Category Archives: Maryland Politics

Advice to Hogan: ‘Take a Deep Breath’

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 28, 2016–Leave it to Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. to make a positive, pro-active announcement and then gum up the works with snide, partisan remarks and a political snub that won’t be forgotten.

Here’s the good news: Hogan reversed course on what to do about the narrow, aging and dangerous Harry W. Nice Memorial Potomac River Bridge in Southern Maryland. He unveiled a $765 million plan to erect a new, wider and safer bridge nearby in just six years.

Advice to Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Charles County

Hip, hip, hooray!

Here’s the bad news: Republican Hogan refuses to work with Democrats on this important construction project. He froze out Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton of Charles County from the announcement ceremony in a political snub that could come back to haunt him.

He also continued to foolishly rant about a transportation planning law enacted by Democrats over Hogan’s veto that the governor inaccurately describes as potentially destructive to road and bridge projects.

To top it off, Hogan railed against a bill Middleton pushed through the General Assembly last session calling for the Maryland Transportation Authority to set aside $75 million a year over the next ten years to pay for the replacement bridge.

Pay-Go Proposal

Middleton’s pay-as-you-go approach met with fierce opposition from Hogan and his transportation minions. The bill, SB 907, passed anyway. Then Hogan vetoed the bill, though Middleton and his offended colleagues could override that veto a few months from now – unless Hogan comes to the bargaining table.

Clearly, Hogan doesn’t like to cooperate with those nasty Democrats. He certainly doesn’t like sharing credit at good-news announcements.

Is it any wonder Hogan has been unable to move his priority bills through the Democratic-dominated legislature?

He continues to float the bogus notion he is eager to compromise with Democrats. What he really wants is total agreement on his proposals. That’s Hogan’s version of compromise.

Middleton’s replacement-bridge bill was aimed at getting Hogan to negotiate with lawmakers over how to erect a safer Potomac River crossing in Southern Maryland. The highly-respected senator has been trying for 15 years to replace the 76-year-old, two-lane bridge.

Advice to Hogan

Sen. Mac Middleton of Charles County

Less-Costly Option

Hogan’s transportation team, though, opposed that plan and backed a less-costly, $150 million patch-up of the decking of the Nice Bridge – easily the state’s most terrifying water crossing. Middleton says the administration argued that not enough people use the Nice Bridge to justify the $1 billion price tag of a replacement structure.

Suddenly, though, Hogan has done a Trump-like flip-flop and essentially conceded that Middleton has been right all along: a new, safer crossing is needed.

Yet the administration continues to twist the truth.

The governor’s spokesperson made the ludicrous statement Middleton wasn’t invited to the announcement ceremony because he had nothing to do with making the project a reality.

What may have changed the governor’s mind was news that a slowly recovering economy has led to far more car and truck traffic on Maryland’s toll roads and bridges, resulting in a $62 million surplus over the past year. The surplus will be used to help pay for the replacement bridge.

If this trend persists the state could save a ton of money on the new bridge, reducing the size of bond offerings. That, in turn, would free up millions for other state transportation priorities.

Friend or Foe?

The situation might brighten even more if Hogan sat down with Middleton to find a middle ground on the two financing approaches. They are not that far apart.

For a governor who has seen his relationship with the legislature deteriorate, it might make sense.

Middleton, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is a powerful figure. He could be an important ally for the governor if Hogan wanted to build a partnership. Or he could be a thorn in the governor’s side. The choice is Hogan’s.

Last week’s bridge announcement won plaudits, as it should. A replacement is overdue. The governor found a way to slice 25 percent off earlier cost projections by relocating the planned structure 100 feet to the north over a deeper river channel.

Politically, Hogan’s new bridge plan will help him ramp up support in Southern Maryland as his reelection campaign ramps up late next year.

But the governor still needs to improve his batting average in the General Assembly before he goes before Maryland voters.

Perhaps he should take a cue from what he said following Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8 when he advised Marylanders, “Everyone ought to take a deep breath” and give the new administration a chance.

Could this be the time for Hogan “to take a deep breath” and give bipartisanship a chance? It might lead to a compromise on paying for a new Potomac River crossing and open a channel for cooperation in the State House.

###

Trump Adopts Hogan’s Campaign Strategies

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 21, 2016 – We should have seen Donald Trump’s huge upset victory coming: He used many of the same tactics and strategies as Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. when the Annapolis real estate developer shocked everyone with his big upset in Maryland two years ago.

The similarities are striking.

  • Hogan brilliantly used social media as a rallying point for conservatives and disaffected voters of all stripes. So did Trump.
  • Hogan was outspent 2-to-1 in TV advertising but easily offset that through free advertising via Facebook with his news-making statements that TV stations and newspapers picked up. So did Trump.
  • Hogan was the “change agent” in a year when Maryland voters dearly wanted something different in the Annapolis State House. This year, Trump was the “change agent.”
  • Hogan capitalized on the economic pain many people have been suffering since the Great Recession. Trump doubled-down on that one.
  • Hogan made himself the focal point for people fed up with in-grown establishment politicians who offered trite, tired and shopworn solutions. Ditto for Trump.
  • Hogan’s opponent was uninspiring, lacking in new ideas and tied at the hip to a disliked incumbent. That pretty much described Hillary Clinton, too.
  • Hogan was an outsider who had never held elective office. Trump followed suit on that one.
  • Hogan pounded away mercilessly on the incumbent’s unpopular policy of raising taxes and fees. Trump never relented in tearing down everything the incumbent president stood for.
  • Hogan promised to bring jobs to Maryland. Trump promised to bring jobs to America.
  • Hogan voiced people’s anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. So did Trump, but in a much louder and far more outspoken way.

