Category Archives: Maryland Politics

Hogan Keeps It Simple — and Low-key

By Barry Rascovar

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

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

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

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

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

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

Narrow Legislative Focus

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

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

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

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

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

Bay Bridge toll cut

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

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

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

Hogan in Baltimore unrest

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

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

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

Next Big Test

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

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

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

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

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

Hogan: Strike One

By Barry Rascovar

April 14, 2015 — In his stubbornly conservative and highly politicized approach to governing Annapolis over the past week, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. took a step that may seal his fate as a one-term governor.

Hogan: Strike One

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Let’s see: In just a few days Hogan managed to alienate and infuriate state workers, public school teachers and education advocates, disability workers, supporters of medical assistance for poor pregnant women and doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

He also left a trail of non-accomplishments.

Hogan’s refusal to follow-through on a final budget accord and instead turn the issue into a political football left Democratic legislators resentful and itching to show they can play hardball, too.

For someone who entered the governor’s mansion as Mr. Nice Guy cooing bipartisanship, Hogan ended his inaugural legislative session as Mr. Tough Guy defiantly declaring great success for what was clearly a disappointing 90-day performance.

Seeds for a Pushback

His flimsy legislative agenda got shredded. He turned victory on the state budget into an easily avoidable defeat.

He sowed the seeds for a strong Democratic pushback that could make Hogan’s legislative life miserable over the next three years.

The Republican governor’s inexperience showed.

He let hard-line ideologues on his staff get their way. Democrats reacted by tying his hands in future years on making budget cuts to education. They blocked him at nearly every turn.

Teacher layoffs that are sure to follow from Hogan’s budget-cutting actions will haunt him. He has awakened a key element of the Democratic Party’s base. Teachers and public school parents in core Democratic jurisdictions will neither forgive nor forget.

Pay Cut Coming

He also made enemies of 80,000 state workers by cutting their paychecks 2 percent, starting in July.

He still has a chance to spend the money set aside by the legislature for those two groups but that would require political accommodations Hogan doesn’t seem willing to make.

The irony is that Hogan had a golden opportunity to negotiate a budget giving him much of what he wanted without enraging large voting groups.

Indeed, Democratic negotiators thought it was a done deal — until Hogan made intentionally unacceptable demands at the last moment.

The new governor showed his naiveté and lack of insight into Maryland’s complex legislative process. His hard-nosed, conservative roots were showing.

His biggest mistake: Failing to accept the divided nature of governance in Maryland. Election as governor does not entitle Republican Hogan to rule the land in an imperial, “I’m the boss” manner.

Democrats firmly control the General Assembly. They are co-rulers. They make the laws, set policy and sit in judgment on the governor’s budget.

Hogan can’t demand obeisance to his legislative wishes. He can’t insist Democrats support a decidedly Republican agenda. Yet that’s what he tried to do in the final week before Monday’s sine die adjournment.

Budget Progress

Picking up the pieces won’t be easy for the governor.

He did, though, take a major step toward truly balancing the state’s budget. Simply by trimming government spending in the next few years, identifying areas where money can be saved without significantly impacting services and keeping expenditures lower than Maryland’s growth rate, Hogan can tame the state’s structural deficit demon.

But don’t expect savings large enough to support major tax cuts. Even if that were to happen, Democrats in Annapolis would write laws that re-direct this surplus in ways more appealing to their constituents in Maryland’s big, Democratic subdivisions.

Hogan gets the next nine months to operate without legislative interference. He’ll have time to assess his next moves and prepare more carefully for the 2016 General Assembly session.

Will he seek to re-build bridges to Democratic lawmakers on issues of mutual concern?

Or will he continue to take the path of political opportunism that makes governing impossibly difficult in the Maryland State House?

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Madaleno Crosses the Line

By Barry Rascovar

April 2, 2015–If only it had been an April’s Fool joke — but it wasn’t. Instead, a highly regarded Maryland state senator, who happens to be gay, got carried away with his anger over a discriminatory Indiana law and dragged the governor’s wife unwillingly into the conversation.

Sen. Richard Madaleno went too far. He crossed the line. His letter to the governor was hurtful to an innocent bystander.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

Madaleno lost his credibility, and his argument, as soon as he dragooned Gov. Larry Hogan’s wife, Yumi, into his pitch for the governor to ban travel by state officials to Indiana.

Yumi Hogan, Madaleno wrote, could be subjected in Indiana to “public humiliation” under the new law and refused service by a business because she is a divorcee.

Spouses as Fair Game

It’s ludicrous statement. Worse than that, it unfairly makes a spouse fair game in rough-and-tumble political controversies.

How would Madaleno like it if the governor made a disparaging remark about the senator’s gay partner during a heated political debate?

It is unacceptable. Period.

Senate President Mike Miller did the right thing by telling senators “we don’t mention other people’s spouses in any type of correspondence — their spouses or children.”

