Category Archives: Maryland Politics

Lockbox Lunacy

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 21, 2018 — Here’s an example why the public doesn’t trust politicians: Right now, Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic legislators in Annapolis are rushing to pull the wool over voters’ eyes in a scam that would leave taxpayers with billions of dollars worth of IOUs.

Cynics should beware of Hogan’s manipulative plan to divert all slot machine taxes into new K-12 public education programs. They also should take great offense at the Democrats’ parallel plan to do the same thing.

It’s an election-year ruse that would hurt taxpayers or other state programs in the years ahead.

Lockbox Lunacy

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

And it is a prelude to another scam lurking in the background that could add three times as much additional education spending without a way to pay for it.

Everyone favors more money for K-12 education, right?

That’s why Hogan and Democratic legislators, in an election year, are now cheerleaders for the “slots for tots” movement in which every tax dollar the state receives from slots revenue would go into a so-called “lockbox” for new education initiatives.

Today, slots dollars support Maryland’s basic education aid formula. And there’s the rub. Hogan and legislative Democrats want to take that pot of money away and put it in another account just for new education programs.

Sounds great, except for one missing ingredient: How is the state going to replace the roughly $500 million in basic education support from slots that they want to strip out of the existing K-12 account?

Good question, but no politician in Annapolis is willing to provide a good answer.

Future Black Hole in Budget

So the next governor and the next legislature could be left with a huge revenue deficit — $500 million — in Maryland’s basic education account.

And if the legislature next year supports the expansive recommendations for new education spending coming from the Kirwan Commission, that revenue black hole could grow to $2 billion.

Hogan, of course, would love to be in a position where his slots lockbox plan “forces” him to slash existing programs by billions of dollars. He’s been whining about being unable to do just that since entering the governor’s office.

But he’s dead set against any new taxes, even for education.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers badly want to pump another $2 billion into K-12  programs, especially in underperforming, poor school districts, as proposed by the Kirwan Commission.

That slot machine money sure looks enticing!

It’s a mirage.

Where Slots Dollars Go

Slots money already pays a big chunk of Maryland’s basic education aid package. How can you take that education aid away without finding replacement dollars?

You can’t. Yet each side is trying to persuade voters the impossible is possible.

Hogan and the Democrats are falling into the same trap as did an earlier governor and legislature. When the Thornton Commission education package was approved in 2002, lawmakers and Gov. Parris Glendening failed to create a funding source. Leaders at the time bragged that robust state revenue growth would support this extra $1.1 billion in new K-12 state spending.

Wrong!

Paying for the Thornton reforms out of current revenue was only possible by stripping money from other programs, like land-use preservation and the transportation trust fund.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, Maryland’s fiscal situation plunged into crisis, thanks in large measure to the extra revenue burden placed on state government by the Thornton reforms.

That’s when a reluctant Gov. Martin O’Malley became a convert to casinos in Maryland, dedicating the state’s slots tax to basic education, i.e., the Thornton formula.

Without that step by O’Malley and Democratic legislators, the state would have been forced to boost taxes even more to pay the growing school-aid bill.

Revising History

Now, all of a sudden Hogan and legislators are condemning this common-sense move by O’Malley. They see something wrong with using slots revenue to prop up Maryland’s basic aid formula for public schools. They argue this money was supposed to go into new, expanded school programs.

Talk about re-writing history!

From the start, it was crystal clear O’Malley needed the slots revenue to balance his budget and pay for the growing expenses of the Thornton education-aid formula.

It was also clear from the start slots tax money would go into the basic education-aid pot. Those slots dollars kept Maryland’s foundational education program afloat during the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

One way or another, slots dollars have been supporting education aid flowing to county and city schools in Maryland. It helped pay for the increasingly expensive Thornton aid program.

But it did not add new school dollars on top of the existing education formula.

Democrats and Hogan now call that a sinister trick on taxpayers.

They both say they are trying to right that wrong in the current General Assembly session.

But where’s the revenue to pull that off?

Unanswered Questions

How do Hogan and lawmakers strip $500 million from the basic education-aid formula, give that money to the Kirwan Commission’s new, improved school programs and yet not replace the half-billion-dollar hole they’ve left behind?

Here’s another question: When the full recommendations of the Kirwan Commission are implemented, at an additional cost of roughly $1.5 billion per year, how are Hogan and legislative Democrats going to pay for all those enhancements?

