Category Archives: Uncategorized

Early Voting Tsunami: What It Means

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 1, 2016 – Well, now we know how to get Americans to vote in impressive numbers – present them with a choice between an outrageously controversial narcissist and an outrageous political shader of the truth – and then let the media turn the whole shebang into a smarmy Reality TV circus.

It’s worked wonders in propelling early voting across the country to record numbers this fall.

Early Voting Tsunami: What It Means

In Maryland, prior early-voting marks have been shattered every day. In just the first three days of early voting here, more citizens cast ballots than in the entire April primary early-voting period.

That’s quite a feat given the relatively small number of early-voting sites in Maryland even in high-density, heavy-voting counties.

Stone Age Technology

Making it even more arduous to cast a ballot is the state’s “new” voting system with a “Back to the Future” retro feel: You have to use a black pen to mark ye olde paper ballot.

Voters would be astounded to learn how much this Neanderthal-era system cost: $27 million.

The good news is that there’s a record of each vote cast, in case disputed close races require re-counts.

But the “new” voting process can be painfully slow, especially when lots and lots of citizens are anxious to cast a ballot in this nasty, steamy presidential election.

Not only do Marylanders have to stand in line to sign in, then stand in line a second time to mark ballots the old-fashioned way, they also have to stand in line a final time to feed their marked ballot into the recording machine that, among other things, takes a picture for posterity.

Too bad the touch-screen computer voting machines Maryland had used since 2002 couldn’t be adapted so they’d print copies of each vote cast. (It couldn’t be that hard: I can print anything at home from my little computer. But why question the ostensible wisdom of state solons when it comes to spending an extra $27 million for a clunky, backward-looking voting system.)

Early Voting Proving Popular

The latest estimates are that 50 million Americans could vote early around the country in the 2016 presidential election. This doesn’t count the mail-in balloting which is now standard for all voters in Oregon and Colorado.

Folks who analyze early voting to pinpoint trends are in agreement there are many promising signs for Democrat Hillary Clinton in party registration numbers among early voters in battleground states. Clinton also has surged ahead in the number of newly registered Democratic voters in key states.

For Republican Donald Trump, the positive spin is that early voting is much preferred by older citizens – a category that favors Republican candidates.

The early voting numbers in Maryland illustrate why the Free State is such difficult terrain for Republicans running statewide. The most populous and most Democratic jurisdictions are dominating early voting tabulations by wide margins.

Moreover, the number of Democrats voting early is three times greater than the number of Republicans statewide.

Heavy early voting in Maryland is somewhat surprising given the lack of contested local offices up for grabs. Nearly all the state’s local elections take place in non-presidential years, the next one coming in 2018.

Yet people are flocking to cast a ballot.

Why Voters Show Up Early

The intensity of voters this fall is something to behold. Most have made their minds up and are chomping at the bit to vote. They want to hurry the process along so they can be done with this brutally ugly campaign that has dragged on unnecessarily for a year and a half.

No one looking at Maryland realistically expects Trump to win or even come within a country mile of Clinton.

He has alienated many GOP faithful, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and his presence seems to have energized the state’s hefty minority vote and liberal Democrats. They are deeply fearful of what a Trump presidency would mean for the nation’s safety and their well-being.

Trump supporters, meanwhile, are die-hard fans of the billionaire with the “say anything” attitude. They feel underappreciated and underrepresented in Washington. This is their chance to have their sentiments heard. They will vote for sure.

There just aren’t enough Trumpites in Maryland.

For instance, in the first four days of early voting more than 50 percent of the ballots cast came from heavily Democratic jurisdictions – Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard and Baltimore counties. Not a good sign for the GOP.

We’re still a week away from E-Day. That means there could well be more surprises and twists for one or both of the presidential candidates. In politics you should always expected the unexpected.

So it’s wise to remember what my favorite social philosopher, Lawrence Peter Berra, once said: “It’s not over till it’s over” – on the night of Nov. 8.

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Hogan’s Conflicted Budget

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 25, 2016 – At first glance there is lots to like about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s new budget. It’s largely a status quo blueprint that keeping spending under expected revenue growth without harming on-going programs.Hogan's Conflicted BudgetThere’s a bit of sunshine for just about every group – liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, law-and-order types, urban dweller, rural residents and suburbanites.

Yet there’s a yin and a yang to Hogan’s financial plan for Maryland. The Republican governor seems to be pushing the state in different directions simultaneously.