No wonder Larry Hogan, a conservative Republican in a very Democratic state, won in a rout. He crushed Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in all but the big three Democratic strongholds of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, plus Charles County in Southern Maryland.

Trump Adopts Hogan's Camapign Strategies

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. (right) and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford

Hogan’s victory signaled a new day for angry white voters, especially those living in rural and exurban areas and on the outskirts of suburbia. Donald Trump followed a very similar formula. It worked for him in 2016 just as it did for Hogan in 2014.

Hogan’s use of Facebook as a key communications and news-making tool was novel at the time. He created his Change Maryland page nearly four years before the election. Back then, he told Len Lazarick of MarylandReporter the page was “born out of frustration.”

Hogan had nothing to lose. He was the longest of longshots, similar to Trump’s status at about the same time.

Voters Wanted Change

“A lot of people are not happy with the direction of this state,” Hogan told Lazarick in a column published on MarylandReporter June 13, 2011. “Some businesses have closed and left the state. Others have just given up.”

In another interview back then, Hogan said, “We need a voice for people who don’t seem to have one” – almost exactly what Trump expressed over and over in his presidential campaign.

Hogan excoriated Gov. Martin O’Malley for his tendency to solve Maryland’s post-recession problems by raising an array of taxes and fees. Hogan said enough, already – let’s head in a new direction.

That’s what Trump promised voters, too.

By the time Hogan won his election, he had 120,000 Facebook followers – twice the number O’Malley had after eight years in office. Today, Change Maryland has 269,000 likes and the governor counts 7,431 Twitter followers.

Trump had astronomical success following the identical approach.

Trump Adopts Hogan's Campaign Strategies

President -elect Donald J. Trump

So clearly Trump, either directly or indirectly, learned from Larry Hogan’s trail-blazing 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Ironically, Hogan refused to support Trump as a candidate or as the GOP nominee for president. Not my cup of tea, the governor said, recognizing The Donald’s unpopularity with Democrats in Maryland (he gained less than 35 percent of the Free State’s vote on Nov. 8).

Yet the similarities in the Hogan and Trump campaign approaches are stunning – and so were the results.

###

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

 

Political Maryland’s Democratic Cocoon

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 14, 2016 – A Martian landing in Maryland on election night never would have guessed that Donald Trump was about to pull off the upset of the century.

That’s because Maryland is an outlier, an exception to what happens in presidential elections in the rest of the country.Political Maryland's Democratic Cocoon

Trump got slaughtered in Maryland, receiving just a little over a third of the vote. Only a few other heavily Democratic states, like Massachusetts and California, saw such lopsided Democratic victories in the presidential race won by Republican Trump.

The election map in Maryland looked surprisingly similar to the 2012 election map. Democrats have such overwhelming majorities in the densely populated Central Maryland subdivisions that this provides a protective cocoon for the party’s presidential candidate.

Central Maryland Landslide

Just in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in the Washington suburbs, Hillary Clinton ran up a lead of over half-a-million votes.

Overall this Democratic cocoon gave Clinton a big enough lead – even with a reduced turnout – to come close to matching Trump’s entire total in Maryland. Put another way, the Democratic cocoon allowed Clinton to build an advantage of roughly 800,000 votes. In the rest of the state, Trump beat her by just 177,000 votes.

Clinton won nearly 60 percent of Maryland voters. Trump finished at 35 percent – a little worse than Republican Mitt Romney performed in 2012’s presidential election.

Voting patterns this year indicate the Democrats’ cocoon may be expanding slightly. For the first time since 1956, Anne Arundel County went Democratic in the presidential race – by 1,500 votes.

Four years ago, Anne Arundel voters favored Republican Mitt Romney by a mere 203 votes. And in 2008, Arundel went for Republican John McCain by 4,667 votes.

Large Red Victories

At the same time, two Central Maryland counties continued to swing strongly in the Republican direction. Harford County gave 60 percent of its votes to Trump while his winning total in Carroll County was 76 percent.

Those Republican wins, however, could not come close to matching results in the Democratic cocoon subdivisions – Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles County.

Everywhere else in Maryland, red Republican voters ruled by substantial margins. While these counties hold the vast territorial mass of Maryland, the state’s population centers in the central corridor easily held sway on Election Day.

That population bulge is highly urbanized and suburbanized – ideal Democratic terrain. The rest of the state – mostly exurban and rural – is ideal ground for Republicans.

That was the pattern throughout America last week. The difference: In the rest of the country there were just enough rural/exurban Trump voters to fend off Clinton and win the presidency for the New York real estate developer.