So far, the Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders have said not a word about paying for that new $2 billion a year in additional school spending.

Is Hogan really serious about slashing existing state programs by giant amounts after the November election so he can avoid raising taxes to balance the state’s education books?

Are Democratic legislators going to campaign this year as Education Champions while setting up taxpayers in future years for gigantic tax increases?

It’s time for some truth-telling from each side.

Don’t count on it.

The slots lockbox propaganda machine is in full swing. Fessing up to voters in an election year as to what’s really going on is the last thing on their minds.

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Political Redistricting — Inherently Unfair

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 13, 2018 — Warning to good-government types, Gov. Larry Hogan and others demanding non-partisan re-drawing of political districts for Congress: No matter how you slice it, re-districting will remain inherently unfair.

That’s the dilemma the Supreme Court faces as it considers whether to step in as it once did and lay down rules for re-districting.

How do you take a state with 5.7 million people (2010 Census), divide the state into eight districts each containing 721,529 people, and make everyone happy? It is Mission Impossible.Political Redistricting -- Inherently UnfairAdd in the complicity of computer-generated map gyrations and district configurations start to look like an out-of-control jigsaw puzzle.

There is no easy fix, though some would have us believe a non-partisan commission can wave a magic wand and congressional boundaries will be fair and impartial.

Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

Even a de-politicized group (if such an animal exists) will produce distorted districts that unfairly discriminate against population groups — Republicans, Democrats, independents, minorities, rural or urban residents. Some counties, cities and communities will be torn apart no matter how you dice those eight districts.

It is inevitable. You will never please everyone.

Right now, Republicans want to re-jigger the congressional maps to gain at least one additional seat in Maryland by packing the 6th Congressional District with Western Maryland Republican voters and strip out all those Democrats who live in the district’s southern portion in Montgomery County.

New-Era Segregation?

That’s not a bipartisan notion. It’s a one-party plan — a new form of segregated map-drawing  favoring one political party to give Maryland a district that is all rural and nearly all white.

Such a move also would pack more minority voters into districts in the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis — more politically imposed segregation.

Western Maryland Republicans in their lawsuit claim they are being discriminated against, that their free-speech rights are being suppressed because Republicans in western portions of the state now are being outvoted by Democrats who were added to the district in 2011.

They want a pristine, rural congressional district, much like they enjoyed after the 2000 Census, which might stretch all the way through rural stretches of Baltimore and Harford counties on the east and Montgomery County on the south.

But to do so would wreak havoc in the other seven districts. What’s fair about that?

At it stands, there’s no guarantee a Democrat will win the open 6th District seat in November.

6th District History

After all, registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Democrats (253,000 to 212,000). Indeed, incumbent Democratic Rep. John Delaney won by a mere 2,200 votes in 2014 over Republican radio talk show host Dan Bongino.

Historically, the 6th District has favored conservative or moderately conservative candidates of both parties. Over the past 48 years, the district has sent a Democrat to Congress 14 times (Goodloe and Beverly Byron, plus Delaney) and a Republican 10 times (Roscoe Bartlett).

The 6th has had multiple geographic permutations, tying Western Maryland to all of Montgomery County for several decades or sweeping directly east all the way to the Susquehanna River.

In the process of marching to the east, the 6th sometimes has chopped Howard County in half (leaving Democratic Columbia outside the 6th’s borders) and segmenting Baltimore and Harford counties according to political leanings.

Compared with other current congressional districts in Maryland, the 6th is one of the most compact and coherent. It respects the district’s natural borders and county lines. It does not tear apart towns and communities as is the case with many of the other districts.

The 6th does, though, tie rural Western Maryland with suburbanized portions of Montgomery County.

However, there’s common interest in that pairing: Large and growing numbers of Frederick and Washington county residents commute to jobs along the I-270 technology corridor in Montgomery. There’s an overlap of interests, not a disparity.

Gerrymandering is at the root of complaints about redistricting. Since the early 1800s when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry first concocted a partisan legislative map resembling a salamander, political parties have availed themselves of this manipulative tool.

Political Redistricting -- Inherently Unfair

Famous 1812 cartoon of Massachusetts Gov. Gerry’s ‘salamander’ district.