While he is keeping a lid on state spending, as would any conservative politician, Hogan also wants to cut taxes – a move that would reignite Maryland’s structural deficit Hogan has pledged to eliminate.Hogan's Conflicted Budget

It doesn’t add up.

The Positives

First, let’s deal with some of the good news.

  • Due to a positive economic outlook, the governor doesn’t have to engage in fiscal tricks to balance his budget. He doesn’t have to ask the legislature to suspend spending mandates for a year so he can shift funds to balance the state’s operating budget.
  • He also has a large surplus that allows him to clean up past fiscal finagling by former Gov. Martin O’Malley during the Great Recession, pay off unpaid bills and put the state’s books in order.
  • Hogan is pulling back ever so slightly on building up state debt. It isn’t much of a reduction but it could save the state considerably over the next eight years.
  • There’s a substantial boost in spending to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, restore funding to retain open spaces and support environmental programs.
  • He’s adding extra funds, $150 million, to the state’s annual pension contribution to help underfunded state retirement programs. It’s a small step in a system that is $19 billion short of full funding, but a symbolic one.
  • He’s growing the state’s contribution to community colleges by six percent – one of the wisest investments he could make.
  • He’s putting new emphasis on spending for prisons improvements, rehabilitation and treatment programs as part of his effort to keep minor offenders out of jail and cut recidivism. Included in this category is $35 million to demolish and design a new Baltimore City Detention Center. He’s also boosting local police aid nearly 10 percent.
  • The Republican governor is leaving Maryland’s Obamacare program alone at a time when the program is signing up a record number of low-income individuals for health care coverage. That’s a common-sense, non-partisan move that will save money for the state and for hospitals in the long run.

On the Other Hand

Now for some of the bad news.

  • Hogan’s budget already is out of date, thanks to the continuing swoon on Wall Street and a lack of robust consumer spending. This is likely to throw revenue estimates off by hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Hogan’s large budget surplus announced last week could largely evaporate by the time new revenue forecasts are put out in March.
  • This, in turn, makes it unlikely Hogan will get the tax cuts he’s seeking this legislative session.
  • With Maryland’s weak economic rebound now facing a costly dig-out from the Blizzard of 2016 and possibly more bad weather to come, this isn’t the best time to press for action that shrinks state revenue.
  • Hogan’s capital budget puts too much emphasis on highway construction and not enough on the Port of Baltimore and mass transit. More alarming is his long-range plan to cut nearly $1 billion from transportation spending in 2021 – an unrealistic and dangerous move.
  • Hogan is claiming credit, as does every governor, for funding education at record levels. In fact, he’s mandated by law to do so. He’s even taking credit for fully funding a program that helps high-cost counties run their schools – a program he cut in half last year. Angry lawmakers then required Hogan to put the full $137 million in his budget this year.
  • Hogan added $5.6 million to his budget to help three Republican counties cope with falling school enrollments. Yet he refused to help Baltimore City’s school system, which faces a loss of $21 million partly due to its own declining enrollment. This funding inequity won’t be permitted by Democratic lawmakers.
  • Hogan fails to give battered and struggling Baltimore City much relief. It’s the only large subdivision that doesn’t get a big boost in state aid — $3.1 million for the city versus $24.7 million for Baltimore County, $26.7 million for Anne Arundel County, $44.3 million for Montgomery County and $83.4 million for Prince George’s County. On a percentage basis Baltimore City gets less of an aid increase – 0.3 percent – than any other Maryland subdivision.
  • Hogan’s budget documents focus on the state’s continuing gap between ongoing spending and tax revenues. Yet the governor wants to diminish state revenue through tax cuts, which will worsen the situation. Hogan complains about this key fiscal gap but doesn’t fully address it in his budget proposal.

We’ll learn much more about the governor’s blueprint when the legislature’s fiscal advisers start their round of budget briefings after the snow dig-out. Their analysis will pinpoint further weaknesses and oversights in Hogan’s plan as well as its strengths.

Given the uncertain economic outlook, a go-slow approach might be the best possible outcome.

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O’Malley’s Reality Check

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 6, 2016 – If you’re running for any elective office, you’d better have thick enough skin to accept occasional humiliation.

That’s especially true for those in the presidential primaries.

It may be the most important job in the world but those in the running have to expect moments of embarrassment that for ordinary folks would be ego-shattering.

O'Malley's Reality Check

Former MD Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Iowa campaign stop yielded one undecided voter named Kenneth

Martin O’Malley has had his share of deflating moments recently.

The former Maryland governor continues running in the low single digits (except for one Iowa poll). He’s not being taken seriously as a true challenger to Hillary Clinton.

