Category Archives: Maryland General Assembly

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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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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Hogan’s Health and Harsh Words

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 4, 2015 — Complaints and harsh words have poured in about my Aug. 3 column, for daring to raise the possibility that Gov. Larry Hogan’s health may have played a role in his turn toward nastiness.

Let’s be clear: The governor’s treatment for late Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma cannot be ignored.

Everyone wishes Hogan a speedy return to good health. Doctors I’ve spoken to have been optimistic about his recovery chances given today’s advancements in chemotherapy.

But the situation — and its ramifications for governing Maryland — cannot be swept under the rug.

Gov. Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail announcement. Hogan's Health and Harsh Words.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Corrections Secretary Stephen Moyer at Baltimore jail announcement.

Could the governor’s unseemly swipes at Democratic leaders be partly related to how he’s feeling during and after his intense medical treatments?

It is a possibility. You don’t have to agree, but it’s a thought worth considering — which is why it was raised ever so briefly (17 words) in my previous column.

Governor’s Response

Hogan’s spinmeisters used my column to reject the notion he has turned from Mr. Nice to Mr. Nasty. In a Facebook posting, Hogan asserted:

“In spite of 10 days of 24 hour chemo I haven’t become mean and nasty, I’m still the same nice guy I have always been, and we are still accomplishing great things for Maryland.”

He also defended his failure to notify Democratic legislators before announcing the closing of the Baltimore City Detention Center. Why? Because he didn’t want to tip off the gangs about what was about to happen.

Fair enough.

Gangs and the City Jail

For the record, here’s what Mr. Nice Guy had to say in blaming the disgraceful gang problems of the city jail on former Gov. Martin O’Malley:

“When the first indictments came down the previous governor called the case ‘a positive achievement in the fight against gangs.’ It was just phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure of leadership.”

The facts tell a slightly different story that Hogan conveniently ignored in his spiteful comments.

It was O’Malley’s corrections secretary, Gary Maynard, who uncovered the deplorable Black Guerilla gang control of the city jail and called in the FBI. Maynard wanted to act immediately to end the gang’s stranglehold on the detention center and prosecute the guards involved, but the FBI insisted on months and months of further investigation.

This long delay was a huge, inexcusable mistake, but that failure of leadership should not be blamed on O’Malley. Hogan needed to point an accusing figure at the FBI.

Attacking the Opposition

It was easier and more useful politically to demonize the opposition party leadership.

Thus, Hogan politicized the jail-closing announcement in terms that pilloried both O’Malley and the Democratic legislature.

Such “smack-down” rhetoric doesn’t further cooperative governance.

Two of the most level-headed Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Ed De Grange of Anne Arundel County and Sen. Guy Guzzone of Howard County, co-chaired a commission that studied the city jail situation and developed a long-term, bi-partisan solution.

Hogan not only disregarded their work, he bragged about the fact he had “never even looked at” this plan.

Legislative Response

Is it any wonder the co-chairs accused Hogan of having “circumvented the Legislature” and of  “making decisions behind closed doors”?

That last accusation has surfaced on other Hogan decisions, too. He doesn’t seem to believe in listening to a wide-range of divergent views before making up his mind. That approach is not always helpful.

Closing the Baltimore jail was absolutely the right decision. Hooray for Hogan.

He is correct it should have happened long ago — perhaps even under the governorship of the last Republican chief executive, Bob Ehrlich.

But there was no reason to turn the announcement into a political tongue-lashing.

It only exacerbates the growing gulf between the governor and Democratic lawmakers, the very people he needs if he hopes to make headway in achieving his large-scale goals for Maryland.

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The New, Nasty Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 3, 2015 — What happened to the friendly, smiling, easy-going Larry Hogan? Mr. Nice Guy has morphed into Mr. Nasty.

Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan poses at Baltimore City Detention Center. (AP)

Perhaps he’s spent too much time with his pal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the combative presidential hopeful with the mouth that roars.

Perhaps his new Kojack look, as well as his grueling chemotherapy sessions, help explain what’s going on.