Nationwide, Republicans are the prime gerrymandering culprits. In heavily Democratic Maryland, the shoe has been on the other foot.

Obscene versions of gerrymandering can be seen in the districts drawn for Democratic Congressmen John Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings and Dutch Ruppersberger to ensure their reelections.

Sarbanes’ repugnant district is the one that should be under attack, not the 6th.

The notion of keeping counties intact is well-meaning but naïve. The Supreme Court requires districts of equal population size. Now, try drawing those eight districts without chopping Baltimore City and Baltimore County into four districts and Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties into three districts.

A safe, rural Republican 6th District can be constructed, but it could require so many drastic alterations in other districts that the lone Maryland Republican in Congress today, Andy Harris, could find himself in a more hostile 1st District in which his re-election would not be a sure thing.

Whatever the Supreme Court rules on the Maryland case and another from Wisconsin, it will not eliminate unfairness, distortions or inequities from the re-districting process. Someone is going to wind up with the short end of the re-drawn maps.

The best we can hope for is a high court ruling that reinstates an earlier mandate from the justices following the “One Man, One Vote” ruling of 1963. It required that each district be compact, consist of adjoining territories and give due regard to natural boundaries as well as political boundaries..

The General Assembly and voters incorporated those requirements for redrawing state legislative lines into the state constitution in 1972.

Why not return to the Supreme Court’s earlier congressional redistricting standards? That’s a logical way to impose a degree of sanity and ground rules on an age-old political tug of war that is sure to persist.

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Baltimore, oh Baltimore!

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 22, 2018 — Baltimore, oh Baltimore! How low can your situation go?

–A killing crime wave that won’t stop. Corrupt cops. A fired police commissioner.
–Losing its bid for the Amazon-East headquarters.
–Frigid school buildings caused by bursting pipes.
–Homes going without water for weeks due to crumbling infrastructure.
–Historic monuments horribly defaced by far-left vigilantes.
–A governor who practices “benign neglect” toward the city — and cuts $21 million from the state’s aid-recovery programs.
–An embarrassing screw-up at a downtown city hospital that leaves a mentally ill woman wandering the frigid streets in a hospital gown.
–An NFL team that blows its playoff hopes not once but twice in its final games.
–A baseball team about to lose its most popular and best player, with no signs of a recovery plan.

Baltimore, oh Baltimore!Yes, it’s been a terribly rough patch for Mayor Catherine Pugh in her first year. Can it get worse? Possibly. Then again, perhaps we’ve hit the low point:

–A new police commissioner, not an outsider but a 30-year veteran of the force. He comes with high praise and a plan to target the worst criminal offenders that he implemented immediately.
–A downtown residential building boom as the strong demand from millennials to live and work in the heart of the city persists in spite of its problems.
–The progress by Kevin Plank at Port Covington to create a city within a city — with or without an Amazon to embellish this already ambitious project.
–An aggressive city delegation in Annapolis that isn’t likely to allow the Hogan administration to treat Baltimore City as harshly as the governor indicated in his new budget.

The mayor herself seems to be breaking out of her lethargy — another good sign. Baltimore needs strong, proactive leadership, especially at this moment in its history.

Missing Partner

What’s missing is a true partner in the governor’s office in Annapolis.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget gives no sign of recognizing a role for the state in turning around a dreadful situation in the state’s most important metropolis.

Instead, the Republican governor has used the city’s woes as a political punching bag to boost his reelection drive.

There’s no extra money to transform Baltimore’s schools, its social welfare safety net, its rehabilitation programs or its under-staffed law-enforcement efforts.

Instead, Hogan has played to his right-of-center audience, hectoring city officials in mean-spirited jabs in which he condemns incompetence, bureaucracy, the mayor and always Democrats in charge.

That’s fine from a reelection standpoint. But on the ground, where people’s lives and futures are at stake, Hogan’s jabs merely deepen the problem and do little to reverse the tide.

Politics vs. Governance

It will be up to state legislative leaders to come up with creative ways to persuade the governor to become more than a sideline critic.

In an election year, Democratic lawmaker may also try to turn the tables on Republican Hogan — embarrassing him politically while directing more aid to make Baltimore safer and less of an albatross around the state’s neck.

At some point, Hogan has to recognize that Baltimore’s nationally publicized plight is damaging Maryland’s economic development efforts.