Clinton captured the popular vote but lost the electoral count to Trump. While the nation is evenly split between the two political parties, Republicans hold a substantial state-by-state advantage.

Matching Clinton

In the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Chris Van Hollen pretty much matched Clinton’s vote totals across the Free State. Once again, the Central Maryland cocoon provided a highly protective shield for the Democratic nominee.

Van Hollen ran slightly ahead of Clinton percentage-wise, 60 percent to 59 percent; Republican Kathy Szeliga ran just ahead of Trump, 36 percent to 35 percent.

How the 2016 results in Maryland affect the full slate of local Maryland elections in 2018 is hard to determine two years out.

Central Maryland is growing a bit more Democratic and its population numbers are growing, too. The rest of the state is becoming more Republican but the population rise there – if any – is slowing.

That could pose a problem for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., a very popular politician these days despite the fact he’s a Republican in a very blue state.

Much will depend on the job Donald Trump does in Washington.

What Happens in Two Years?

If Trump surprises people and has a successful couple of years in office, Hogan will be the beneficiary.  But if Trump remains an immensely controversial figure, Democratic Maryland could prove hostile to Republican candidates in 2018.

Indeed, an argument can be made that Hogan might have been better off under a Clinton presidency, since he wouldn’t have faced any presidential backlash against local Republicans if things go awry in Washington over the next few years.

Still, Hogan has proved a remarkably agile politician, even refusing to endorse or vote for Trump this year. Defeating this independent-minded Republican in 2018 still remains an uphill challenge for Democrats.

###

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

Buckle Your Election Seatbelts!

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 7, 2016 – Okay, so Maryland’s votes don’t really matter in tomorrow’s tumultuous climax to an unpredictable, deeply divisive political campaign for president.

We already know the outcome in heavily Democratic Maryland. The record-breaking flood of Democrats during early voting is a clear sign it could be another wipeout for Republicans running statewide.

The two GOP candidates, Donald Trump (for president) and Kathy Szeliga (for U.S. Senate) need a miracle-and-a-half to win in the Free State this year.

It ain’t gonna happen.Buckle Your Election Seatbelts!Maryland’s 10 electoral votes are safe for Democrat Hillary Clinton. There’s been no turn of events strong enough to dissuade state Democrats from supporting their party’s presidential nominee.

It’s one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia that have gone Democratic in each of the past five presidential races.

That would place Clinton at 240 electoral votes – 30 shy of what she needs for victory. A combination of wins in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada could do the trick.

Getting to 270 Electoral Votes

Clinton also holds out hope in Arizona. A local race for county sheriff involving the controversial anti-immigration incumbent Joe Arpaio could prompt a heavy Hispanic turnout that might put Clinton over the top.

In Georgia, only a record turnout in the Atlanta suburbs could bring Clinton victory. Those areas are home to college-educated professionals and middle-income African Americans – two voting segments overwhelmingly for Clinton this year.

Trump’s road to the White House is far more difficult. He’s got to break through in one of those “Solid 18” Democratic strongholds, such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. Polls so far haven’t shown that it likely to happen.

Trump also needs to fend off Clinton in the toss-up states and pretty much sweep the board.

It’s a tall order, but not impossible.

His base of support remains white, less well-educated males (and some females) who have suffered from the Great Recession and feel government has ignored their plight while government accommodates immigrant and minority groups.

Can Trump Turn Out His Voters?

Trump has lit a fire under these “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” voters. But will they come out and vote in overwhelming numbers? Are there enough of this “silent majority” to overcome the growing voting strength of minority groups throughout the country?

Trump’s greatest weakness is in the suburbs surrounding big cities, home to college-educated professionals. For decades, these communities have been solidly Republican in presidential races. Not this time, though.

Donald Trump has turned off women in these households with his coarse language, racism, sexist remarks and disdain for females in general. It could cost him the election.

Szeliga, meanwhile, always faced an uphill battle of long odds running against U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, a popular politician for several decades who has unified the Democratic Party behind him and has made no mistakes in this campaign.

Once Trump’s balloon deflated in Maryland with the state’s leading Republican, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., angrily walking away from him, Szeliga’s chances faded dramatically. Her only hope was a sweeping victory by Trump in Maryland behind a unified GOP. She needed to catch a rising Trump tide. She also needed Van Hollen to alienate part of his party’s faithful, which never happened.

Yet despite the lack of drama in Maryland’s vote-counting tomorrow night, it’s still anyone guess who will occupy the White House.

Polling Confusion

Polls have been terribly misleading and contradictory. Highly suspect polling methodology by some organizations has compounded the situation. So has the sudden glut of polls released by colleges we’ve never even heard of before.

Tomorrow you can throw all those supposedly accurate polls away. None of them can predict with any degree of accuracy the human factor when it comes to casting a presidential ballot. That’s especially true when it comes to that other unpredictable factor – turnout.

So buckle your seatbelts and get ready to stay turned late into the night on Tuesday. It’s even possible we won’t know the outcome till the votes are counted in Alaska, where the polls close at 1 a.m. our time.

###

Medical Miracle in Largo?