Or maybe it’s just a recognition by Maryland’s Republican governor that tough talk and decisive action go over well with his conservative-to-moderate constituents. Excoriating hapless, fumbling Democrats and going it alone make you look like John Wayne riding to the school marm’s rescue.

Whatever the reason, Hogan has taken a turn down a dark alley. It may lead to a promising political future but from a governing standpoint it could turn into a disaster.

Alienating Democrats

In less than nine months, Hogan has managed to offend or alienate much of the Democratic elected leadership in Maryland. He has:

  • Immediately shuttered the disgraceful Baltimore City jail and detention center without even bothering to inform local officials, judges or prosecutors — or provide any details about how this is feasible.
  • On an impulse, unilaterally re-opened the old Senate Chamber in the State House while the prime mover in this historic restoration, the Democratic Senate President, was out of the country.
  • Punitively eliminated $2 million in renovations for an arts center cherished by the Democratic House speaker.
  • Slashed education aid to Democratic strongholds, then reneged on a compromise.
  • Killed the Baltimore region’s rapid rail Red Line without any backup plan.
  • Stripped to the bone the state’s contribution for the Washington area’s rapid rail Purple Line, them squeezed two counties for $100 million more.
  • Shifted all the money saved to rural and exurban road and bridge projects.
  • Named a commission to do away with regulations and made sure the member solidly pro-business and Republican.

In nearly every case, Hogan’s made it clear he’s the act-now, think-later governor of Maryland who doesn’t need to consult with Democratic lawmakers or local officials who might offer valuable input. That would complicate matters.

It’s his party and he’ll do what he wants.

Hogan is giving the public what it wants: Simplistic, quick answers to difficult, highly complicated problems. It’s also how he campaigned for governor.

Sort of reminds you of Donald Trump, doesn’t it?

Fixing the Mess 

Here’s the catch: If easy solutions could fix government’s worst dilemmas, they would have happened long ago.

If simply closing the Baltimore City jail and detention center could solve that jurisdiction’s incarceration and detention nightmare, that step would have been taken by Republic Gov. Bob Ehrlich or Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Governor Hogan and Corrections Secretary Moyer at jail-closing announcement.

Hogan’s quick action at the Baltimore jail opens a new can of worms. You can’t mix people awaiting trial with convicted felons, but that’s apparently the plan. How do you tend to the medical and transportation needs of 1,000-plus former city jail inmates about to be spread among other state prison facilities? Where’s the intake center for new arrivals?  Are you overwhelming nearby state prisons? Will the state face additional, unwinnable ACLU lawsuits?

Hogan says he won’t build a replacement city jail. That would make Baltimore unique in the United States. How is this going to work? Hogan is mum on that point. What does he know that other correctional expert don’t?

The city jail announcement came with gratuitous, nasty and factually inaccurate swipes at  O’Malley. It sounded like a re-hash of Hogan in last year’s campaign.

Nor did the Republican governor spare Democratic legislators from his wrath. Then again, he displayed a stunning lack of preparation: He admitted he hadn’t read a detailed report from a special legislative commission on handling Baltimore’s chronic jail/detention situation.

Another Agnew?

Hogan is playing to his political crowd: angry white men and women — most with limited education — that Spiro Agnew appealed to. If the governor continues along this combative line of attack, he could well become a talked-about contender for the Republican vice presidential nomination, just like Agnew.

We live in an era of presidential campaigning dominated by sound bites, blunt talk, insults and easy answers. Hogan seems to be following that path, too.

The difference is that presidential candidates don’t have to govern. Hogan does, and he has now made that part of his life far more difficult. Maryland could be in for at least three years of government gridlock in Annapolis. It may not be pretty or helpful for Marylanders, but it could well serve Larry Hogan’s political purposes.

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The Laurel Preakness? Get Real

By Barry Rascovar

May 25, 2015 — The Stronach Group, which owns Maryland’s two thoroughbred one-mile tracks, is making noise, once again, about moving the crown jewel of Free State racing, the Preakness Stakes, to Laurel Race Course.

 

Pimlico Race Course

Pimlico Race Course

It’s a non-starter — and the Stronach folks probably know it.