So long as Baltimore remains poor, under-educated and lacking in jobs for its residents, the city will drag down the rest of the state — not only financially but also in terms of the state’s reputation.

It’s a dicey dilemma for Hogan, who seems to relish his rants against what’s going wrong in Baltimore because it brings cheers from his followers in the suburbs and rural communities. Yet in his role as governor, Hogan is not burnishing his legacy by ignoring the steep decline of Maryland’s major city.

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2018 MD Assembly: All Politics, All the Time

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2018–Just in case there was any doubt the next 90 days in the Annapolis State House will focus like a laser on political opportunism, Gov. Larry Hogan tossed a Molotov cocktail into the air yesterday aimed at embarrassing Democrats.

Using Baltimore City’s weather-related school closings (extreme cold, bursting pipes, failing heating systems) as a foil, Hogan lashed out in a less than polite way at what he called a “horrendous crisis,” calling for the appointment of a state inspector general to police schools throughout Maryland — with subpoena power — looking for corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.

2018 Assembly Session

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

While you can debate the merits of a powerful state investigator sticking his nose into the operations of every single school system in search of wasteful spending, wrongdoing and poor judgment, keep in mind that Hogan’s theatrics are purely political: His suggestion doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in you-know-where when it is presented to the Democratic legislature. It will be dead on arrival.

And the governor knows it.

It’s a prime illustration of how the Maryland General Assembly session that starts Wednesday will be all about politics, all the time.

There’s no way House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller will allow Hogan a “win” during the 90-day session. It’s all about politics from their perspective, too. Anything these Democrats can do to put roadblocks in Republican Hogan’s re-election path is a victory in their eyes.

2018 General Assembly Session

Senate President Mike Miller

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

All Hogan really has is a bully pulpit to castigate Democrats in the party’s strongholds — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

He’s likely to continue his harsh rhetoric aimed at the struggling city in the months ahead.

It is raw meat for his devoted conservative followers. He might even gain some support from African-Americans by posing as the “savior” of their failing schools — even though he hasn’t lifted a finger to help solve this deeply entrenched problem.

Clash of the Politicians

Republican Hogan and legislative Democrats will clash on multiple fronts this session with political factors serving as the guiding light for both sides.

First up? Hogan’s veto last year of the Democrats’ paid sick-leave bill. The governor’s alternative plan may not even make it to a hearing, since a veto-override by both houses could happen almost immediately.

Call it a warning shot across the governor’s ship of state.

Some of Hogan’s appointments may find it rough sledding through the confirmation process, especially State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby of Worcester County, whom Hogan named to the Circuit Court late last month despite warnings the Legislative Black Caucus would vigorously oppose such an appointment.

Republican Oglesby was accused four years ago of using racially insensitive language and creating a racially hostile work environment. He’s involved in a related federal lawsuit, too.

Advice to Ogelsby: In this politically charged atmosphere, don’t quit your day job.

Tax-Code Politics

Wherever you look in the State House, politics is the word of the day.

For instance, sorting out the impact of massive federal changes in the income-tax code took on a political coloration when Hogan leapt at the chance to get on the good side of taxpayers by announcing he’ll do everything in his power to make sure no one in Maryland pays more state taxes as a result of those changes made by his fellow Republicans in Washington.

He said Democrats should jump on board his no-new-taxes bandwagon without hesitating.

If only it were that simple.

Tax reform, as enacted by Congress, is a highly complex issue, fraught with implications for state and local governments. Rushing to offset the federal tax changes that hurt Maryland filers won’t be easy and shouldn’t be done on a whim.

At the same time, Democrats see an opportunity in Washington’s tax changes to fund some of their top priorities, such as the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), countering the Trump administration’s steps to curtail Obamacare, providing more aid for public schools and finding more money to fight the crime and opioid epidemics.

Hogan’s view and the Democrats’ view on the Republican tax-cut law are starkly different. They may not find common ground during the next 90 days. Indeed, clarity about the tax-code changes and their impact in Maryland may not be apparent until later in 2018.

A special session in an election year is highly unusual, but it may become necessary.

Gerrymandering Stand-off

Hogan and the Democrats also will squabble over redistricting, with the governor putting in a DOA bill that sets up a non-partisan commission. This is a continuation of his efforts to give Republicans a boost during redistricting and to get on the right side of voters on this matter.