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 24, 2016—It took over three years to surmount the bureaucratic, regulatory and political hurdles but it finally looks like a half-billion-dollar, state-of-the-art regional medical center will rise slowly in populous Prince George’s County.

It’s way overdue. For a county of 900,000 people, Prince George’s lacks a premier hospital. No wonder so many local residents go outside the county for their medical care.

The organization that runs aging

Medical Miralce in Largo?

Aging Prince George’s Hospital Center in Cheverly

medical facilities in Cheverly, Bowie and Laurel, Dimensions Health Corp., has been a disaster for the county over the past quarter-century. Political hacks and cronies filled management posts. The quality of health care suffered.

For a jurisdiction with a high rate of chronic diseases and the second-largest pool of indigent patients in Maryland (after Baltimore City), there’s long been a crying need for dramatic change.

Now it finally may be coming.

Last week, the Maryland Health Care Commission gave unanimous approval to the 205-bed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo Town Center. The 11-0 vote masked the enormous, complicated struggle that preceded it.

Plenty of Political Resistance

For years, county politicians with vested interest in maintaining the status quo fought furiously to block efforts to overhaul the Dimensions system. The group’s tentacles extended into the county executive’s office and the county council.

Compounding the situation was the war cry of these officials that white outsiders were trying to oust black Dimensions leaders. In a county with a large African American majority, this vocal objection proved loud enough to ward off reforms.

Finally, the current county executive, Rushern Baker, pressed hard for a Dimensions housecleaning. He brokered a deal with the University of Maryland Medical System to assume control – of both the medical and management staffs. It wasn’t easy getting the Dimensions higher-ups to agree.

Capital contributions from Annapolis proved daunting as well. Lawmakers and governors have been reluctant to pour big bucks into the Prince George’s medical system as long as Dimensions remained in control.

Then Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. objected to paying $20 million a year to Dimensions to keep the existing medical centers afloat until a regional medical facility can be built.

The legislature eventually had to mandate an annual state contribution to keep the current medical facilities in operation until the opening of the new center in 2020.

Total cost: $543 million, with $208 million coming from the state, $208 million from the county and $127 million in bonds issued by the new hospital entity.

Downsized Project

The total would have been higher but for the fact Robert Moffit of the health care commission, who carefully reviewed and analyzed the project, insisted that the new facility be financially viable. The size of the high-rise was reduced and so was the price – by $100 million.

What sealed the deal, though, was the fact UMMS now will be the owner-operator of the regional medical center. With its close ties to the state’s largest medical school, UMMS dominates Maryland’s hospital landscape.

It has a proven track record of turning around deep-in-debt medical centers and bringing superb talent and health care to under-utilized facilities it manages.

Such a reversal still is some years away but already UMMS’ presence at Dimensions hospitals has improved the quality of care and brought down operating expenses.

Medical Miracle in Largo?

Proposed University of Maryland Prince George’s Regional Medical Center in Largo

But UMMS faces another challenge: attracting enough physicians and physician groups to the county to minister to this underserved population. That’s a slow process but the work has begun.

Once the new regional medical center is fully staffed by UMMS personnel and filled with the latest in medical technology, physicians and patients are likely to develop a magnetic attraction to the Largo facility – which Moffit of the health care commission termed an “excellent” location in the heart of the county’s population.

Now that the worst of the regulatory and political barriers seem to have been surmounted, there is light at the end of this long tunnel – and the prospect of greatly enhanced health care for people living in the state’s second-largest jurisdiction.

###

More Reasons for Marylanders to Vote

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 10, 2016 – This year’s apparently one-sided presidential election in Maryland may encourage some people to consider not voting.

Polls consistently have Democrat Hillary Clinton ahead of Republican Donald Trump by a whopping 30 percentage points – and this was before release of Trump’s X-rated remarks about his sexual pursuit of women.

While there are few other races of consequence on most local ballots, there are plenty of other reasons to show up at the polls or cast an absentee ballot.

This is especially true for Republicans who may have had enough of Trump’s over-the-top sexism and egomania. The worst thing they could do would be to take a pass on voting.More Reasons for Marylanders to VoteThis year’s election will be a good barometer on the GOP’s efforts to build a more competitive party in heavily Democratic Maryland.

Hogan’s Coattail

The party has a wildly popular governor, Larry Hogan, Jr., who isn’t on the ballot but has endorsed some Republican nominees who share his moderate-conservative philosophy.

How close will these candidates come to pulling an upset?

That could tell us much about Hogan’s “coattail” abilities and set the stage for an even better GOP performance in 2018 when he is up for reelection.

In the U.S. Senate contest, Democrat Chris Van Hollen is a heavy favorite over Republican Kathy Szeliga. But Szeliga, a state delegate, has Hogan’s endorsement. Will voters who tend to support moderate politicians see Hogan’s backing as reason enough to support her?

Or will voters be turned off by Szeliga’s “having it both ways” comment about Trump’s sexism? She has deplored Trump’s outrageous sexual remarks but says she still is voting for him.