Legally such a move can’t take place without General Assembly approval, which won’t happen.

From a racing standpoint, owner Frank Stronach would have to be brain-dead to transplant the Preakness.

All the fabled history would be lost. Laurel races couldn’t be compared with the 140 years of past Preakness performances at Pimlico. Different track, different racing surface, different times for traversing a mile and three-sixteenths.

Laurel, as built, can’t hold 140,000 fans; Pimlico can and did this month. Nor is it a certainty Laurel could draw even a respectable Preakness crowd.

It’s an isolated, suburban site where families are more interested in their kids’ soccer games than a horse race. No one can walk to the track, or catch a bus, easily. Few folks from the Baltimore region would make the long trek.

Sure, Laurel’s a nice, more up-to-date track, but to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.”

Diminished Triple Crown

A Laurel Preakness would diminish the prestige and currency of racing’s Triple Crown, thus devaluing Stronach’s Maryland holdings.

It also would be perceived as a huge slap at Baltimore just when the city is trying to recover from April’s civil unrest and the black eye it received nationally and internationally. The bitterness from such a move would be harsh and unforgiving.

On paper, consolidating Maryland thoroughbred racing at one track might appear a no-brainer, but it isn’t once you start peeling back the multi-layers of reality.

What the Stronach folks really want — given the fact a one-track racing schedule is illegal and probably a long-term money-loser — is concessions from Baltimore City and the state of Maryland to offset the two tracks’ operating losses, estimated at $5 million to $8 million annually.

There are a number of ways politicians could provide the track owner with financial help.

Subsidy Options

The state legislature, for instance, could revise the division of slots revenues slightly to allocate up to $10 million annually if the Stronach Group holds a spring-summer meet at an upgraded Pimlico.

The state already guarantees each of Maryland’s two standardbred tracks $1.2 million a year for just 40 days of racing. The money comes out of the slots revenue designated for bolstering purses at those harness-racing tracks at Rosecroft and Ocean Downs.

Stronach’s thoroughbred tracks are expected to receive nearly $46 million in slots revenue for purse awards in fiscal 2017 and close to $50 million by 2020. Surely the law could be amended to let the tracks apply for a subsidy from that account to offset operating losses .

Pimlico logo

Both the state and city also could work with the Stronach Group to float inexpensive bonds for some of the improvements at Pimlico.

Baltimore City, which already is giving over $100 million in tax breaks and another $300 million in public subsidies to developers of Harbor Point downtown, could offer a similar but smaller package of infrastructure improvements and long-term tax rebates if the Stronach Group turns Pimlico into a redeveloped, multi-entertainment center.

Stronach’s Contribution

While Frank Stronach has dragged his feet in putting dollars into his Maryland tracks, he has been a good corporate citizen, even footing the bill for an expensive machine tool-and-dye training school south of the Pimlico track that taught inner-city residents the skills needed to secure good-paying, in-demand jobs.

Thanks to millions in slots revenue already designated for future race track improvements, Maryland has signaled its willingness to help revitalize thoroughbred racing.

Now it needs to seal the deal in a way that ensures Pimlico’s future and offers hundreds of new jobs for the depressed community that lies to the historic track’s south and west.

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Hogan’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Rascovar

May 18, 2015 — Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. makes it sound like he’s riding to the rescue of Maryland’s underfunded pension program that has been continually “raided” by evil Democratic legislators in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Gov. Larry Hogan (left) & Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

What a bunch of hogwash. It’s pure Hogan hypocrisy.

Hogan’s stance — torpedoing a $68 million education appropriation to the state’s most populous jurisdictions and shifting some of that money into the state pension fund — is based on politics, not policy.

Indeed, Hogan is a late convert to the cause of pension-fund integrity.

Silent Secretary

When legislative analysts went before House and Senate budget panels and proposed a 50 percent reduction in Hogan’s $150 million supplemental appropriation to the pension fund, the governor’s budget secretary not only failed to object but congratulated lawmakers for their assiduous work in responsibly paring Hogan’s budget request.

Not until it became politically expedient later in the session to slam Democrats for cutting the supplemental appropriation in half did Hogan belatedly turn into a pension-funding hawk.