Lawmakers in the majority will try to embarrass the governor by passing gun-control legislation, such as a ban on bump stocks similar to the ones used in the Las Vegas massacre. That would force the governor to veto the bill — and antagonize moderate voters he needs for reelection — or sign the bill — and enflame his conservative backers he also needs to gain a second term.

Each side will try to out-maneuver the other. Substance will take a back seat to gaining political advantage in ways that could influence the outcome in November.

So get ready for lots of name-calling and hyper-partisan rhetoric in the coming months. Agreement on solving Maryland’s most pressing problems will have to wait until 2019.

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Neall’s Obamacare Challenge

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 3, 2018 — First, the good news: Gov. Larry Hogan has named a new health secretary who not only knows what he’s doing health-care wise but also is an experienced “Mr. Fixit” when it comes to devising solutions to knotty problems.

Now the bad news: Bobby Neall has a king-sized dilemma staring him in the face as he steps into his Baltimore office suite on Jan. 9: The perilous steps taken by Republicans in Washington to subvert and eventually kill the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Robert R. Neall, the governor’s new health secretary.

Over 150,000 Marylanders signed up for Obamacare insurance coverage in the recently closed enrollment period, even though premiums are skyrocketing.

According to Chet Burrell, president/CEO of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, without rapid response from State House leaders “we believe the individual market segment” of Obamacare  “will catastrophically fail in the next 12 to 24 months leaving tens of thousands of individuals without affordable coverage options.”

Given that CareFirst is far and away the dominant insurer in Maryland’s individual market, that’s an alarming prediction but one many health care economists have been warning about.

Here’s the immediate problem: President Trump and congressional Republicans tacked onto their giant tax-cut law a provision that eliminates from Obamacare the mandate that every adult have health insurance or pay a penalty at tax time.

Thanks to Trump & friends, there no longer is any punishment if adults want to go without health-care coverage.

‘Death Spiral’

This move “constitutes a direct threat” to Maryland’s individual market, Burrell says in a letter, “because it will almost certainly accelerate a ‘death spiral’ already underway in this market segment by spurring younger and healthier people to exit the market — leaving too high a concentration of those who are ill to make premiums affordable to all.”

Since 2014, CareFirst has jacked up Obamacare premiums 150 percent — “horrific increases” Burrell calls them — yet the insurer lost over $400 million insuring people in this market.

He says his company expects to lose as much as $100 million more over the next year and could be forced to raise rates another 50 percent in 2019.

At that point, he notes, health-care coverage for this group — whose incomes are not quite low enough to qualify for government subsidies — could become unaffordable, both for individuals and for insurers.

Burrell suggests it is time for Annapolis to devise “sound public policy” that helps provide insurance for “a population that undeniably needs coverage.”

Enter, Bobby Neall.

He’s got years of experience running the state’s largest managed-care organization for Medicaid recipients. In short order, he turned a money-losing operation into a profitable business for Johns Hopkins Health Care while also increasing quality indicators. He’s exceptionally well-liked and respected by state legislators, too.

Yet there’s not much time to come up with a brand-new state insurance program. In four months, health-care insurers must submit their rates for 2019. Time is the enemy.

Burrell’s Proposal

Fortunately Burrell has put a plan on the table that might be controversial with his fellow insurance executives but points to a way out of this bind.

Here’s what he suggests:

  • Simplify Maryland’s public insurance option by offering just one plan with a $1,000 deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,500.
  • Create a state health-care fund to re-insure individuals with high medical costs and for people needing premium subsidies.
  • Impose a 3 percent fee on insurers who do business in Maryland but fail to participate in the ACA market (at the moment only CareFirst and Kaiser offer such policies).
  • Pass a law mandating that every adult in Maryland obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty that goes into the state health-care fund.
  • Base future premium subsidies on age and income so that younger adults are eligible for attractive insurance rates.

CareFirst analysts believe these steps could lower premiums up to 40 percent, cut out-of-pocket expenses for most individuals and draw many more younger, healthier Marylanders into the program.

That would be a win-win-win.

This plan may not check all the boxes. It may draw considerable opposition. But it gives the new health secretary a concrete starting point and knowledge that the state’s largest insurer stands behind the plan.