Right after Christmas, O’Malley beat his rivals into the field in Iowa, addressing 100 people at the Des Moines Social Club, nearly all of them undecided voters, not O’Malley supporters.

The next day, O’Malley braved a snowstorm to meet with five undecideds in Webster City, 12 in Iowa Falls and an undecided, bearded voter named Kenneth in Tama (population 2,800).

Positive Spin

O’Malley tried to make light of these tepid turnouts. It did, at least, get him much-needed publicity, though it was not at all positive.

The ex-governor tried another approach by asking Sen. Bernie Sanders, who does have a legitimate shot at winning the nomination, to ignore the Democratic National Committee and stage a two-man debate that would garner more media attention.

But Sanders declined. He’s not about to give O’Malley a chance to strip away some of his liberal support. Chalk up another stumble for the O’Malley campaign.

Then came bad news from Ohio, a pivotal election state. O’Malley’s troops botched the petition drive needed to get on that state’s primary ballot.

He only needed 1,000 signatures of qualified Ohio voters. He managed to sign up just 772 legitimate voters – out of some 11.5 million in the state.

Now that’s humiliating.

No wonder O’Malley isn’t being taken seriously.

Low on Cash

As of Oct. 1 he had just $805,000 in his campaign account – versus $27 million for Sanders and $33 million for Clinton. The two front-runners raised another $71 million combined through year’s end.

Even with limited resources, O’Malley can muddle through Iowa and New Hampshire with a bare-bones, retail campaign. It will keep his name alive, at least.

But sometime after Feb. 9, if O’Malley receives the expected drubbing in those two states, he should fold his camping tent. The outlook is even bleaker in the next two states, Nevada on Feb. 20 and South Carolina on Feb. 27, where O’Malley is scoring close to zero (1 percent in Nevada and 2 percent in S.C.).

O’Malley must decide when to gracefully withdraw and when to endorse the eventual winner, most likely Hillary Clinton.

If he persists in sticking it out and fails miserably in Nevada and South Carolina, does he damage his future political aspirations? Does he become a figure of mockery, a hopeless presidential wannabe along the lines of ex-governors Mike Huckabee and George Pataki?

It shouldn’t be a tough call.

Limping Along

O’Malley has served his purpose with his determined campaign in the first two early primary states. He’s set out his liberal agenda for Democrats to see.

But he will need a political platform to keep his presidential hopes alive in four or eight years. That might happen if he wraps up his campaign in another month or so and then spends the rest of 2016 as a Clinton surrogate making speeches around the country.

Martin O’Malley thought he could catch fire as the Democrats’ liberal alterative to the more moderate Clinton. But Bernie Sanders stole his thunder and made O’Malley an also-ran.

The “O Say Can You See” campaign will continue to limp along gamely for another month. But O’Malley could face the inevitable in five or six weeks and make a pragmatic decision to call it quits.

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Ready, Fire, Aim

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 31, 2015 — A real-life drama — and personal tragedy — played out last week when the Maryland Board of Public Works took up the Hogan administration’s request to fire 59 state workers who don’t deserve to be coldly thrown out of their jobs.

Most of them have earned sterling performance reviews. They have worked diligently for the state, responsibly handling personnel matters.

Ready, Fire, Aim

Gov. Larry Hogan and Prisons Chief Stephen Moyer (left)

Yet now they have been accused — unfairly and without a whisper of truth — of being part of the state prison system’s “rampant criminal activity” and “corruption.”

It’s a classic case of Larry Hogan Jr.’s team rushing to carry out his reform agenda by shouting, “Ready, Fire, Aim” — and hitting unintended casualties.

Not Involved

In doing so, innocent victims are seeing their careers destroyed. They are, as many noted at the BPW hearing, being scapegoated — tarred with the corruption label even though these employees had nothing to do with the decades-old outrages taking place within prison walls.

Thank goodness, Hogan is taking the initiative to clean up Maryland’s abysmal prison system.  But his administration’s mass firing in the corrections department’s personnel office is misdirected.

The idea, as explained by prisons chief Stephen Moyer, is to streamline the department’s hiring and firing process for workers who deal directly with prisoners, especially the prison guards.

The current system is shockingly flawed. Wardens — some of them contributing mightily to the problem — by law appoint the guards. Each warden has set his or her own hiring standard.

Bad apples have been hired by the dozens. Fingerprinting of new hires has been exceedingly lax. When Moyer tried to fire some 200 guards involved in criminal activities at the Baltimore detention center, he found he couldn’t do so under state laws.