Hoeber vs. Delaney

In the Sixth District congressional race (far Western Maryland and a chunk of western Montgomery County), Republican Amie Hoeber, also endorsed by Hogan, is seeking to upend incumbent Democrat John Delaney, who barely won reelection last time. His margin of victory in 2014: less than 2 percentage points.

Hoeber, 74, is a defense expert on chemical and biological warfare and has poured substantial sums of his family’s money into her campaign. A heavy turnout in Republican portions of the district and Hogan’s backing might draw her closer to Delaney than expected.

In Baltimore City, a Republican has a legitimate shot at winning a City Council seat for the first time in 74 years. Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-1 in the city yet Republican Matt McDaniel is competitive in Southeast Baltimore’s First District.

Hogan won this area two years ago, 53 percent to 47 percent, and he has endorsed McDaniel over Democrat Zeke Cohen. Will Hogan’s support prove pivotal? Or will the heavy Democratic registration figures and Cohen’s activism in the community give him a decided advantage?

Questions on the Ballot

Two ballot questions hold considerable interest in important counties – Howard and Montgomery.

In Howard County, public financing of elections for county executive and county council will be up for voter decision. A positive outcome could set a trend in other large subdivisions with a liberal voter base.

Term limits is the issue in Montgomery County. Perennial political gadfly Robin Ficker has petitioned to the ballot a question on forcing the county executive or members of the county council to step down after three four-year terms. That might benefit outsiders like Ficker and Montgomery Republicans.

There’s also a statewide ballot question on filling attorney general and comptroller vacancies that pits Democratic legislative leaders against Republican Hogan.

The proposal would strip Hogan of his current power to name a replacement of his choice – almost certainly a fellow Republican – if there’s a vacancy in either office (both now held by Democrats).

Instead, the constitutional amendment would require Hogan to name a temporary replacement from the vacating official’s political party and then set a special election to fill the office for the remainder of the term.

So there are plenty of reasons beyond the presidential election to cast a ballot. Early voting in Maryland begins in a little over two weeks.

###

Medical Marijuana Meets MD’s Spoils System

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 19, 2016 – Maybe Donald Trump is right: The system is rigged. For proof, look at how interest groups are feverishly trying to “rig” Maryland’s choice of authorized medical marijuana growers and processors.

The Black Legislative Caucus wants to “rig” the selection procedure so that people of color get their share (and more) of the lucrative payoff from legalized pot-growing, despite their lack of high rankings in the objective selection process.The Spoils System Returns to Maryland

Others recently got the system “rigged” in a way that denies licenses to a few top-ranked growers who were chosen on merit. Instead, lesser-rated groups in politically sensitive geographic areas were awarded this rich financial prize.

Picking the best, most qualified growers gave way to political “rigging” of the system.

So much for the commission’s carefully planned “double-blind” selection procedure designed to remove political favoritism and eliminate any hint of subjective bias.

Guarding Against Tainted Results

This well-established, scientific method works beautifully in drug-testing and picking the most skilled musicians for the Baltimore Symphony. So why not use this proven way to guard against tainted results in the state’s effort to find the best and most capable cannabis growers and processors?

Silly idea. An honest evaluation of the applicants proved too much for state politicians and lobbyists. Their favored applicants failed to make the cut.

Suddenly, criticism rained down on the medical marijuana commission. The cry went out: Bring back Maryland’s spoils system.

“This is a good modern-day civil rights fight,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Well. . . that’s a stretch.

It’s an effort to ensure that already financially well-off minorities get a slice of the action – regardless of their capabilities for handling the growing, processing and distribution of medical marijuana.

After all, this is expected to be a national multi-billion-dollar business.

To heck with selecting the most qualified cannabis growers. What Maryland needs is some good old favoritism!

Merit Selection Process

The commission tried its best to keep politics out of its decision-making. It came up with a way of choosing winning applicants that was devoid of political pressure and influence-peddling – a double-blind ranking system conducted by an outside group.

Applicants’ names, and their investors’ names, were removed from proposals so the rankings would be based entirely on merit.

It turned out, though, that none of the applications submitted by minority-controlled companies ranked high enough to gain a cultivation license. That’s when impartiality and merit-selection went out the window.

Attorney General Brian Frosh, in an incredibly two-faced action, contradicted his own assistant attorney general and other higher-ups in his agency, who had concluded the commission could not legally tilt the playing field.

Frosh rallied to the side of the Black Caucus. Gov. Larry Hogan expressed concern, too. Word came down from on high: Work something out.

Oh, well, so much for a color-blind government that allows only the best-qualified cannabis cultivators and processors to ply their trade in Maryland.

Gift-Wrapped Permits

The commission quickly buckled under the pressure.

In August, the panel stripped two winning companies of their licenses not because they had done something wrong but because one commissioner argued there wasn’t enough “geographic diversity” among authorized growers.

Lower-scoring applicants with more politically acceptable locations were gift-wrapped these valuable permits.

Not surprisingly, the disqualified applicants are threatening to sue. More litigation is inevitable.

If the Black Caucus succeeds in pulling the licenses of other applicants for the sake of diversity – or gets the entire process re-started – we’ll have enough legal action to set back the cause of medicinal marijuana for a long time.