Prompt Action Required

Burrell points out, though, that his proposal requires a waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and General Assembly action. Lots of actuarial and economic analysis must be submitted and lots of discussions must take place to hammer out a consensus in Annapolis in short order.

From the governor’s perspective, finding an answer is a political imperative. Hogan cannot afford to be saddled with the charge he failed to help middle-income Marylanders keep their health insurance coverage.

The last thing he wants is to face that charge in the midst of his re-election campaign. It’s a potential issue that could anger and energize interest groups favoring broad health-care coverage.

Burrell is offering a public-private solution, which should appeal to the governor — not a state handout.

There’s much to like in his plan. But Health Secretary Neall knows only too well the proverbial devil lies in the details.

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Bad Omen for GOP?

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

Last Tuesday, outside forces held the winning hand.

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

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

Surprising Results

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

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

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

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

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

That could include Larry Hogan next year.

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

Frederick and Annapolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

 

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Notice

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

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

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

Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) and Benjamin Jealous

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

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

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

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

Similar Views on Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Emily’s List do then?

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

Taking a Chance

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

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

Now the senator is returning the favor.

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

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

Harry Who?

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

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

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

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

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

Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

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

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

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

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

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Dems Grovel for Governor Nomination

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 30, 2017 — A humiliating scene played out recently at the Maryland State Education Association’s fall convention in Ocean City.

Eight candidates for governor, all Democrats, went before the 73,000-member teacher union gathering and tried to out-grovel one another.

By the time they were done, they had promised so much to elevate schooling and improve the lives of teachers you would think Maryland was home to the most magnanimous and well-healed citizens in the world, willing to accept giant tax increases to fund every wish of unionized educators.

  • Universal pre-kindergarten in every jurisdictions;
  • Fat teacher salary hikes and pensions increases;
  • Modern school buildings for everyone;
  • Extra learning assistance for kids living in poor school districts;
  • Enhanced pre-natal care for pregnant students;
  • A plan for recruiting talented teachers;
  • More career skills in vocations not requiring a college degree;
  • $50,000 more per year for every school in Maryland;
  • Another $2 billion a year to bolster existing K-12 public-school education.

It’s as though the Democratic gubernatorial candidates were contemplating a perfect world in which anything and everything is not only possible but mandatory.

Naturally, every Democratic candidate lambasted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for his failure to champion massive new education aid programs. They called him the “anti-education governor.”

The unionized teacher representatives loved it. And why not? Having a bunch of wannabe governors begging for the union’s endorsement must be an ego-enhancing experience.Dems Grovel for Governor NominationBut the question must be asked at some stage of this campaign: How are they ever going to pay for all this?

Where’s the Cash?

Benjamin Jealous won cheers for saying he would cut Maryland’s budget by five percent and give all that new-found cash — $2 billion — to education.

Since 80 percent of Maryland’s expenditures are mandated by law, Jealous has his work cut out for him.

Wait till he starts itemizing precisely where that $2 billion in coming from. Cutting billions from existing programs just isn’t possible without eliminating or savaging dozens if not hundreds of services used by millions of Maryland citizens.

Krish Vignarajah, another governor wannabe, also endorsed a $2 billion boost to education but without any sign she has a clue of how to realistically make good on her promise.

She also wants to give all 1,424 public schools in Maryland $50,000 in science and technology investments each year. How will she raise that $71.2 million each year?

Nearly all the candidates pledged, if elected, to require universal pre-kindergarten in every Maryland school district.

Old Promises

Funny, so did the Democratic candidates for governor in 2014.

Anthony Brown’s program would have cost $138 million in 2014 dollars. He would have taken that money out of Maryland’s taxes on gambling – most of which already goes toward K-12 education. That internal contradiction never seemed to faze the candidate, who lost big-time to Hogan.

Brown’s primary foes, Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur, also supposed pre-K education. Gansler wanted an expanded, full-day program for more kids in poverty, at a cost of $20 million. He would have stripped those dollars out of an already-struggling horse-racing industry.

Mizeur’s phased-in full-day pre-K plan would have cost $280 million a year, paid for by legalizing and taxing marijuana. That idea still lacks political support.

At least candidates in 2014 were not only proposing sweeping programs but also putting a dollar figure and funding options out in the open so voters could judge how realistic their plans would be if put into effect.