Since then, he’s continually referred to Democratic lawmakers’ “raid” of pension money.

Another bit of Hogan flummery.

The pension agency got so offended at this misguided gubernatorial propaganda pitch that it issued a press release regarding “the mistaken impression that the pension fund had been ‘raided’ by the General Assembly during the recently-completed session. This is not the case.”

No Dipping Allowed

The agency explained that the dispute centered on how much extra should be spent to help the state more quickly reach full funding to pay for future pension payouts. The state’s required $1.8 billion budget contribution to the retirement account this year remained untouched.

Indeed, it’s illegal for the legislature or the governor to “dip into” the $45.7 billion pension fund. That money can only be used to make pension payouts. No “raids” are permitted. But you’d never know that from listening to the governor’s spiel.

Hogan’s pension purity pursuit was his way of diverting attention from his other action — denying important state dollars to Baltimore City and other high-cost subdivisions to help them avoid layoffs or cuts in school programs.

He said it would be “absolutely irresponsible” to give that money to the schools instead of pouring it into the pension fund.

He’s got his priorities reversed.

The greatest immediate urgency is bolstering education achievement in distressed communities like West Baltimore. That takes money.

Further fortifying the state’s pension program can be done more gradually over the next decade or two.

Harsh Consequences

Especially in light of civil unrest in poor, racially blighted Baltimore neighborhoods, Hogan’s decision to yank $11.6 million away from the city school system seems short-sighted and counter-productive.

The consequences of his action could be quite harsh when the General Assembly meets next January.  This slap in the face to Baltimore schools won’t be forgotten. Nor will legislators from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties forget Hogan’s slight, either. They lost a combined $37 million in school money.

The governor’s next big decision could be the fate of the two mass-transit lines affecting those three major jurisdictions — the east-west Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs.

His actions on the two lines could prove pivotal in his dealings with Democratic lawmakers. Deep-sixing either project will prompt an uproar. Yet Hogan is intent on appeasing his conservative base by finding ways to sharply reduce mass-transit costs.

He’s playing with political dynamite.

If he sets off a Democratic explosion over the fate of the Red and Purple lines, the resulting fallout could cripple Hogan’s efforts to constructively deal with the General Assembly over the next three years.

Judging from his rejection of supplemental education aid, this governor seems determined to restrict Maryland’s future spending habits at all costs. His goal is to lower taxes. Everything else is secondary.

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Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

May 11, 2015 — Larry Hogan Jr. is proving to be an unusual governor for Maryland, in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessors, Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Both Democrat O’Malley and Republican Ehrlich love publicity and making a PR splash. They craved the spotlight, issued a tidal wave of propaganda pitches and tried to dominate the daily news coverage.

Republican Hogan wants none of the above. He’s such a modest, low-key governor that he brings to mind the gubernatorial years of an equally low-key Maryland chief executive, Harry Hughes.

But there’s a difference. Hughes came to Maryland’s top office steeped in state government and political expertise. Hogan, in contrast, was a novice who had never held an elective post.

During his campaign last year, Hogan followed a disciplined KISS strategy — “keep it simple, stupid.” His themes purposely avoided divisive social issues and stuck to a few key promises — cut the state budget and then cut taxes.

Narrow Legislative Focus

Hogan followed a similar KISS approach in his first legislative session. His one and only focus: developing a slimmed-down budget that came close to wiping out Maryland’s chronic structural deficit.

The rest of his so-called “agenda” consisted of leftovers from the campaign trail — unrealistic Republican proposals that stood no chance in a heavily Democratic General Assembly.

During those 90 days in Annapolis, Hogan held few press conferences, issued few press releases and remained pretty much in the background.

By session’s end, he had won much of the budget battles, setting the stage for a similar push next year to make room for tax cuts.

He gave us a preview of his intentions last week by announcing reduced tolls on Maryland’s roads and bridges.

Bay Bridge toll cut

While this puts a giant crimp in Maryland’s efforts to replace aging bridges and improve interstate roads, the symbolism of Hogan’s toll-cutting action is what counted for the governor.