Hogan’s Prison Reforms

What a shameful situation. Moyer and Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. are right to press for a major overhaul to ensure that the jail keepers aren’t on the take.

But what Moyer wants to do first is fire 59 personnel workers who had nothing to do with hiring those bad actors. These workers handle questions correctional workers have about benefits, retirement and tons of paperwork dealing with complex employment issues.

The entire personnel staff of the state’s parole agency is being wiped out. Yet this office has nothing to do with what takes place within Maryland’s massive prison system. They are far removed from the problem.

Moyer wants to centralize personnel matters. The approach sounds good in theory but too often dehumanizes and devalues workers. It makes it maddeningly difficult, if not impossible, to get the simplest problem resolved or question answered.

He wants to eliminate all personnel employees in Western Maryland, except for three in Cumberland and three in Hagerstown. It’s absurd, given there are over 1,200 prison workers in Cumberland and close to 2,000 in Hagerstown. The small number of personnel experts he wants to retain in Western Maryland is off the mark.

The situation is even worse in the Baltimore area, where a three-member personnel staff would be overwhelmed by the workload.

This plan was designed without considering the human element.

Cutting the Fat

At the Board of Public Works meeting, heart-rending tales were told by employees whose jobs are being wiped out.

How is a 63-year-old woman with decades of outstanding performance evaluations going to find another job? Moyer & Co. had no realistic answer.

This has nothing to do with the much-needed development of a tough, effective hiring and firing system.

Instead, it is driven by Hogan’s campaign pledge to cut the “fat” from state government. He’s all about saving money without thinking through the consequences.

This time Hogan and Moyer got politely taken to task by Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

The anguish of the intended firing victims who testified before the state board was so palpable that both of these officials made it clear they wouldn’t approve the layoff plan as presented.

Franchot
Comptroller Peter Franchot

 

They took special offense to comments that this move was part of an effort to root out corruption in the prison system.

These 59 individuals aren’t the ones committing illegal acts.

They didn’t hire the miscreants. They’re not the ones responsible.

Collateral Damage

They are hard-working state employees who have done their jobs exceptionally well at modest salaries.

“These are very capable people being shown the door,” Franchot said. He bluntly told Moyer, “You are firing the wrong people here.”

Kopp urged Moyer to look beyond the budget savings. “People are not just collateral damage, she noted. “They are people” who need to be treated with dignity and respect, not summarily thrown out of work for no good reason.

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp

Sue Esty, whose union represents some of those being fired, choked back tears as she described this as the most callous layoff she’s seen. Moyer & Co. displayed a “lack of understanding of how the department functions.” She, too, termed it as “a classic case of scapegoating.”

Moyer went by the book in formulating this mass firing. He conferred with budget and legal officials. But he never sat down and tried to work out a more humane plan with those affected or their union representatives.

It’s also a plan that looks good on paper but has serious flaws when tested against reality.

Fire, then Aim?

That seems to be par for the course in the early stages of the Hogan administration. Ready, fire and then aim.

We saw it when the governor killed the rapid rail Red Line for Baltimore before formulating a substitute transportation improvement plan.

We saw it when Hogan proudly cut tolls on bridges and tunnels without figuring out how urgent and expensive repair and replacement projects on the Hatem and Nice bridges could be financed on a shrunken budget.

We saw it when Hogan grabbed the headlines for shuttering the decrepit Baltimore detention center without first conferring with local elected, law-enforcement and judicial officials on how to avoid disruptions and unanticipated snafus.

Moyer now should take his time in putting together a new personnel approach within the department, one that considers the human element.

Delay in Order

A number of those targeted for firing were denied participation in the governor’s severance program last spring because they were deemed too valuable to the department. Now Moyer wants them out the door without any severance.

That’s unfair and makes no sense.

Kopp and Franchot should insist that Hogan delay the prison personnel-office downsizing until he submits his next budget, when the people targeted for firing can be offered a buyout package. That’s one approach.

Or what about implementing a multi-year plan to eliminate personnel jobs through attrition?

What about hammering out a better deal for employees with the union in the months ahead? There’s no need to rush.

A humane approach might require approval from the General Assembly for a new severance program and a change in the law so some of the workers can be moved into personnel vacancies in nearby state offices.

Let’s slow the process down so we get it right.

The governor’s determination to charge ahead quickly with his reforms is getting him in trouble.

A more deliberate and methodical approach that takes into account the impact on individuals whose lives are being affected would pay far larger dividends for Hogan in the long term.