That’s not so in the early stages of the current gubernatorial maneuvering. That is probably due to the excessively large field in which only a few stand a realistic chance of getting the Democratic nomination.

When a candidate is vying for attention and support from a powerful interest group along with seven others, what happens is an auction — a bidding war. Each tries to out-bid the others for the group’s affections.

The result is unseemly groveling, a pandering win the group’s endorsement – at any cost.

In this case, it means pie-in-the-sky promises that bear little relationship to the real world of Maryland state government, this state’s troubled budget situation and Maryland voters’ strong resistance to higher taxes.

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Hogan’s Off-Message Moments

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 23, 2017 – Gov. Larry Hogan is riding high with strong poll numbers, low unemployment and ambitious plans to turn Maryland into a cutting-edge economic-development state.

Yet amid these positives, Hogan has a tendency to veer into a form of pettiness and vindictiveness that to some degree mirrors Donald Trump’s off-message moments.

Hogan at times gets testy when his decisions are challenged. It’s as though he cannot stand even the mildest of criticisms.

A week ago, he briefly turned nasty after an event honoring his efforts as governor to support causes dear to the Jewish community of suburban Washington.

A handful of people told Hogan how disappointed they were he had mandated a post-Labor Day start to the school year because it could lead to the elimination of days offs in Montgomery County schools for the Jewish high holidays. (The same situation is cropping in Baltimore County schools).

Hogan’s glad-handing, smiling demeanor changed. He said he was “outraged” by even the suggestion his move would result in no days off for those two sacred Jewish holidays.

“That’s nonsense,” he said, then suggested angrily that the entire Montgomery County school board should be defeated at the next election.

Sounds like one of Trump’s tantrums in which the president responds to the slightest critique with searing criticism of the speaker and urges his defeat on Election Day.

Tag-Team Nastiness

A few days later, Hogan displayed moments of ill temper at a Board of Public Works meeting in which he laced into the interim school chief of Baltimore County for failing to have all county schools air-conditioned immediately.

This is an old tale, one Hogan and state Comptroller Peter Franchot have used yearly to vilify Baltimore County officials. The county has embarked on a billion-dollar system-wide renovation to solve this decades-old problem but it cannot happen overnight – though the tag-team of Hogan and Franchot imply that it can.

To conclude his week, Hogan assailed a federal appeals court for daring to conclude a giant, 40-foot cross-shaped war monument on government property violates the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

An “outrageous . . . overreach,” Hogan wrote. The court’s conclusion, he concluded, is un-American. “Enough is enough.”

He also vowed to fight the court decision – though the state does not own the land where the “Peace Cross” sits at a busy intersection in Bladensburg and thus is not a party in the lawsuit.

Hogan's Off-Message Moments

Bladensburg Peace Cross

This is the kind of social issue Hogan avoided during his campaign for governor in 2014 so as not to inflame a sensitive issue that might hurt him with voters.

Yet defending a Christian symbol erected on government land plays well with Hogan’s conservative Republican base.

That minorities might find a 40-foot Latin cross objectionable doesn’t seem to enter the governor’ calculations.

Unpleasant Parallel

Hogan’s stance on the Peace Cross has similarities to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s revisionist approach to constitutional provisions regarding church and state.

Moore was removed as his state’s top judge for installing a two-and-a-half-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the state Supreme Court building’s rotunda and then refusing to remove it when this was deemed unconstitutional.

Moore, like Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka, is a zealous believer in Christian “moral law” superseding constitutional law. The two men would concur with Hogan’s stance on the Bladensburg Peace Cross.

The irony is that earlier this year Hogan removed a statue from the State House grounds due to its inflammatory, racist implications. He respected the sensitivity of offended minority groups.

Yet in the case of the Peace Cross and the possible elimination of school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan appears not to care about offending minority groups.

He seems oblivious to the fact a giant Latin cross on public land might offend non-Christians, or that this imposing religious symbol at a busy intersection gives the impression that government is endorsing Christianity.

What if a similar-sized Latin cross dedicated to soldiers were placed on the grounds of the Maryland State House? Would Hogan see anything wrong with that?

There’s really no difference between that hypothetical and the Bladensburg situation.

The Peace Cross issue could be resolved by moving the monument to a private location or urging the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to turn the land and monument over to a non-profit group, such as the American Legion.