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Madaleno knows better.

He harmed his cause and his effectiveness in the State House. While his intentions were pure, his recklessness proved counter-productive.

Hogan rejected the senator’s letter as a “stunt.” He didn’t even bother reading beyond the offensive statement about his wife, who was needlessly reminded of a painful chapter in her life.

Rich Madaleno is respected for his fiscal expertise. He plays a major role in the legislature’s all-important budget deliberations.

Hurting Constituents

Now, though, he’s persona non grata on the second floor of the State House. The governor isn’t going to accommodate his requests or give his statements much credence. He’s damaged his ability to help Montgomery County constituents.

The senator is right to protest loudly Indiana’s deeply disturbing and un-American law that sanctions discrimination (especially since more conservative states are following suit).

But in his haste and emotional distress, Madaleno made a mess of his message.

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Phony ‘Rain Tax’ War

By Barry Rascovar

March 24, 2015 — Opponents, especially Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., deceptively call it the “rain tax.” But the name and the issue are about as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Hogan used his mischaracterization of the stormwater remediation fee to great effect in winning the governorship. “Why they’re even taxing the rain!” he exclaimed in a highly effective TV ad.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Governor Larry Hogan Jr.

It’s actually a broad user fee based on how much stormwater pollution flows from roofs and parking surfaces — runoff that can cause great harm if it ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan turned this into a political anti-tax, anti-government crusade. For him, this unconscionable levy showed the overreach of the O’Malley administration, which taxed anything that moved to fund an ever-growing list of do-gooder social programs.

Hidden Facts

His propaganda pitch worked; now Hogan is governor.

He pledged to eliminate the “rain tax.” but It isn’t working out that way.

Here’s a fact Hogan never told voters: Even if he could eliminate the “rain tax,” that step wouldn’t lower state or county spending by a penny.

Indeed, wiping out the “rain tax” would have zero impact on Hogan’s state budget. Repeat: zero impact.

It would affect some county taxpayers who now are assessed a stormwater remediation fee on their annual property tax bill. They could see their county taxes lowered minimally.

Another Catch

Here’s another catch: In each of the 10 jurisdictions affected by the “rain tax,” eliminating the levy could force county officials to make cuts in other programs like schools and public works.

It would be a lose-lose scenario.

That’s because these counties and Baltimore City are under a federal mandate to reduce polluted stormwater pouring into the bay. With or without the “rain tax,” they are required to continue paying for costly stream restoration and other cleanup efforts.

For example, Baltimore County spends $22 million a year on its remediation work. That money comes from the “rain tax.”

Eliminate the levy and the county still must come up with $22 million for those environmental-protection projects. That’s about the cost of a new elementary school.

In other words, it’s a zero-sum game.

If Hogan were to get his way, county governments would be squeezed to find money for those mandated environmental activities. Other programs financed by the counties would take the hit, be it schools, government-worker pay raises, road repairs or social programs.

Symbolic Reduction

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz already has made a symbolic reduction in his county’s stormwater remediation fee, lowering the levy by one-third. He found roughly $8 million of savings in his budget that now will be used for these anti-pollution projects.

Stream restoration

Stream restoration project in Baltimore County

The county’s stormwater remediation work continues unimpeded. In future years, though, it could become increasingly difficult to find that extra money without cutting back in other areas.

 

Miller’s Plan

On the state level, symbolism is the name of the game, too.

Senate President Mike Miller, the most astute political mind in Annapolis, came up with the ideal Democratic response to Republican Hogan’s “no rain tax” demand.

Miller won unanimous Senate approval for his bill that makes the county remediation fee optional.

If Frederick County, Harford County or Carroll County wants to get rid of the fee totally, they are free to do so. But they still have to ante up millions to finance a long list of remediation projects.

That burden remains.

Indeed, Miller’s bill requires those counties to specify their remediation efforts and identify how they will be funded. Failure to do so could lead to a loss of state dollars.

Smarter county officials, who understand the value of spreading the tax burden for these anti-pollution efforts, could continue their fees under Miller’s bill. They won’t have to limit other county programs to make room for mandated remediation projects.

Curious Debate

Whether Miller’s “rain tax” option makes it through the House of Delegates is in doubt. Some Democrats there want to keep the current fee in place, despite the political advantage it gives Hogan and his conservative allies.

It’s one of the more curious debates to grip Annapolis in years.

No state taxes are involved.

No county saves a penny if Hogan gets his way.

The stormwater anti-pollution programs must continue — unless a county wants to get sued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Miller’s compromise bill offers a sensible way out for everyone. That’s why Hogan has thrown his support behind it.

Regardless of the outcome, this phony “rain tax” war will continue. Hogan will milk it for all it is worth — even if the facts aren’t on his side.

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A Republican MD Senator?