Yet while minority groups fight for a bigger slice of the cannabis windfall, sick and terminally ill patients in excruciating pain are denied the relief cannabis might provide.

No one seems agitated about that. Mammon rules the day.

It’s a royal mess.

Politicians Get Involved

Years ago, attempts in Maryland to “rig” the system sent a vice president into shameful exile and a governor and several county executives to prison. The quest for money can be a corrupting influence.

So it is with legalizing medical marijuana – at least in Maryland.

Choosing the people who will grow marijuana plants and turn them into safe medicinal products is serious business. It seemed to make sense to pick them based purely on expertise and merit.

But not to the b’hoys in Annapolis.

So now politicians have their hands in the action. The result could be lengthy delays and a more expansive and pliable process that allows Maryland’s spoils system to work its magic.

Is an impartial, unbiased selection system about to be manipulated for the benefit of lesser-qualified applicants who have friends in high places?

You don’t need to be Donald Trump to answer that question.

###

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at

A Third Bay Crossing?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 6, 2016 – It was ironic that news of Jerry Wolff’s death this past week coincided with the splashy announcement from Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. of a $5 million study to examine the site and funding options for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge crossing.

Wolff was the last all-powerful head of the State Roads Commission during the late 1960s under Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. He was the mastermind behind legislative approval and construction of the parallel bay bridge span.

That 1973 structure cost $148 million. The original Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which was built after a 15-year battle for a mere $45 million, opened in 1952.

The next bay crossing could cost a staggering $7 billion – and probably double that by the time it opens 10 or 15 years from now.

Or rather, if a third span is ever built.

Mega-bucks Needed

Even with federal assistance, Maryland would be hard pressed to find that staggering amount of money for a project that mainly alleviates monster traffic backups on summer weekends. The rest of the year the existing parallel structures easily handle two-way traffic between the eastern and western shores.

Moreover, a critical part of any funding solution – bridge and tunnel tolls – was cut by Hogan to fulfill a campaign promise to lower taxes.

That means a revenue loss to the Maryland Transportation Authority that could approach $1 billion over the next 15 years – just when a third bay span would need to be financed.

A Third Chesapeake Bay Bridge?

Parallel Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans between Sandy Point and Kent Island, MD

Having foreclosed that pivotal revenue source, how in the world does Hogan intend to pay for this massive undertaking?

Answer: He doesn’t.

Hogan is passing the buck, this time to a study group that conveniently won’t report back to him until 2020. Then Hogan can flip the hot potato of how to pay for such a stunningly expensive construction project to the Democratic legislature and blame them for inaction.

Another ‘Boondoggle’?

Ironically, it was Hogan who killed the Baltimore-area’s major transportation initiative, the $3 billion Red Line project – which had $900 million in federal funding lined up. He claimed it was way too expensive. Hogan sneeringly called the Red Line’s downtown tunnel “a boondoggle.”

Yet now he is promoting a third bay crossing at double or triple that amount at a time when the state is short on transportation funds, in part due to Hogan’s populist toll reductions.

Maryland has other enormously expensive toll-road needs that Hogan doesn’t want to confront – or pay for.

The dangerously steep and narrow two-lane Harry W. Nice Bridge spanning the Potomac River between Charles County and the northern neck of Virginia is 76 years old. It’s not in great shape.

Hogan blocked $50 million allocated by his predecessor for planning and design of a new four-lane span, claiming a new $1 billion crossing would be too expensive.

He favors a far cheaper Band-Aid approach to the existing, aging structure, which is a bottleneck and lacks shoulders. Powerful lawmakers, though, are trying to force him to bite the bullet and replace the Potomac crossing.

Then there’s the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge connecting U.S. 40 between Harford and Cecil counties. It, too, is 76 years old. It cost just $5 million when built. But giving it a foundational overhaul will be extremely expensive. Hogan hasn’t allocated a penny for that undertaking.

Playing Politics

Instead, the governor wants to win political points with beachside merchants and summer vacationers headed “downy ocean” by holding out the promise of easy travel across the Chesapeake but leaving the tough funding decisions to someone else.
Already critics are calling Hogan’s plan a new boondoggle.

Even if the state turned to a public-private partnership – which would hand all the revenue and control of the span (and possibly the parallel crossings, too) to a for-profit company – paying the state’s share for a third bay bridge would crowd out virtually every major toll and bridge improvement for years to come.

There’s also the complicated matter of expanding roads leading to the third span on both sides of the bridge. It can’t be done inexpensively or without an environmental cost. Local opposition could be intense.

Hogan, of course, might try to get the job done with a patch-up by adding a single lane to the original bay bridge. But even that falls into the mega-billion-dollar range.

Why a Third Span?

All this begs the question as to whether a third span is essential.

Given the reality of climate change and rising sea levels, by the time a third crossing opens for vehicles much of Ocean City’s beach could be under water. The rush to O.C. might slow dramatically in a quarter-century.

Sen. John Astle, whose Annapolis district includes the western bay bridge approaches, calls this an “impossible problem.” Maryland can’t afford the incredibly high price of a third bay bridge and Hogan has shown zero inclination to raise revenue to pay for it.