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Hogan’s ‘incredible’ maglev gaffe

By Barry Rascovar

June 8, 2015 –In the name of improved economic ties with Japan, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. allowed himself to be used as a marketing tool for a pie-in-the-sky, ultra-expensive transportation project known as “maglev.”

Maglev train in Japan on test track.

Maglev train in Japan on test track.

It’s “an incredible experience” Hogan said of his 300-mile-an-hour ride on a test track in Japan during an economic development trip to Asia.

What’s really “incredible” is Hogan’s willingness to become a promoter of a still-emerging technology with eye-popping costs just as he nears a decision on building two crucial, but far cheaper, conventional mass-transit routes in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs that he previously called “too expensive.”

Supporters of maglev (magnetic levitation) say a Washington-to-Baltimore route would cost a mere $10 billion. Others says the price tag would be many times higher just for the first 40 miles of a route eventually stretching to New York.

Maglev, which glides on a cushion of air and is powered by super-conducting magnets, requires a straight track. It cannot use existing rail rights of way. Thus, the Baltimore-Washington route, through an intensely developed part of Maryland, will have to done by way of a 40-mile-long tunnel.

Now we’re talking REALLY big bucks.

Transformational?

Yet there was Maryland’s governor calling maglev “the future of transportation” that would be “incredibly transformative” for Maryland’s economy.

Huh?

It’s one thing to be polite and complimentary to your host on an overseas economic venture. It’s quite another to join hands with the promoter, the Japanese government, to support a Japanese company’s technology and request $27.8 million from the U.S. government to study a speculative maglev route between the nation’s capital and Charm City.

Just the notion that it won’t cost the state of Maryland one red cent if a Washington-to-Baltimore maglev becomes a reality — backers say it could be funded by Japan, a Japanese railroad and the U.S. government — is enough to wonder what was in the water Hogan drank while in Tokyo.

Hogan and wife Yumi on the test maglev train in Japan

Gov. Larry Hogan and his wife, Yumi, aboard the experimental maglev train in Japan

Sure, it’s a great technology on a test track. But the first maglev train, built in Shanghai, China, has been a flop. That line is only 18 miles long, linking Shanghai’s international airport with a suburb: You still have to transfer to a cab or a light-rail line to reach Shanghai’s downtown.

That route was built by German companies as a sales tool. It didn’t work. When it came time to select a technology for an 800-mile super-speed line between Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese government chose a proven, wheels-on-track bullet-train.

Shouldn’t that tell Hogan something?

Facing Reality

Better to improve what you have with the limited transportation money on hand than jump into a questionable technology that isn’t ready for prime time and costs a fortune.

Does Hogan truly expect the budget-cutting Republican Congress to approve spending tens of billions of dollars on a maglev route through a heavily Democratic state?

Where’s the money going to come from now that Congress refuses to raise the federal gasoline tax — the main source of federal transportation funding?

Congress almost certainly would require Maryland to ante up a big chunk of the money, 50 percent or more.

Transportation Challenges

Hogan has limited state transportation funds and far too many priorities to address. Why divert state resources and waste the time of the state’s transit experts when you’re already faced with:

  • A decision on the Red Line for Baltimore, an absolutely pivotal project.
  • A decision on the Washington area’s Purple Line serving the state’s two most populous and congested counties.
  • A decision on a badly needed new rail tunnel through Baltimore. This directly affects the future of Maryland’s leading economic engine — the Port of Baltimore.
  • A decision on vastly improving Maryland’s commuter-rail line, MARC, so that its popularity continues to grow.
  • A decision on major repairs or replacement of railroad bridges over the Susquehanna, Bush and Gunpowder rivers.
  • A decision on how quickly to repair/replace dozens of deteriorating highway bridges throughout Maryland.
  • A decision on replacing the scary, congested, 75-year-old, two-lane, deteriorating Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River in Southern Maryland — a billion-dollar-plus project.
Gov. Harry Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

With all this on his transportation plate, why in the world would Hogan champion a highly questionable maglev project with a stratospheric price tag and a completion date so far in the future it can’t be seen?

(Note: Japan is building a 175-mile maglev rail line between Tokyo and Nagoya. Construction started last year. The opening date? 2027.)

Unresolved Questions

Maglev is a great idea yet to be fully proven as a power source for long-distance travel. Oodles of engineering and technical issues remain unresolved. Huge political and geographic obstacles remain.

Isn’t it far more sensible to improve existing rail lines and projects nearing the construction stage?