By Barry Rascovar

March 16, 2015 — Did Republican Larry Hogan Jr.’s surprisingly large victory for governor last year blaze the path for a GOP upset in next year’s open seat for the U.S. Senate?

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Probably not. Then again, politics is a mercurial business. Given the right circumstances, a longshot scenario might come true.

No Hogan Clones

Here’s the problem: The presumptive GOP candidates aren’t following the winning Hogan formula.

They are very much right of center and outspoken in their conservatism. In liberal Maryland, that’s a distinct turn-off for general election voters.

To understand the state GOP’s dilemma, look at the reasons Hogan won:

  • He stuck to a narrow, economic-driven campaign pitch — high taxes, overreaching government and politics as usual — with virtually no details.
  • He ignored bitterly divisive social issues, much to the discomfort of hard-nosed conservatives, and charted a moderate course.
  • He came across as Maryland’s “Happy Warrior” with a winning smile and demeanor.
  • His opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, ran a dysfunctional campaign and turned off voters with his arrogance and aura of entitlement. His voters stayed home.

It’s no secret that for a Republican to win statewide in Maryland, the Democrats really have to mess up. Did they ever in 2014.

It is entirely plausible Maryland Democrats once more will eat their own and wind up with a far-left candidate who turns off a large chunk of the state’s moderately liberal electorate.

Right-Wing Believers

That would set the stage for a strong Republican Senate challenge, backed by tens of millions of national GOP donor dollars.

But none of the names being floated are likely to resonate with dissatisfied Democratic voters and independents. They are angry, right-wing true believers who denigrate the kind of middle-road, non-ideological, problem-solving Maryland voters tend to favor.

Consider the individuals being mentioned as possible Senate candidates:

Bob Ehrlich. The former governor would win the primary in a cakewalk, but since he left office he’s moved more and more rightward into knee-jerk, pessimistic anti-Obamaism. His four years as governor disappointed Democrats and Republicans, he lost reelection and his attempt to recapture the office in 2010 proved an embarrassing flop, losing by nearly 15 percentage points. Portraying Ehrlich this time as a moderate Republican would be a stretch.

Andy Harris. The First District congressman is as far right ideologically as you can get and still be elected in Maryland. He can come across as arrogant and stridently sure of himself on just about any issue. A former state senator, Harris’ vocal and energetic conservatism might generate a backlash that results in a heavy Democratic turnout on Election Day. He’s far from an ideal statewide candidate in Maryland. Besides, he’s got a lifetime seat in his House district that he’d have to give up.

Dan Bongino. The almost-congressman nearly upset Democratic Rep. John Delaney in a gerrymandered district that includes Western Maryland and portions of Montgomery County. He lost by less than 3,000 votes. Bongino also ran against U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin in 2012 and got clobbered, winning just a quarter of the votes. He’s charismatic and a former Secret Service agent. But he’s all conservative all the time. He’d have little drawing power outside rural and exurban areas.

Michael Steele. The former lieutenant governor and GOP national chairman doesn’t have much to crow about other than espousing traditional conservative Republican themes. He lost badly when he ran for the Senate in 2006, losing to Cardin by 10 percentage points. He has no base beyond traditional GOP precincts and no credibility in Democratic strongholds.

Kendel Ehrlich. The other half of the Ehrlich team, she considered running for judge in Anne Arundel County and is not bashful about expressing her hard-edged conservative views. She’s never held elective office and has few credentials to promote. She’s much farther to the right in her political thinking than her husband.

That’s hardly an exciting list of GOP contenders. Too many retreads or not-ready-for-prime-time players. None of them fits the winning Hogan mold.

Still, the fate of the GOP primary winner may lie more in the hands of Democratic primary voters. Should Dems select another dud like Anthony Brown last year (or Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002), anything would be possible for Maryland Republicans.

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Rating MD’s Senate Contenders

March 9, 2015 — The stampede began almost immediately — just as retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski predicted.

The savvy senior U.S. senator knew her announcement last week would shake up political Maryland and give ambitious younger officials an opportunity to consider entering the race to succeed her next year.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Many are mulling the possibilities, but in the end most will choose to remain in their present jobs.

After all, running for Mikulski’s seat is no sure thing. These contenders have to weigh the risks, which are considerable.

Do you give up a prestigious, hard-won seat and gamble your entire career that you can win a difficult, crowded Senate contest?

Can you put together a statewide operation in a little over a year after only running far smaller district campaigns?

Can you raise $5 million or more in the next 12 months when others are likely to hit up the same donors with similar requests?

Can you run a campaign with statewide appeal? That’s no easy feat. Washington-area officials and Baltimore-area officials are looking at this race but none has appeal outside his or her parochial boundaries.

Given those imposing caveats, let’s look at the early list of wannabes.

