didn’t for obvious political reasons — that when fellow Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich left the mansion, he purchased nearly $10,000 worth of furniture for a mere $992 — 10 percent of the original price.

That’s still a fair deal for the state, but not nearly as good a deal as the state got from O’Malley.

Mansion furniture

One of the used pieces of furniture the O’Malleys purchased from the governor’s mansion.

Funny, but Hogan never saw it that way.

Either transaction pales compared with the biggest mansion furniture heist — the emptying of private-quarters furnishings by the late Marvin Mandel.

It was engineered by his second wife, Jeanne, and included removal of 57 items (including two wing chairs, a dresser, a leather sofa, a roll-top desk, Waterford lamps, Chippendale chairs, Lenox china, Waterford crystal champagne glasses, 350 liquor and wine bottles and $489 worth of dog food).

Here’s how the son and namesake of Mandel’s temporary successor, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, recently described the appearance of the mansion’s private quarters after Marvin and Jeanne departed — “our family moved into the Governor’s Mansion and found it stripped bare. . .  the Mandels even took the frozen food and the fire wood!”

After the 1978 elections, Mandel tried to make amends with a check for $3,187, but Gov. Harry Hughes refused to accept it. A five-year legal battle ensued with Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs writing a 327-page report on Mandel’s moving-van loot.

Eventually, Marvin and Jeanne Mandel forked over $10,000 — more than triple what he had originally offered to pay.

According to O’Malley, though, two historic door panels taken by the Mandels remain missing.

Is any of this kosher? That’s the key question.

Technically, the sales violate government policy about not giving state employees preferential treatment.

But the Ehrlichs, the O’Malleys and the Mandels were just barely government officials at the time they paid for state furnishings their family had used in the mansion.

For instance, the appraisal of furniture O’Malley wanted to purchase was made the day the family moved out of the mansion and just six days before O’Malley became a private citizen. Mandel had been convicted and legally removed from office when his moving van pulled away from the mansion.

It’s a grey area in need of clarification.

The State Ethics Commission might provide Hogan with some guidance, but departing governors don’t easily fit under regulations covering state employees. For one thing, they are constitutionally elected officers and exempt from ethics commission rulings.

At the least, common courtesy should have been in play.

O’Malley needed to ask Hogan if it would be OK to buy items in the mansion’s private quarters. Ehrlich should have done the same with O’Malley. Mandel should have requested approval from Acting Governor Lee.

It’s a minor brouhaha reporters are exploiting as though it were an armored-car heist.

The Board of Public Works should establish a new policy: If about-to-become ex-governors wish to buy used private-quarters furniture, the stuff must be appraised by private-sector professionals and the incoming governor must formally approve.

That would clarify matters and set in place a procedure for future ex-governors, which one day will include Hogan.

Iran Odd Couple

Who would have guessed that in the Maryland congressional delegation, just two members would come out in opposition to the president’s Iran nuclear deal, and that they would be polar opposites.

Liberal Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin has linked arms with ultra-conservative Republican Rep. Andy Harris to say “no” to the president’s negotiated agreement to slow, if not block, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

It may be the first and last time this odd couple sings from the same hymn book on a major, highly politicized issue.

Harris’ opposition was expected. He’s a knee-jerk, anti-Obama, anti-Democratic politician. If the president says the sky is blue, Harris sees grey skies.

Cardin, though, is a left-leaning Democratic loyalist. This time, he was under enormous pressure from Jewish lobbying groups in Maryland, especially within his own synagogue. He’s also up for reelection soon, which played into his thinking.

It also helped that his vote wasn’t needed to ensure that Democrats blocked Congress from rejecting the Iran accord.

Still, it’s rare when Harris and Cardin have something in common. Voters on both extremes of the political spectrum might find this Iran union hard to stomach.

Mandel Miscellany

Readers responded mainly with positive reviews of the two-part assessment of the late Governor Mandel. Here is a sampling:

Gov. Marvin Mandel

Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel

Blair Lee IV (now a resident of Hilton Head, S.C.): “a wonderful trip down memory lane.”

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Bob Erlandson:  “That’s as good a concise exposition of the Mandel case as there could be. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten many of the details you wrote. Very well done!!”

Attorney and former Assistant Attorney General Tom Lingan: “Congratulations on finally setting the record straight. I believe you captured well the ambiguity of Governor Mandel which was lost in the deification following his passing. There are still a few of us around who remember.  Thanks for not giving him a pass.”