That would be a common sense answer, but Hogan is more interested in reaping political points with his conservative voters, not in solving a problem that has deep constitutional overtones.

Political Danger?

As for school days off for Jewish holidays, Hogan’s criticism may strike some supporters the wrong way.

The governor has captivated many Jewish voters by giving scholarships to parochial schools, increasing ties to Israel and increasing aid to Jewish social agencies.

But his post-Labor Day school commencement edict is creating problems. In some years, local school boards may not be able to schedule 180 days of classes and also give days off for the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar.

If that happens, there could be a political reaction against Hogan’s stance.

There is a middle-ground, common-sense way out for the governor that avoids offending Jewish voters: Make it clear that the state school board has the authority under his executive order to grant a waiver to local school systems if such a bind crops up when creating future school calendars.

That would be more of an on-message approach Hogan could take to would avoid making issues like these a point of contention in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.

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Starting at the Top

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 9, 2017 – There’s nothing like starting your political career at the top.

No need serving an apprenticeship in a low-level elective office or working your way up in a methodical manner to gain essential expertise and experience.

The new, Trumpian model is to convince voters you’re the most exciting anti-establishment neophyte in the race who is capable of transforming Maryland’s government “swamp” into a modern-day Nirvana — even if you may not meet the legal qualifications needed to run for governor.

Exhibit A is Krishanti Vignarajah, a Sri Lankan by birth who held jobs in the State Department and the First Lady’s office during the Obama administration.

Now she wants to begin her Maryland career as governor, though her local political credentials are close to zero.

Worse, she may not be eligible to enter the governor’s race.

Vignarajah announced she’s running for governor but she has yet to formally file. She is asking a judge in Anne Arundel County to issue a sweeping declaration that she’s qualified.

Vignarajah is suing the campaign of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for a comment made by Hogan’s campaign lawyer questioning Vignarajah’s claim that she meets the state’s eligibility standards.

How Hogan’s campaign ended up as a defendant is unclear since the governor runs in the Republican primary and Vignarajah is attempting to gain the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Hogan’s campaign has nothing to do with the Democratic shoot-out.

There’s also the matter of free speech. The comment by Hogan’s campaign official is one man’s opinion, which isn’t normally subject to judicial review.

The state elections board also is being sued. Why is unclear, too.

First, Vignarajah hasn’t officially filed with the board. So it’s not surprising that the board has yet to say a word either pro or con about Vignarajah’s eligibility.

That puts the judge in a bind.

The judge is being asked to rule about a candidate’s eligibility even though the candidate has yet to submit the formal paperwork and pay the filing fee.

Vignarajah’s lawsuit may be premature.

If she does file with the elections board for governor, she still might not be able to get a judicial determination of her eligibility until the March 1 withdrawal deadline for candidates.

At that point, the elections board might make a decision on whether she meets the legal standards required of a gubernatorial candidate.

That’s when she could contest an unfavorable ruling in court.

Vignarajah was a District of Columbia resident and D.C. voter as recently as 2014. She worked, lived and voted in D.C. – not in Maryland.

Is it possible for her to meet Maryland’s requirement that candidates for governor be residents and registered voters for five years at the time of their filing?

Maryland, My Maryland

In her lawsuit, Vignarajah declares that her heart belongs in Maryland, which she feels should be enough to let her run for governor. She grew up in Woodlawn and now owns a home in Gaithersburg. She considers herself a Marylander.

Yet she voted in D.C. elections from 2010 to 2014, which requires residency in D.C. and seems to foreclose the possibility that she was a Maryland resident during that period.

Yes, she has retained her voter registration in Maryland as well, which could become a point of judicial interest if Vignarajah gets a chance to make her case before a judge.

She raises some interesting issues which could use judicial clarification at some point during the campaign:

  • Are the state’s eligibility election laws discriminatory or deficient?
  • Is it legal for individuals to hold dual voter registration cards if they own property in each jurisdiction? Can they then pick and choose which place they cast their votes or run for offfice?
  • What is the legal definition of residency in Maryland for the purposes of state election laws?

Maryland sets a minimum standard that statewide candidates must meet to qualify for the ballot.

Vignarajah is old enough to run for the state’s highest elective office. The unanswered question is whether she meets the five-year residency and voter requirements.

At some point a judge may rule on that question and other related issues. This controversy has just begun. We may not know the outcome for many months.

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