Most Likely to Run

Chris Van Hollen, Jr. — He’s popular in heavy-voting Montgomery County. He’s been tabbed as a rising star in both the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives. His ambitions always included ascending to the U.S. Senate.

Unlike the others, he’s had phenomenal success raising tens of millions of dollars for Democratic congressional candidates across the country. He will tap those same sources for a Senate race. He starts with $1.7 million already in his campaign account.

Giving up his seat was’t be easy because he’s a member of leadership and a potential future speaker of the House. But he’s crossed the Senate Rubicon.

Van Hollen, 56, is likeable, an excellent speaker and telegenic. He’s a typical Montgomery County liberal, which puts him in the mainstream of today’s left-leaning state Democratic Party. He’s also gained enormous expertise on federal budget issues.

He could be the class of the field.

Donna Edwards — The most liberal of Maryland’s congressional Democrats, she owes her political career to her strong ties to organized labor, which could go the extra mile for her.

She has decided to risk her prominent role in Congress as an outspoken voice for labor, civil rights and women’s issues.

Edward, 56, is not beloved by her colleagues and she is not wildly popular among constituents, who have found her lacking on constituent service. She would rather speak out loudly on national issues she cares about.

If she is the lone African-American in the race and the lone woman, Edwards might squeak through in a crowded Democratic primary. But her far-left liberalism would make it difficult for her to win in a general election if Republicans nominate a moderate Senate candidate.

John Delaney —  He used his self-made multi-millions to finance a successful run for the House in 2012, thanks to a gerrymandered district that favored a Montgomery County Democrat. Yet he barely won reelection last year.

Still, he’s got burning ambition and he considered running for governor last year. Given his shaky performance in last year’s congressional race, Delaney, 51, may figure it is time to move up or out.

He’d have no trouble financing a Senate race but he is unknown in much of the state. His campaign also is likely to be run by the same individual who put together such a dreadful political operation last year for former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Delaney has carved out a moderate, pro-business posture in Congress focusing on his sensible infrastructure-funding bill that has drawn support from both sides of the aisle. That’s not a good campaign sound-bite, though. He may well run (since he’s not a career politician) but he won’t be the favorite in a Democratic primary where a heavy turnout among liberal voters is expected.

John Sarbanes — The son of a popular retired U.S. senator who has been in Congress three terms, he’s a chip off the block — quiet, publicity-shy, intelligent, diligent and super-cautious.

At age 52 he’s got to determine if he wants a long career in the House of Representatives or is he willing to roll the dice and possibly sacrifice his political future. His father, Paul, did but this time the odds are much steeper.

John Sarbanes could tap into the affluent Greek-American community for campaign funds. Still, does he want to spend all year begging donors to contribute and flying around the country to line up financial support?

His father’s name is well known in the Baltimore region but not so much elsewhere.  John Sarbanes is a solid liberal vote in Congress and he’s a down-the-line Democrat but his bland personality and cautious disposition aren’t ideal in a crowded race.

Less Likely to Run

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — Baltimore’s mayor has a big decision to make. Does she abandon her so-far successful effort to resurrect Baltimore’s fortune or does she set her eyes on a career in Washington?

Rawlings-Blake, who is only 44, has been an elected Baltimore official for 20 year. She would roll up a big vote in Baltimore and in parts of the metro region but she’s an unknown in the D.C. suburbs and rural Maryland.

She’d also start with zero funds in the bank — none of the dollars she has raised for her reelection bid next year can be used in a federal campaign. That’s a huge detriment.

Running a complex and troubled city like Baltimore while simultaneously mounting a statewide Senate campaign could be a bridge too far.

Compounding her decision is that there is no highly competent successor waiting in the wings to succeed her as mayor. Apres moi, le deluge?

Dutch Ruppersberger — If he were 10 years younger, the Baltimore County congressmen would be in the “likely” category. But at age 69, with a succession of surgeries over the years, taking on a grueling statewide campaign while maintaining his normal congressional schedule might not be his cup of tea.

Ruppersberger’s huge popularity in Baltimore County and his district’s reach into key parts of the Baltimore metro area would give him a solid vote base. How he would fare in the Washington suburbs — where he’s not a familiar face — is a tougher question.

Raising such a huge amount of campaign dollars isn’t something Ruppersberger would relish, either.

He’d also have to give up his House seat, where he is one of the leading experts on cyber security. Chances are he opts to remain where he is.

Elijah Cummings — The Baltimore congressman has never ventured beyond district races but he is a fiery speaker and determined fighter for Democratic Party ideals. If he were the only African-American considering the Senate race, he’d be tempted.

Putting together a statewide operation and raising such sums of money could be distasteful and difficult. Cummings, 64, is unfamiliar with much of the heavy-voting Washington suburbs but he’d do exceptionally well in Baltimore.

He’s a national spokesman on liberal and civil rights issues in the House and often in the national spotlight. Why give that up?