Attorney and Lobbyist Bruce Bereano: “You really should be ashamed of yourself that at Governor Mandel’s passing you wrote such an unnecessary, nasty and despicable piece in your Part 2 of the Mandel legacy. The sad thing is that you have no shame and you have no [conscience] about this.”

Former Sun reporter and Care First executive Jeff Valentine: “This was the best explanation of that convoluted transaction that I ever read. For the first time, I understand what happened.”

Former environmental lobbyist Ajax Eastman: “You really covered the essence of the man, the good and the bad in depth. Thanks.”

Former Sun reporter Skip Isaacs: “The two Mandel columns were terrific. I knew him much better as speaker than governor, but the contradictions you describe sound exactly right to me.”

Former television reporter Patrick McGrath: “Mandel’s extraordinary achievements that you reminded us of in the first piece, contrasted with the details of his downfall in the second piece  . . . paint a truly balanced picture of the complicated man.”

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Marvin the Manipulator

(Second of two parts)

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 9, 2015 — Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel died last week at 95 after a life of enormous achievements and puzzling contradictions.

Marvin the Manipulator

Marvin Mandel, House of Delegates portrait

On the surface he could be wise, funny, kind, brilliant and farsighted. Yet there was a darker side behind the implacable façade he showed to the public.

As governor for ten years, he manipulated legislators better than anyone before or since. Victory after victory, reform after reform piled up.

What we didn’t know was that Mandel also had been manipulating his first wife, engaging in a long-running affair with a blonde femme fatale from Southern Maryland. He devised a convoluted cover-up and denial when the public finally got wind, after his government car was involved in a late-night fatal crash on a mysterious return trip from Southern Maryland.

He also manipulated the media, planting favorable stories about his administration as well as unfavorable stories on his enemies. He delighted in playing word games with reporters at his weekly press conferences — until those very words got him in deep trouble with federal prosecutors.

What came out in two high-profile trials, marked by a health scare and jury-tampering, was the extent of Mandel’s venality.

He was the behind-the-scenes puppeteer, using his power as governor to reward close political friends in return for a slew of financial windfalls he desperately needed — especially to pay for an expensive divorce from his first wife and the expensive tastes of his paramour (and second wife).

How It Began

Little did I know my very first day reporting on the Maryland General Assembly in 1972 would reveal a key element of Mandel’s manipulations-for-profit.

By that session’s sine die adjournment 90 days later, it was clear a dark, deep conspiracy was at work — with Marvin Mandel acting as the fulcrum.

Here’s what happened in that fateful General Assembly session.

As set out in the Maryland constitution, vetoed bills were the first order of business. One of those concerned a transfer of 18 racing days from the defunct Hagerstown track to Marlboro, a bedraggled half-mile oval in Prince George’s County.

The previous spring Mandel had rejected the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional on technical grounds.

Yet when lawmakers took up the Marlboro veto in early January a surprising thing happened.

Marvin Mandel, the State House wizard with near-total control of the legislature, didn’t lift a finger to defend his veto.

Independence Day

First the House, then the Senate overrode the governor’s action, thus doubling Marlboro’s racing days in less than two weeks after the track changed hands.

But no one in the legislature knew about this change of ownership.

Reform Democrats and Republicans mistakenly crowed that legislators finally had stood up to Mandel and taught him a lesson. It was Independence Day for the General Assembly.

More cynical minds saw it quite differently. Something didn’t smell right, they said.

One of those doubters was Bentley Orrick, The Baltimore Sun’s always-skeptical bureau chief. He saved me from my fresh-on-the-job naïveté.

My written version of the Marlboro action for the next day’s newspaper bought into the theme of rebellious legislators standing up to a powerful governor.

Orrick, though, had the good sense to re-write my lead paragraph so it said Mandel had “all but ‘publicly’ acquiesced” to the veto override that doubled Marlboro’s racing days. He knew something was going on behind the gubernatorial curtains.

Thank the stars for Ben Orrick.

Big Pay Day

We now know Mandel’s cronies were concocting a whopping bonanza for themselves, thanks to Mandel’s actions and non-actions.

When the governor vetoed the Hagerstown-to-Marlboro transfer in the spring of 1971, it sent the price of Marlboro’s stock tumbling.

Thus on New Year’s Eve, Mandel’s close associates secretly bought the half-mile track at a deeply discounted price.

Two weeks later, thanks to Mandel’s unexpected failure to defend his veto, Marlboro had twice the number of racing days. The governor’s pals had doubled the race track’s worth in a blink of a legislative eye.