Thus, the Hogan study group is likely to produce another report that will gather dust on a shelf. That was true of a study under Gov. Bob Ehrlich and a report under Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Hogan just wants to curry favor with beach-going voters and Ocean City businesses without having to take the unpopular step of raising tolls and other taxes to build a third crossing of the nation’s largest estuary.
###

Hogan’s Trump Tendencies

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 29, 2016 – The yin and the yang of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan keep bubbling to the surface.

On the one hand, he’s made it clear he finds Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump offensive. The Republican governor says he doesn’t like Trump, disagrees with his behavior and many of his statements and won’t vote for him.

On the other hand, Hogan continues to dip into Trump’s bag of tricks to win emotional points with voters. Indeed, Hogan was way ahead of Trump in one aspect of propaganda campaigning – the use of a fictitious story as a key election tool.

Hogan'sTrump Tendencies

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Trump has become a master of making it up as he goes along. He’s even better at taking a negative development and embroidering it with a fairy tale of malevolence and evil that rivals the Brothers Grimm.

Hogan does the same thing. The most recent example is the absurd furor he’s prompted over his mis-named “road kill bill.” It’s similar to his virtuoso propaganda winner from the 2014 campaign: Hogan’s mis-named “rain tax” – a savvy fabrication that helped win him the governorship.

Evil Bill?

This time, Hogan has latched onto a toothless bill passed by Democrats in the legislature to bring openness to the process of selecting major transportation projects.

Hogan thinks the bill is evil incarnate. It will wipe out every road project in Maryland, he told reporters and county leaders this month. That’s why he calls it “the road kill bill.”

That’s an intentional distortion of the facts for political purposes.

Hogan wants to use this unimportant bill – which he vetoed but then saw overridden by lawmakers – as a hammer against Democrats. He thinks it will help him win another term in 2018. You might call it the second coming of the “rain tax.”

As a candidate in 2014, Hogan harangued Democrats for passage of a bill that allowed 10 counties to impose a local levy on impermeable surfaces such as roofs and asphalt or concrete driveways because these surfaces generate stormwater runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. The tax revenue would be used to reduce waterway pollution.

But Hogan twisted that bill into something that sounded ludicrous. His TV ads sounded the alarm: Democrats had reached the point where “they’re even taxing the rain!”

Brilliant as a campaign tactic. But untrue.

Better Road Planning

Hogan’s latest invention concerns the Democrat-passed “Maryland Open Transportation Decision Act” aimed at bringing a statistical ranking system to road and bridge projects that the public can understand.

Its preamble sets out the purpose: to create “a public process for transportation planning. . . that provides Maryland citizens with a clear and transparent explanation as to how their transportation taxes and revenues are allocated to fund major capital transportation projects.”

The key phrase: “a clear and transparent explanation.” Not a mandate. Not an order that forces the governor to fund projects he opposes. Just a new planning tool shared with the public.

It could be a useful planning mechanism, just as it is in Virginia and North Carolina, where conservative Republican legislatures passed similar measures. Why? Because it’s a sensible way to get the “biggest bang” for the state’s buck – a very Republican notion.

But Hogan is thinking politics, not government efficiency.

He says the bill will wreak havoc on every county road project. He keeps repeating this flight of fancy. Mentioning “the road kill bill” revs up Republican crowds.

Scaring the Counties

Compounding the situation is an effort by Hogan’s minions to twist reality even further. Deputy DOT Secretary Jim Ports tried terrorizing the counties by claiming none of their projects would be funded next year because of this Democratic-passed law.

Pure buncombe.

To begin with, DOT hasn’t even created the detailed scoring and ranking metrics needed to come to such a conclusion. Most important, these rankings don’t count when the governor names the transportation projects he wishes to finance. He still can do as he pleases.

This is strictly a planning tool, not a funding requirement. The law states quite clearly that the governor can ignore the rankings and toss the list in the trash as long as he “provides in writing a rational basis for the decision.”

Moreover, Ports’ ridiculous assertion that every county’s priority list of road projects would be wiped out by this law is refuted by this wording in the statute: “nothing in this Act may be construed to prohibit or prevent the funding of the capital transportation priorities in each jurisdiction.”

In other words, counties still get to name their top projects and Hogan gets to fund them if he wishes.

Following The Donald

Calling it “the road kill bill” is a Trumpian tactic. How ironic for Hogan, who has positioned himself as the anti-Trump in Maryland’s Republican Party. Now he’s following The Donald’s lead by ignoring the facts and generating a story-line that fits his political purposes.

Unfortunately, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Hogan’s made-up “road kill bill.” He will continue demanding that lawmakers get rid of the statute – which won’t happen.

Meanwhile, Ports has made himself a prime target of angry Democrats, who are nearly certain to revise the law to make even clearer that it creates merely an advisory ranking system for road projects.

But has Hogan set an unintended trap for himself?

He and Democrats could get into a game of transportation “chicken” in which lawmakers dare the governor to wipe out all county road projects, as Hogan says is required – but isn’t – under the new advisory law.

What does Hogan do then – especially since this would be happening in the run-up to Hogan’s reelection bid?