Tom Perez — The Obama administration’s labor secretary and former high-ranking Justice Department official wanted to run for attorney general but couldn’t because he hadn’t practiced law in Maryland.

He is ambitious and well-liked in his home base, Montgomery County, but in a large field his support could be too narrow. He also might have trouble raising enough dollars.

Will he give up two more years in a national Cabinet position for a longshot bid? It’s possible but unlikely.

Kweisi Mfume — The former congressman and former head of the NAACP tried once before to win a Senate race, narrowly losing the primary to current incumbent Ben Cardin nine years ago.

Mfume, 66, might jump at a second chance to start a Senate career were he a bit younger. He’s eloquent and has a riveting life story to tell. But fund-raising was a problem in his last Senate attempt and he’s not been part of Maryland’s political dialogue since then.

Already Out

Martin O’Malley — The former governor and Baltimore mayor would have been a favorite but instead opted to run for president (really!). He loves the executive role and knows he would chafe in the Senate with its snail’s pace and bitter partisan gridlock.

If he plays his cards right, O’Malley, 52, could gain a high executive post in a Democratic administration and build his credentials for a future run for the country’s top post.

Steny Hoyer — At age 75, it makes sense for the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives to stay put. He ran once on a statewide ticket, in 1978 as lieutenant governor, and lost. He knows how tough it would be.

Besides, Hoyer is far too valuable to Maryland in the House. With Mikulski’s departure from the Senate, he’ll be the only “go-to” guy in Congress in prime position to secure funds and advantages for the Free State.

You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Heather Mizeur — Yes, the former delegate ran an impressive and respectable race for governor last year as an ultra-liberal but now she’s supposedly farming on the Eastern Shore.

Her appeal is to the gay/environmental/feminist community. That proved not nearly enough for her last year (roughly 20 percent of the primary vote). Does she want to spend 12 more months trekking through Maryland on a crusade going nowhere?

Ben Jealous – Another former leader of the NAACP, he is considering jumping into the race. It would be primarily ego-driven. Jealous has no political roots in Maryland and the most tenuous of ties to the Free State. He’s not well known in any part of the state.

Even if he is the only African-American in the race, Jealous is unlikely to prove a big draw among his own constituents. In other communities, he’d barely register on Election Day.

Doug Gansler — Yes, he still wants to run statewide again — though he was embarrassed in last year’s race for governor, getting embroiled in pointless controversies.

The two-term former attorney general is just starting a career with a Washington law firm. Jumping back into fund-raising mode and 24/7 campaigning so soon may not be his best option.

Ken Ulman — The former Howard County Executive gave up his gubernatorial dreams last year in part because of the fund-raising challenge.

Running for the Senate would pose a far more daunting financing obstacle. Besides, he’s just beginning his new job trying to juice up College Park’s economic development efforts.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — Whaaa?? She says she’s considering a run. It sounds preposterous given her pathetic run for governor in 2002 and the lack of political sympathy for her poor performance. Still, politics is in the Kennedy family’s DNA.

Townsend, 63, may want to redeem herself, but she has been absent from Maryland politics for over a dozen years. It would be a Quixotic effort that almost certainly would end in a humiliating second defeat.

That takes care of the likely Democrats considering the Senate primary. As for the Republican wannabes, that is grist for another column.

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Hogan’s Era of Good Feeling

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 21, 2015 — At least for a brief moment, Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s Era of Good Feeling ruled Annapolis.

Hogan Inauguration

We’ll soon learn if his strong message of bipartisan harmony and mutual respect can survive the harsh reality of Hogan’s first, greatly diminished budget, which he’ll release Thursday.

Hogan’s inaugural, with snow flakes falling faster and faster as the event progressed, struck all the right chords.

“Dignity, respect and camaraderie” is what we expect from our public servants, said Jim Brady, who presided over the outdoor ceremonies on the State House steps and also ran Hogan’s transition team.

“Focus on things that unite us” and “work across party lines,” was how Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford put it.

“Compromise and consensus are not dirty words,” emphasized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who introduced the new Maryland governor and championed Hogan’s election.

Hogan’s Themes

“A rebirth of our spirit and common purposes,” is how the 62nd governor of the Free State expressed it. No more “wedge politics and petty rhetoric.” A “new beginning.” A “sense of optimism.” “Limitless possibilities.” “An environment of trust and cooperation” where ideas are acted upon “based on merit.”

All the right words. It was a typical inaugural, full of positives and good wishes.

Hogan came across as he always does: a down-to-earth fellow who wants to run government with the focus on efficiency and effectiveness, not political ideology. He repeatedly used the term “common sense” to describe how he will govern.

He quoted a Democrat (John F. Kennedy) and a Republican (Abraham Lincoln) to stress the need for a new approach in political Annapolis that sets aside differences and finds “middle ground.”