Hogan didn’t help himself by making glowing maglev comments, signing a memorandum of cooperation with the Japanese government on maglev and announcing that he’s seeking federal funds to study a high-speed route in Maryland.

Instead, he needs to get serious about easing travel for Marylanders today, especially in the state’s most crowded regions.

Maglev should be taken off the table.

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

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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A Debatable Debate in MD

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 8, 2014 — This is the best we’ve got?

It was a painfully thin performance by both Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan Jr. in Maryland’s first gubernatorial debate of the month Tuesday night.

They followed their handlers’ terribly misguided advice to trash one another. They went out of their way to go negative and too often repeated their trite attack lines and glaringly erroneous accusations.

The result: Neither candidate presented a compelling argument for becoming governor.

“Vote for Me”

Instead, they all but proclaimed to voters: “If you don’t like what the other guy stands, then vote for me.” What a horrible way to waste an hour of valuable debate time on statewide TV.

Brown clearly bested Hogan on the environmental question of the night.

He gave a detailed and cogent explanation of efforts to protect and clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Hogan’s response — delaying bay cleanup efforts while he sues Pennsylvania and New York to force upstream sediment removal in the Susquehanna River — was an evasive and weak answer to the question.

Republican Larry Hogan Jr. - Debate in MD

Republican Larry Hogan Jr.

Hogan had by far the better response on crime.

He zeroed in on Maryland’s heroin epidemic, summarized the crisis and called for a summit to find answers.

Brown rattled off past successes against crime, which rang hollow given the state’s continuing struggle to stem the violence.

The saddest part of the evening may have been each candidate’s exaggerations to the  point of fabrication.

Each used budget-saving ideas and fiscal numbers based mainly on hot air.

As for the biggest mistake of the evening, that belongs to Anthony Brown’s. “There will be no new taxes under the Brown-Ulman administration,” he said.

Brown will rue the day he made that campaign promise.

There’s no way he can govern eight years without increasing the state’s revenue base.

It was another of what Hogan correctly called Brown’s “phony promises” that ignore Maryland’s $405 million deficit, recent dips in revenue collections and the state’s ballooning expenses over the next four or five years.

Moving the Economy

Both candidates overpromised when it came to reviving Maryland’s economy.

No governor has the ability to do that, though a governor can nudge things in the right direction long-term with wise tax reforms.

Brown’s closing remarks were pathetically weak (the “American dream” shtick). Hogan’s closing was far superior in making the case for change.

Still, the bottom line is that Brown didn’t mess up in Debate No. 1.

As the Democratic candidate, he’s got a built-in advantage in deeply blue Maryland.

The race remains his to lose.

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Barry Rascovar has been reporting on Maryland politics for over 40 years. His columns can be found at www.politicalmaryland.com.

Bob McDonnell’s History Lesson

Shades of Marvin Mandel

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 15, 2014 — You’ve got to pity Bob McDonnnell, former Virginia governor and recently convicted felon. He never learned from the political-corruption history of Virginia’s neighbor to the north, Maryland.

Had McDonnell familiarized himself with the trials and legal tribulations of Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (1969-1978), he might have avoided the ethics lapses and quid pro quo exchanges of gifts and cash that did in McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Indeed, the similarities between the McDonnell and Mandel sagas are stunning:

  • Both men were highly popular, successful governors.
  • Both were dogged by federal prosecutors pursuing complex public corruption and bribery cases.
  • Both prosecutions stemmed in large part from marital discord and payoffs to the spouses.
  • Both cases involved governors whose bank accounts were seriously depleted even as they faced ballooning expenses
  • Both cases led to humiliating, intimate public disclosures about the two governors’ personal lives and weaknesses.
  • Both involved payments of cash, fancy clothing, trips and other luxuries in exchange for government actions that would enrich their friends.
  • Both involved incredibly weak government codes of ethical conduct.
  • Both men maintained to the end their complete innocence.
  • And both cases rested on the fuzzily defined notion that the public is entitled to “loyal and honest services” from its elected leaders.

Improper Gifts

The McDonnells were convicted Sept. 4 of receiving improper gifts and loans from a Virginia businessman peddling a miracle vitamin pill. In return, the businessman gained access to state health officials and other key individuals who could help him, thanks to the McDonnells’ direct efforts.

Mandel was found guilty in 1977 of receiving from friends cash, an expensive wardrobe, jewelry for his wife, valuable waterfront land and interest in an office building in exchange for his help in gaining lucrative thoroughbred racing days.

Mandel “loved beyond his means,” as the late Mary McGrory brilliantly put it.