Marvin the Manipulator Mandel

Gov. Marvin Mandel and his second wife, Jeanne, leaving the federal courthouse in Baltimore.

Throughout that tumultuous 1972 session Mandel continued playing the role of innocent bystander as his friends worked ceaselessly with gubernatorial aides to multiply their race track fortunes.

Out of the blue came a vast racing consolidation bill. It awarded Marlboro a staggering 94 days — more thoroughbred dates than any track in Maryland had ever run before. It amounted to a 500 percent increase in days of racing for a crumbling, small-time track.

The consolidation bill also called for a state buyout of the one-mile Bowie track, with all of Bowie’s racing days — plus Marlboro’s 94 days — transferred to the far more profitable Pimlico and Laurel one-mile tracks.

Marlboro got to keep its night-time harness racing schedule, too.

What an astounding payoff for Mandel’s friends. In less than four months, they would have increased the worth of their recent purchase by nearly $10 million, or $57 million in today’s dollars.

Bit by bit, though, this nefarious profit-making scheme came into public view, thanks to legislative hearings and filings with the Maryland Racing Commission.

Senate Resistance

By session’s end, Mandel’s crew had dropped all pretense of disinterest. His lobbyists were pressing legislators hard to pass the consolidation bill.

Yet resistance in the Senate remained intense.

Among the most vehement foes: Steny Hoyer, Jack Lapides, Jervis Finney, Vic Crawford and Manny Emanuel — all on the Senate Finance Committee that eliminated the bill’s worst elements and eventually refused to pass the measure (on two tie votes).

The ever-observant Finney predicted what would take place next.

He told his Senate colleagues “on the very last night of the session we’ll be called [by the governor’s lobbyists] and told, ‘you can have your bill’ and ‘you can have your bill’ and ‘you can have [racing] consolidation’ and who do you think is going to be getting all its racing days back – good old Marlboro, coming ’round the track.”

On cue,  with less than a hour to go before sine die adjournment Mandel’s chief Senate mouthpiece, Roy Staten of Dundalk, rose to resurrect the racing bill.

Lapides and others started a mini-filibuster. With just ten minutes left before the legal midnight adjournment, Staten tried again to ram the bill through. He failed. Debate persisted for another 20 minutes with Staten pleading for a final, post-midnight vote.

At that point, Lapides tried diplomacy, asking a wavering Senate President William S. James to do the right thing.

“Mr. President,” Lapides politely intoned, “this bill has been properly defeated. . . . The integrity of the Senate is at stake.”

James realized he had no choice, despite the enormous pressure put on him by Mandel. He ruled further deliberations would be “improper.”

No Endgame

For the first time in his career as governor, Mandel had been denied a prime objective — though he and his cronies found a way around the legislature, thanks to a pliant racing commission that Mandel controlled.

A year later the Marlboro owners got regulatory permission to shift their 36 racing days to the larger Bowie track. They reaped a nifty $2.1 million profit — $12 million in today’s dollars.

These shenanigans were to form the basis of federal corruption charges against Mandel.

His reward from his pals included a $300,000 share in a lucrative federal building lease (today’s value: $1.7 million ); a prime parcel of Eastern Shore land ready for development (today’s value: $200,000); lavish vacation travel and wardrobes, and money to finance his expensive divorce from his first wife and the expensive tastes of his paramour (and later second wife).

The value of these “gifts” from friends, in today’s dollars: nearly $3 million.

Clouded Judgment

Mandel’s deceptions and cover-ups, his steadfast refusal to admit any wrongdoing, have clouded the public’s perception of his unmatched contributions to Maryland government.

Did he cross ethical and moral boundaries?

Did he betray the public’s trust?

Elected officials are supposed to provide the public with honest government and honest policy decisions. Was their faith in Mandel misplaced?

Four decades after the fact, those questions still are debated.

Marvin Mandel could have gone into the history books as Maryland’s best governor, an inductee into the national governors’ Hall of Fame.

Instead, he is remembered for his messy divorce; his lies and deceptions; his secretive scheming to enrich his friends; the financial rewards he received in exchange for his underhanded actions, and his incessant denials.

That is the tragedy of Marvin Mandel.

Greatness was within his grasp, but the temptations of love and an elevated lifestyle proved more alluring.

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Marvin the Magician

By Barry Rascovar

(First of two parts)

Sept. 8, 2015 — Simply put, Marvin Mandel — who was laid to rest last week at age 95 — ranks as the greatest and most effective Maryland governor of the 20th century.