A Little Red Meat

There were a few digs sprinkled among the words of comity, especially when Hogan spoke of “rebuilding the forgotten middle class” and getting government “off our backs and out of our pockets” — red-meat Republican applause lines straight from his campaign monologue.

Once the celebrations are over late tonight, the real work begins. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be met with unified applause.

Hogan promised to set Maryland on a different course, one that re-shapes the bloated state budget in ways Democrats are likely to resist.

The Inauguration Scene

The Inauguration Scene

There is growing agreement even on the Democratic side that Maryland has been living beyond its means, that spending on programs is expanding faster than the tax receipts coming in.

But will lawmakers stand by idly as cuts are made to education and health care? Are they willing to forego mass transit lines? These are the kinds of questions intentionally left out of inaugural speeches.

Putting Maryland on a more sustainable fiscal footing is an admirable goal that could help Hogan meet his pledge to lower taxes. Yet it will be difficult to achieve in the short term and possibly even in the long term unless Hogan gets  a boost from the national economy.

On another front, Hogan can take early, unilateral steps to cut red-tape and bureaucratic regulations. It’s been needed for a long time. The push-back from special interests could be intense, though.

For a day, Larry Hogan’s vision of a less partisan, more practical state government in Annapolis held sway.

The Hogans and Rutherfords in the State House.

The Hogans and Rutherfords in the State House.

His unfailing optimism and ability to search for areas of agreement are his greatest assets. He’s taking a more accommodating track than Maryland’s last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich.

So far, Hogan is off to a cheery and encouraging start.

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Hogan’s Heroes Arrive

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 19, 2015 – The Changing of the Guard takes place in Annapolis this week: There will be a sharp course correction with the arrival of Hogan’s Heroes.

Hogan's Heroes Leader-Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan Jr.

On Wednesday, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. takes the oath of office as governor, followed by the departure of former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley as he starts his quixotic quest for the highest office in the land.

On Thursday, Governor Hogan unveils his sharply reduced budget, which will be a shock to the system of Maryland Democrats.

Thus, the Hogan era begins.

Democratic interest groups will have to learn some new tricks.

The old way of bludgeoning a Democratic governor and Democratic legislature into submission won’t work.

Outdated Lobbying Methods

Massing hundreds, or thousands, of protesters on the State House steps used to do the trick when O’Malley was in power.

Hogan, though, could care less if the teachers union or the state workers union or the construction unions fill Lawyers’ Mall to overflowing or flood his office with form-letter emails.

Simply demanding more pay, more benefits, more school funds, and more social services won’t be helpful, either.

The new governor is approaching his job with a firm set of ideas on how to govern Maryland that is in marked contrast to the traditional Democratic method.

No longer will the state budget balloon to satisfy special interest groups within the Democratic Party. No longer will special-interest bills designed to mollify those same power bases within the Democratic Party hold sway on the second floor of the State House.

Businessman as Governor

Hogan takes a businessman’s approach to governing. He holds definite conservative views, but Larry Hogan is far from an extremist. He’s no friend of tea party fanatics. He’s not about to take Maryland back to the Stone Age.

That could be seen clearly in many of his appointments.

Hogan chose a well-rounded group of upper-level managers and advisers, including a good number of pragmatic, moderate Democrats with legislative experience, such as former Sen. Rona Kramer from Montgomery County, former Baltimore County Councilman Joe Bartenfelder, former Delegates Steve DeBoy and Keiffer Mitchell from the Baltimore area and former Delegates Van Mitchell and George Owings from Southern Maryland.

DeBoy in particular is an important choice, since he will be engaged in lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the Hogan administration. He’s a retired cop from Catonsville who was highly respected by fellow delegates for his friendliness, common-sense and conservative pragmatism.

Understanding Hogan

Many of the appointees have strong business backgrounds. That is the key to understanding Hogan’s mindset.

People with experience in business know the crucial importance of avoiding a deficit. You spend what you take in, and no more. You don’t expand services hoping that the economy soars. That is the path to bankruptcy.

Hogan won’t have much sympathy for teacher unions demanding ever-increasing amounts of school funding. That’s not how businesses work.

Hogan is going to take a jaundiced view of state worker union demands for pay increases and benefit gains every year. He knows that’s a sure way to drive a business to the brink of insolvency.

There will be plenty of pain as Hogan squeezes budgetary excesses out of Maryland’s funding programs. Businesses do that all the time. The goal is to build a leaner yet more effective company.

Losing Bad Habits

Hogan is almost certain to tell Marylanders that state government has gotten itself into bad habits: excessive borrowing; depleting all the government’s “piggy bank” accounts to paper over revenue shortages; shifting around funds; spending far more each year on education than revenues allow, imposing new taxes to cover up bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Righting the Ship of State in Maryland won’t be easy. The last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, rashly thought his charisma would be enough to win over doubting Democrats in the legislature.