Even when dealing with the volatile protests and unrest in Baltimore, the new governor kept his participation low-key — and simple.

His actions were few but decisive — calling in the National Guard when requested, moving his office to Baltimore and delivering daily updates in which he basically introduced law-enforcement leaders to brief the media.

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

When cornered by reporters, Hogan refused to blame the mayor for what had occurred and refused to discuss details of events. He sounded a one-note response: “We are here to keep the peace.”

Compared with the frenetic, 24/7 campaign styles O’Malley and Ehrlich brought to the governor’s mansion, Hogan’s modest and even shy approach is a refreshing change.

His eternal optimism, concern and ready smile serve him well with Marylanders.

Next Big Test

That widespread popularity soon could be tested when Hogan decides what to do about two costly but critical mass-transit projects — Baltimore’s Red Line and the suburban Washington Purple Line.

He called them unaffordable during the campaign, but rejecting either project will create deep antagonisms and hostility toward the Republican governor that could dog him in the legislature for the rest of his term.

So far, Hogan has avoided these kinds of flash points, knowing that a Republican governor can ill afford alienating a large chunk of the legislature’s majority party.

How he navigates between his campaign statements and strong public sentiment for the Red and Purple Lines in three of Maryland’s largest and most politically influential jurisdictions will tell us much about Hogan’s ability to navigate his way through perilous political situations.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. Contact him at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Minimalist Legislative Session

By Barry Rascovar

April 15, 2014 — Not much was expected from the 2015 Maryland General Assembly session — and we weren’t disappointed.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Think I’m kidding? Then try this one on for size:

(Fill in the Blank)

“The Maryland legislature’s greatest achievements this past session were _______________________,  ___________________________ and  ______________________________.

I couldn’t complete that sentence.

There was no big-league legislation to crow about when the final gavel sounded sine die Monday night.

If you, too, have trouble coming up with truly significant steps forward by the General Assembly this session, you’re not alone.

It got so bad that when the Baltimore Sun spent 24 column inches on legislative achievements, every section detailed the General Assembly’s failures — not successes — on education, transportation, environment, criminal justice and health. Few accomplishments were even mentioned.

Turnover Hurt

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

High turnover after Assembly districts were re-drawn before last year’s elections meant a large number of freshmen lawmakers spent the 90-day State House gathering learning the ins and outs of lawmaking, how to file their expense accounts, where the bathrooms are located and what it takes in practical terms to get bills enacted.

No wonder this was a minimalist session.

New Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. didn’t help matters. The Republican came into office with zero experience as an elected official, just a handful of campaign promises and no legislative agenda.

The wish list he submitted proved thin and lacking in substance or realism. Few of his bills passed; those that did were given Democratic-friendly face-lifts.

Minimalist Legislative Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan failed to provide the Maryland legislature with strong guidance or leadership — other than his effort to chop  the size of the state budget. He was a no-show on legislative matters for much of the session.

Uber, Divorces & Midwives

When the most newsworthy votes deal with Uber’s taxi service, granting quicker divorces, allowing midwife home-births, higher speed limits and letting ex-felons vote, it signals that Maryland lawmakers knew they weren’t ready to tackle heavy-duty issues.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Who says every General Assembly session must contain blockbuster legislation? Sometimes it’s nice to know state lawmakers are content to tinker around the edges of state law.

That means taking small steps to clarify existing statutes, modernizing antiquated sections of the Maryland code and giving interest groups incremental adjustments instead of sweeping change.

Who Sets the Agenda?

Legislatures are not designed to provide strong leadership on dominant social issues. Too many people are involved — 181 in Maryland’s case. It’s up to the governor to set the agenda each year. He’s the state’s top elected leader after all.

But Hogan wasn’t prepared to lead so soon after his surprising election last November. Next year, though, should be different.

His challenge will be to assess what practical moves can be made to help grow jobs in Maryland, improve education and transportation, protect the environment and public safety while helping the state’s large underclass.

Then he’s got to find ways to reach out to Democrats in the legislature for support.

Failure to do so could make next year’s session an even bigger disappointment.

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