Marvin Mandel with second wife, Jeanne

Marvin Mandel with second wife, Jeanne

He split from his loyal wife in a highly publicized and messy move (she refused to vacate the governor’s mansion; he lived in a hotel) so he could marry his longtime paramour.

It turned out Marvin Mandel couldn’t afford the divorce settlement or his new wife’s expensive lifestyle without help from his wealthy business friends — who even connived with a Catholic religious order that lent Mandel the divorce money.

The governor’s “thank you”: He dropped his opposition to a doubling of racing days at the Marlboro track (from 16 to 32). Marlboro had just been bought (in secret) by his friends.

Mandel followed up with strenuous arm-twisting to pass legislation giving Marlboro an additional 62 days of racing. A rinky-dink harness track would suddenly morph into a major-league thoroughbred track with 94 racing dates.

‘Serious Mistakes’

To this day, Mandel denies wrongdoing. “I said then, and I say now, that I never did anything illegal as governor of Maryland,” he wrote in a book he penned at age 90.

Mandel’s appellate lawyers cleverly defined his actions as, at worst, “a non-criminal scheme of non-disclosure.”

The trial judge, Robert Taylor, disagreed. “You made some serious mistakes,” Taylor said.

Mandel went to federal prison in Florida, was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan and had his conviction later overturned on a technicality (prosecutors had stretched the legal interpretation of federal racketeering and mail fraud laws too far).

The incriminating evidence — and there was plenty of it — was never disputed.

Cash Poor Governor

This brings us back to Bob McDonnell — politically rich, but cash poor.

He couldn’t afford his daughter’s over-the-top wedding and his wife’s outrageously expensive gowns without help from an exceedingly generous businessman who befriended them in exchange for — he hoped — state endorsement of his miracle vitamin pill.

Like the Mandel trial, which exposed backstage maneuverings by friends to extricate Maryland’s governor from a strained marriage and keep him happy, the McDonnells’ courtroom drama in Richmond revolved around their family soap opera.

Maureen McDonnell was portrayed as an out-of-control shrew, demanding more and more largesse from her financially strapped, henpecked hubby. He threw her under the bus, essentially blaming her for the whole mess.

And, of course, he denied all wrongdoing.

Ethics Loopholes

Why not? Virginia’s laughable Ethics Code makes almost any gift to a public official legal as long as you disclose it.

Maryland’s Ethics Code is even more of a Swiss cheese affair. Mandel as governor issued this code of conduct, making it applicable “to all officers and employees of the executive branch.”

It made it unethical to do exactly what Mandel later carried out.

But here’s the catch: Maryland’s Ethics Code doesn’t apply to constitutionally elected officers, i.e., the governor.

So Mandel can say with a straight face he did nothing wrong under the state’s code of conduct. Let’s call it “technical deniability.”

High Public Expectations

Still, neither he nor McDonnell could evade the long arm of federal prosecutors.

In Virginia, a jury convicted McDonnell of conspiracy, bribery and extortion. He could be sent off to prison, but if so his stay almost surely will be brief compared with Mandel’s 19 months behind bars.

Neither man understood what was expected of them as elected public officials.

They were living under an old-fashioned standard of acceptable political behavior: Take whatever you can get as long as you do it quietly and don’t directly harm the public.

That’s not how citizens view public service today, or in the 1970s. They expect their leaders will act ethically. Don’t accept valuable gifts, even from close friends. Don’t do favors for your friends. Don’t grease the wheels for your friends.

It’s not hard to understand. Politicians in high office, though, sometimes forget they’re expected to be above suspicion.

McDonnell now is paying the price for his failure to pay attention. Had he studied Mandel’s political and personal downfall, he might not have ruined his life — and his reputation.

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Insulting Post Endorsement

By Barry Rascovar

May 13, 2014 — Forty-five days before Maryland’s primary election (May 11), the Washington Post endorsed in the all-important Democratic race for governor.

Washington Post logo

Nothing wrong in selecting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. He’s the clear front-runner.

But for a major newspaper to make its endorsement selection six weeks in advance of an election is stunning — and highly risky.

The final weeks of any campaign can be unpredictable.

Anything Could Happen

What if news surfaces that deeply embarrasses Brown? What if it turns out Brown was more involved in Maryland’s dysfunctional health exchange than he admits? What if a scandal erupts in the O’Malley-Brown administration? What if Brown performs poorly in the June 2 debate?

That early endorsement could look ludicrous.

Does the Post consider the rest of this campaign irrelevant? Apparently.