Hogan was part of Ehrlich’s team. He saw the gridlock and ill will that resulted. He learned some painful lessons.

Centrist Politics

The new governor is a glad-handing, commercial land-development salesman and negotiator. Those skills will come in handy. He knows that the art of the deal involves compromise – on both sides.

Governing from the center is pivotal if Hogan is to succeed.

He can’t be a conservative ideologue, tea party libertarian or doctrinaire Republican. None of that will fly with a liberal General Assembly.

Hogan already has shown us he knows how to campaign as a Republican centrist. It proved wildly popular with voters in November.

If he can repeat that recipe as governor, Larry Hogan Jr. could be living in the governor’s mansion for a considerable length of time.

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The O’Malley Years: An Assessment

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2015 — One of the ironies of Martin O’Malley’s eight years as Maryland governor is that a progressive, liberal Democrat spent most of his time cutting budgets and raising taxes just to keep the ship of state afloat.

Gov. Martin J. O'Malley

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

Another irony is that O’Malley started his tenure in 2007 by acting too slowly to stem a predicted tide of red ink in Annapolis. Now he is ending his second term by again responding too late to a huge, looming budget deficit.

However, when the history of the O’Malley years is assessed by scholars decades from now, what will stand out is the ease with which Maryland navigated the Great Recession — the nation’s worst economic decline since the 1930s.

The credit belongs to Martin O’Malley.

He eventually bit the bullet and did what Democrats hate above all else — he cut back on government services to the middle and lower classes, especially those who need a helping hand.

He found ways, though, to temper these hammer blows — shifting large sums from flush government accounts, borrowing heavily on the bond market, converting cash payments for farmland and Chesapeake Bay preservation into 15-year bonds and raiding the transportation fund.

Turning to Taxes

When that wasn’t enough, O’Malley taxed the wealthy, raised the corporate tax, raised the sales tax, raised the tobacco and alcohol taxes and, belatedly, the gasoline tax.

These weren’t popular moves, but it meant that social services for those without much money or with disabilities still could turn to Annapolis for assistance.

It still remains a mystery why O’Malley, who had weathered a host of fiscal storms as mayor of Baltimore for eight years, hesitated to recognize the brewing recession as he took office.

Legislative analysts already were predicting a future budget hole of $1.5 billion. Yet O’Malley ignored these forecasts.

Instead, in his first budget he hiked school construction handouts to a record $400 million, froze tuition for state college students by pouring extra funds into those institutions, and stripped the state’s Rainy Day fund of $1 billion to paper over Maryland’s financial woes until the economy improved.

Storm Clouds

Yet even as O’Malley’s initial budget was being passed, the state’s sales tax collections were declining along with other revenue sources. Loud alarms should have sounded in the governor’s suite.

Within months, O’Malley was forced to backtrack. He raised a slew of taxes, cut his initial budget requests and reversed his opposition to casino gambling.

The state’s worsening fiscal reality followed O’Malley throughout his two terms.

By the end, he was still unwilling to take proactive steps in mid-2014 to prevent what became an 18-month, $1.2 billion fiscal hole created by an agonizingly slow economic recovery and budget reductions coming from Washington.

Only in the past week did the governor seek $400 million in reductions so he could leave office with his final budget in balance.

Yet his last-minute actions did nothing to close the $800 million budget hole he bequeaths to Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, Jr.

Big Government

O’Malley’s budget hold-downs also were never meant to represent a permanent reduction in state government’s expanding role in Maryland society.

He is a strong believer in the good government can do for people. He wants to deliver more education help, more health care access, more social services for the state’s underclass and more aid to the counties and the middle class.

O’Malley’s faith in Big Government puts him on the far left of the Democratic Party’s spectrum. “Big things done well make even bigger things possible,” he said early in his first term. He still feels that way.

The governor certainly put his ideas into action.

  • He expanded health insurance in Maryland way before Washington acted.
  • He was quick to crack down on handgun and assault weapons sales in Maryland.
  • He fought vigorously to allow gay marriages in Maryland.
  • He raised the minimum wage.
  • He abolished the death penalty.
  • And he made it easier for children of immigrants to attend local colleges and universities.

Green Governor

He also won the hearts of environmentalists — another core group within the Democratic Party.

O’Malley raged against the “greed” of utility executives intent on selling Constellation Energy and demanded stiff concessions, including monetary support for wind and other alternative power sources.

He signed a super-expensive agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

He pushed through legislation providing a lucrative subsidy for off-shore wind farms.

He restricted the use of chicken manure as fertilizer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

He delayed approval of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits for oil and natural gas drilling in far Western Maryland.

He promoted an aggressive “smart growth” strategy.

Low Points

Not all these steps were popular or successful.

The governor’s “rain tax” to stem excessive stormwater runoff ran into heated local opposition.