Only by harming counties can Hogan prove his assertion is correct. That’s a huge risk for an incumbent who at the moment looks like a shoo-in for a second term.

###

The One and Only Helen Bentley

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 8, 2016 – She was crusty to a fault. Outrageously opinionated. Cantankerous. Indefatigable. Unrelenting. Incredibly effective. Helen Delich Bentley was truly sui generis.

That’s a Latin term meaning “without a counterpart or equal; unique.” Bentley, who died Aug. 6 at the age of 92, indeed was one of a kind.

The One and Only Helen Bentley

Helen Delich Bentley

Where would the Port of Baltimore be without her? For a stunning 70 years she fought like a tiger in every way imaginable to promote Maryland’s biggest and most important economic engine.

Her journalistic coverage at the Baltimore Sun of the port created a national and international reputation for Charm City’s maritime business and for Bentley.

In the process, she shattered the glass ceiling for female journalists, entering the masculine world of the docks in the 1940s with such effectiveness she become the only female maritime editor and the best-known shipping reporter in the world.

Along the way she found time to write, produce and narrate an award-winning television series about the Port of Baltimore that ran for a stunning 15 years.

Maritime Boss

Bentley could cuss like a sailor, ream out union bosses for threatening the port’s stability and talk turkey to shipping executives about the urgency of maintaining labor peace. She settled more than one strike and gained widespread applause for ending Baltimore’s sorry reputation as the only port where longshoremen refused to work in the rain.

Then it was on to Washington, where she bulled her way into the chairmanship of the Federal Maritime Commission – the highest female appointee in the Nixon administration. She spouted off about protecting U.S. trade and building more ships in U.S. ports like Baltimore. Meanwhile, Bentley used her salty language often enough that Time magazine colorfully referred to her as “Tugboat Annie.”

Bentley’s political activism nearly got her in serious prosecutorial trouble when she delivered a bag of illicit cash to Republican campaign higher-ups during the Watergate era.

She bounced back, though, and ran for Congress against entrenched Democratic Rep. Clarence D. Long, an ardent foe of expanding Baltimore’s port if it meant dumping dredged spoils at Hart and Miller Islands off the coast of eastern Baltimore County in his district.

As usual with Bentley, her persistence paid off and she beat Long on her third attempt. She used her time in Congress to bash Japan and Asian nations for their trade policies, pushed hard to gain appropriations for the Port of Baltimore and fought to empower women.

Ten years later, Bentley entered the race for governor as the heavy favorite only to lose shockingly in the Republican primary to ideological conservative Ellen Sauerbrey. Bentley, a pragmatic conservative, was pilloried for daring to have worked with Democrats – especially Gov. William Donald Schaefer – to further the Port of Baltimore.

Bentley’s anger and bitterness over this betrayal of all she had done over the decades to uplift the state GOP led to severed relationships that were never restored.

Port Business and Antiques

But again, she bounced back, getting more involved in her husband Bill’s large antique store on York Road and opening a highly successful consulting business where she continued to be an implacable force for the Port of Baltimore. Somehow she juggled conflicting connections to the Maryland Port Administration, shipping companies and local and international labor executives.

Now wonder Gov. Bob Ehrlich named the Port of Baltimore after Bentley. It was an unexpected honor richly deserved.

I first encountered Helen when she was winding up her newspaper career and I was starting mine.

She would rush into The Sun’s city room close to deadline like a Nevada cyclone, a whirlwind of passion returning from the docks with a hot story to pound out on her typewriter and a maritime section to oversee. Never pausing to take off her hat – a cross between a Mexican sombrero and an Easter bonnet that was made to impress – Bentley started screaming at her staff in her usual scatological way, sending some scurrying while others simply returned her epithets.

It was a daily sight to behold, especially for a naive reporter unused to the Bentley phenomenon.

Over the years, I got to know Helen quite well, covering some of her political races and interviewing her frequently after I joined the editorial page. She was always fun to interview and always full of frank, pointed opinions.

Crusty but Lovable

Helen Bentley also had a soft and endearing side. While she could be infuriatingly brutal with her staff, she could be touchingly sweet to them moments later.

After I reluctantly took a buyout from The (Setting) Sun, Helen not only showed up for a farewell party some friends put together, she gave me one of her favorite antiques – a statue of a young British newspaper “hawker.”

She was, indeed, sui generis.

Even in her final weeks, Bentley continued to defy predictions, hanging on relentlessly like she always did. I visited her with one of her closest friends, David Blumberg, within the past month and found her as feisty as ever.

“What do you think the expanded Panama Canal means for business at the Port of Baltimore,” I asked Helen.

“Not a damn thing,” she acerbically replied. Bentley never beat around the bush, even while battling brain cancer.

Soon afterward, to my surprise, a letter appeared in The Sun from Helen voicing full support for Republican nominee Donald Trump. She never stopped pushing the ball forward, even while in hospice care.

The Port of Baltimore never had a better friend. Helen Bentley accomplished so much in so many ways.

People living in Baltimore and Maryland are the recipients of her largesse. Her lighthouse may have been de-commissioned, but her deeds stand as a permanent reminder of what she gave us.

###