Only Gov. Albert C. Ritchie comes close to matching Mandel as a government reformer. But Mandel was far more ambitious in his efforts to improve society, expand the reach of government and anticipate future trends.

Marvin the Magician Mandel

Gov. Marvin Mandel, official State House portrait.

Our lives first intersected in 1972 as Mandel pulled off a stunning coup. In a tumultuous General Assembly session, the governor.

  • He defeated the potent National Rifle Association by enacting the nation’s toughest handgun-control law.
  • He defeated the powerful insurance industry to win passage of the nation’s first state-run insurance company for high-risk drivers.
  • He defeated the influential petroleum lobby to gain approval of a nearly 30 percent gas-tax increase that financed Baltimore’s first subway line, portions of the Washington-area Metro and local highway construction.

He slugged it out with tavern owners and the potent beer barons to win a tripling of the state beer tax — the first increase in that alcohol levy in 33 years.

He gained approval to buy Friendship Airport from Baltimore City for $36 million, beginning a modernization program that turned the re-named BWI Airport into one of the nation’s premier low-cost flight destination.

No Maryland governor took on so many entrenched and muscular special interests at one time.

Legislative Magician

It was a stupendous achievement, following on the heels of three previous legislative sessions marked by sweeping government reforms that turned Maryland into a national model for streamlined efficiency and modernization.

Mandel totally overhauled Maryland’s antiquated judicial system, junking the politically inspired magistrate system for a professional District Court with experienced and respected lawyers nominated by a judicial selection commission serving as judges.

He created an intermediate appellate court that dramatically improved the quality of judicial decisions and anticipated the enormous jump in appeals cases.

He removed politics from District Court and appellate court reappointments.

He named cracker-jack deputy attorneys general to implement these judicial reforms — Robert F. Sweeney to run the new, statewide District Court system and Robert C. Murphy Jr. to lead first the new Court of Special Appeals and then the state judiciary as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.

Cabinet Government

Mandel used his immense influence with the General Assembly (he served there as a key player for 17 years)  to win approval of a massive government reorganization, shoe-horning 248 formerly independent agencies into 12 cabinet-level departments.

It was a long and bitter reorganization with fierce resistance coming from deeply entrenched bureaucrats and interest groups.

Cutting the powerful tentacles of the Maryland Port Authority and State Roads Commission proved especially difficult for the new transportation secretary, Harry R. Hughes.

The new secretary of licensing and regulation, John R. Jewel, encountered enormous obstacles from dozens of special interest groups that no longer could dictate policy to various licensing boards.

The new Department of Natural Resources ran into such intractable opposition from watermen and rural constituencies that Mandel persuaded former Gov. J. Millard Tawes to come out of retirement in Crisfield to smooth hurt feelings and pave the way for a successful transition.

Mandel rarely lost battles with the legislature. He understood the psyche of lawmakers and how to play to each one’s weaknesses and vanity. He knew what strings to pull and when. He became known as Marvin the Magician, pulling a legislative rabbit out of his hat time after time when defeat seemed imminent.

Sweeping Reforms

He battled hospitals to create the nation’s only state regulatory body setting hospital rates to bring down costs. It worked.

He took on the hospitals again in establishing the nation’s first Shock Trauma network, prompting a nationwide revolution in emergency medicine.

He set up the nation’s second statewide school construction program (Hawaii has the other) to relieve local governments of burdensome construction debt that was delaying urgently needed school buildings to handle a huge surge in school-age children.

He fought for state land-use controls decades before “smart growth” came into vogue.

He supported the Lee-Maurer education aid formula that steered a larger percentage of state funds to poor subdivisions, especially Baltimore City.

It is an astounding record for the state’s second longest-serving governor (Ritchie beat him by a considerable margin, serving four terms in the 1920s and early 1930s).

Pollack, then Kovens

Yet Marvin Mandel is the last person you’d expect to earn the label of reformer and good government crusader.

He was a product of the old-time political machines of Baltimore City. Soon, though, he broke from the grasp of corrupt boss James H. (Jack) Pollack and joined forces with a more modest political operative, Irvin Kovens, forming an anti-Pollack ticket in northwest Baltimore.

He rose to political prominence by cunning and sheer luck.  When the House speaker was indicted in Maryland’s first savings and loan scandal, Mandel took his place.

When Spiro Agnew ran for vice president with Richard Nixon in 1968 — and won — House Speaker Mandel had the votes to succeed Agnew as governor.

Through it all, Marvin Mandel remained an enigma. His prestidigitation was so flawless you never knew what was really going on. Three-dimensional chess was Mandel’s game and no one in Annapolis was capable of taking on the grand master.