His failure to keep an eye on the terribly mismanaged Obamacare rollout remains a major black mark.

But overall, O’Malley leaves Maryland with a record of accomplishments that defines him as a progressive Democrat who largely delivered on his promises, despite governing in extraordinarily difficult economic times.

Political Powerhouse

As a politician, Martin O’Malley cobbled together a strong Democratic coalition throughout the state. He dominated political Maryland.

Yet he largely disappeared from last year’s gubernatorial campaign, refusing to defend his record. That was a huge mistake. Republican Hogan had a field day pummeling O’Malley, who was never there to rebut the charges.

Hogan’s easy victory on Nov. 4 signaled a sharp change in the state Democratic Party’s fortunes. The efficient statewide organization O’Malley had built crumbled.

The party lost much of its previous support in towns and communities beyond Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. Without O’Malley, Maryland Democrats appear leaderless and in disarray.

On the National Stage

Now it is on to what O’Malley hopes will be much bigger things.

He’s actively exploring a run for president. A pipe dream? Tell that to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — small-state governors who beat the odds.

O’Malley was far from an ideal governor, but he gave Maryland honest, intensely dedicated service. The state is better off than it was when he arrived in 2007 to take the oath of office.

Best of all, Marylanders of this generation will be able to tell their children and grandchildren that thanks to Martin O’Malley:

“We beat the Great Recession and lived to tell about it.”

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Marylander of the Year

Gov. Martin J. O'Malley Martin Joseph O’Malley

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 31, 2014 — Sometimes the most important man in the room isn’t there. That was the case with 2014’s Marylander of the Year, Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The state’s 61st chief executive dominated events throughout 2014, even when he often wasn’t present.

He was the centerpiece of the summer-fall gubernatorial campaign — though his name didn’t appear on the ballot and he was rarely spotted on the campaign trail.

He forcefully took control of Maryland’s fatally flawed health insurance internet exchange, assigned his best technology aides to take over — and didn’t say much after that.

As he has done in past years, O’Malley won nearly all his fights with the 2014 General Assembly — a much-needed higher minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, domestic violence laws, expanded pre-kindergarten, education investments and public safety overhauls. Yet he did much of his work quietly this time.

He ended the year with a splash, too, grabbing headlines by commuting the death sentences of the last four inmates in Maryland on death row.

O’Malley also dominated what proved one of the state’s biggest stories — the ever-expanding billion-dollar budget deficit — by hesitating and then taking a meek step to tamp down expenses. He absented himself from stronger executive action that could have proactively reduced the troubling deficit for his successor.

Since the election of Republican Larry Hogan Jr. as the next governor, O’Malley has pretty much disappeared from view — except for his frequent forays to early primary states in his quest for the presidential nomination in 2016.

Most puzzling was the governor’s political vanishing act during the summer and fall.

This came as Hogan started pounding away at O’Malley’s tax-raising, big-spending record — the prime theme of the successful Hogan campaign.

By removing himself from the political fray, O’Malley thought he was doing Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a favor. How wrong he was. Brown never seized control of the campaign.

Brown turned out to be a terrible defender of the eight-year O’Malley-Brown administration. The lieutenant governor essentially ran away from his own administration’s record.

Instead of trumpeting the good the Democratic team had achieved, Brown chose to ignore it. That left Hogan with the perfect opening to drum into voters’ minds the “evils” of the O’Malley-Brown years — dozens of new taxes, rampant overspending, open hostility to job-creating businesses and meager economic growth.

Without effective push-back from Brown, and with O’Malley missing in action, Hogan’s message resonated in the empty room.

By failing to take the field to defend his eight years in office, O’Malley damaged his reputation with voters.

Ironically, the governor is one of Maryland’s best-ever campaigners. When he rolls up his sleeves and plunges into crowds, when he pours out his story and tells what he’s been able to accomplish, Martin O’Malley is a powerful persuader.

Yet this time he failed to heed the clarion call to battle. He allowed Hogan to speak at length about the negatives of the O’Malley years without anyone raising a vocal, convincing counter-argument.

The governor also wasn’t present to energize the Democratic Party’s base. No wonder turnout was abysmal in key Democratic strongholds. Brown turned people off instead of turning them on.

It will be years, or even decades, before historians place Martin O’Malley’s record into proper context. The negative image of O’Malley’s years in office,  planted in Marylanders’ minds by Hogan, will remain with them for a long time.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar)

This is the case with O’Malley’s years in the State House. His good deeds aren’t what’s being talked about.

It need not have been this way. There was ample time for the governor to mount an effective counter-argument, but he fixed his attention firmly on what comes next after he leaves Government House on Jan. 21.

For his continuing role as the most dominant presence in the Free State’s political drama — even when he wasn’t on the stage — Martin Joseph O’Malley has justified his selection as 2014’s Marylander of the Year.

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