He could be amiable, jocular and easy-going, yet he turned into a tiger in formulating and carrying out political strategies.

Clouded by Smoke

He seemed to fool everyone with the smokescreen he created when smoking his ever-present meerschaum pipe.

Marvin the Magician

Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel and his ever-present pipe.

Puff, puff, puff. A few nods of the head. Visitors thought they were getting agreement from the amiable governor — only to discover later they had misread the situation.

In political mid-stream, though, Mandel’s fortunes and his demeanor changed.

His luck started to run out.

His secret private life blasted into the headlines. His expensive new lifestyle came at a cost he could not personally afford.

His backstage maneuvering to make close friends and allies rich through passage of favorable legislation in Annapolis became a long-running national scandal.

The magician who so brilliantly reformed Maryland government would pay a steep price for this terrible lapse in judgment.

Tomorrow:  Marvin the Manipulator

Redistricting Reform: Mission Impossible?

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 17, 2015 — Reformers want to take partisan politics out of the redistricting equation. So does the governor. That may be Mission Impossible.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s Current Congressional Districts

On the surface, their goal sounds easy to achieve. Pass a state constitutional amendment empowering an impartial panel of citizens to revise Maryland’s congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years (after the new U.S. Census is taken) so the districts conform to the Supreme Court’s 1962 “one-man, one-vote” edict.

Conservative Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. has joined liberal reformers in this crusade. He’s positioned himself so it looks like those mean Democrats are defiantly standing in the way.

As usual, the situation is far more complicated than the cover story.

Hogan’s Goal

The governor’s motives are hardly pure. He’s looking for political advantage for his outnumbered Republican Party. Stripping control of redistricting from the Democratic controlled General Assembly is his objective.

Right now, thanks to manipulation of redistricting maps by Democratic leaders, seven out of eight Maryland congressmen are Democrats. Hogan thinks a 4-4 split would be more like it.

Yet the current distribution isn’t far off the voter registration numbers.

Had state and national Republican organizations given Sixth District challenger Dan Bongino more financial and organizational support last year (he lost by less than 2,800 votes), the congressional split in Maryland would be 6-2, or 25 percent. That’s almost precisely what the GOP’s registered voter figure is in Maryland today.

So maybe Republicans aren’t so bad off under the current redistricting process after all.

GOP Pickup?

Hogan, though, believes creating more evenly balanced districts would benefit the state GOP, particularly in the General Assembly. He’s placing his bet on a non-partisan revision of legislative district lines in 2021 or 2022.

That premise may not be valid, either.

Republicans currently hold 30 percent of the state Senate seats in Annapolis and 35 percent of the House of Delegates seats. Both figures exceed the party’s statewide voter registration percentages.

Even under Democratic control of the redistricting process, the GOP is doing better than expected.

What skews such comparisons are the large number of unaffiliated voters — 672,000 of them statewide. They are neither Republicans nor Democrats yet they make up 18 percent of registered Maryland voters.

Winning over these independents has been the GOP’s downfall in Maryland. When a Republican candidate reaches out to these middle-roaders, like Hogan did, success is more likely.

How unaffiliated voters will react under impartially drawn redistricting maps is unknown. Nothing may change. Or everything.

Miller’s Response

Hogan knows that Democrats in the legislature will not allow him to win this redistricting fight. Senate President Mike Miller, the savviest politician in Annapolis, has said, quite bluntly, “It won’t happen.”

Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch have nothing to gain from cooperating with the governor.  They understand that Hogan will do whatever it takes to help the Republican Party, with or without a new redistricting commission. They’re not going to help him in that effort.

The best practical outcome would be a pledge by both Hogan and the two Democratic legislative leaders to turn to a group of impartial redistricting experts and citizens for their preliminary re-mapping of Maryland after the 2020 Census.

Such early guidance from non-politicians might dissuade either side from creating the kinds of grotesque districts that now dominate Maryland’s congressional boundaries. It also might lead to more sensible boundary lines for legislative districts that respect communities of interest.

Ever since the Supreme Court removed itself from most redistricting decisions, the two political parties have had a field day throughout the country twisting and turning congressional and legislative districts to their advantage. Each party has sinned mightily.

Gerrymandering is a longtime American tradition, starting with Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812.

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry, Vice President and Mass. governor forever linked to “gerrymandering.”

Trying to remove all political partisanship from this politically sensitive process is wishful thinking.

Still, we can do better than what Maryland has now.

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