The newspaper’s editorialists seem to regard Maryland with an arrogance and disdain that insult its Free State readers.

Virginia Endorsement

When the Post endorsed for Virginia governor last year, it did so 23 days before the election, not 45.

That Virginia endorsement, running 1,008 words, gave a detailed analysis of the two candidates. The Post’s superficial endorsement for Maryland governor ran just 467 words.

Rather than place its Maryland endorsement prominently at the top of the page, as the Post routinely does for elections in Virginia and the District of Columbia, this one was positioned as the last of three editorials — almost an afterthought.

The editors didn’t even bother spelling out the word “Maryland” in the headline, though they had oodles of extra space.

District Endorsement

When the Post endorsed for D.C. mayor earlier this year, its editorialists produced a carefully reasoned, 1,082-word analysis. Clearly, the writers took great care crafting it — which clearly wasn’t the case with the Maryland governor’s endorsement.

I helped produce editorial pages for the Baltimore Sun for 20-plus years as deputy editorial page editor under the legendary Joe Sterne. I understand the pressures that come with newspaper endorsements.

But the Post’s effort last Sunday was inexcusable in its timing. Anything can happen over the next six weeks.

Weak Arguments

Sadly, the editors based their endorsement on a scant one-hour televised debate that contained more fluff than meat.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

The editorial’s vapid reasoning was a marvel of shaky logic. It brought guffaws from two dozen readers who wrote critical email responses — all of them mocking the Post’s sloppy arguments.

Anthony Brown indeed may be “the best of three Democratic candidates,” but the Post made some laughably weak assertions:

  • He’s “a mainstay of the Democratic establishment and a paragon of the status quo.”

That’s a two-edged sword, as the Post went on to illustrate in mentioning Brown’s role in the miserably managed health exchange rollout. Does this mean the Post is endorsing the status quo in Maryland?

  • He is part of an administration that has a number of “substantive accomplishments.”

A point well taken.

  • Brown “strikes us as a conscientious public servant with broad experience.”

True, but what has he actually accomplished in all those years? That’s the crucial element the Post needed to address.

  • Brown may not have “offered a soaring vision” but “he has also not overpromised.”

Is that the Post’s way of supporting an “O’Malley Lite” administration for Maryland?

  • Brown has “the right approach” to help Maryland “compete with Virginia for jobs,” which would “foster a business climate more conducive to employment growth.” He “strikes us as the best candidate and the one most likely to improve what Democratic leaders concede is the state’s anemic track record in attracting and retaining jobs and employers.”

Those last editorial points are the most baffling. According to the Post endorsement, “the focus of Mr. Brown’s campaign” is a more positive business climate.

You could have fooled me.

Brown and Economic Growth

Brown’s statements, campaign ads and campaign documents don’t emphasize economic development but rather improving life for Maryland families, especially in education.

Is the Post’s candidate improving Maryland’s business climate by calling a plan to lower the state’s heavy corporate tax rate “a $1.4 billion corporate giveaway”?

Maryland’s corporate tax is 37 percent higher than Virginia’s. That’s a huge economic disincentive. No wonder Virginia cleans Maryland’s clock.

Brown’s jobs plan involves increased support for a smattering of business development programs. It will cost an average of $28 million annually for four years. That’s a skimpy investment. It won’t make Maryland more appealing than Virginia.

Paying for New Programs

The Post editorial blasts Attorney General Doug Gansler for lacking “a convincing plan” to pay for his corporate tax cut.  Yet Brown’s payment method for his jobs plan is equally lacking.

Brown wants to offset his jobs program costs through tax receipts from construction of the Purple and Red light rail lines. Those are phantom numbers.

Purple Line

First, little new tax money will be generated by light-rail construction in the early years of Brown’s administration. Delays are inevitable. The heavy work is at least two or three years away.

Second, revenue forecasts based on economic “multiplier” calculations rarely prove accurate.

Third, Brown’s revenue source dries up when construction stops. At that point, he’s left with a big revenue hole.

Fourth, essential federal aid may not come through. The Surfacing Transportation Act expires Oct. 1. Republicans and Democrats are light years apart on what to do. Gridlock could mean major cuts in transit aid.

Red Line logo

That could doom or delay Maryland’s projects, thus erasing Brown’s revenue for his jobs program.

None of this is mentioned in the Post endorsement. Don’t let facts get in the way of a hastily crafted editorial.

There are plenty of solid reasons for a newspaper to support Anthony Brown. Unfortunately, you won’t find many of them in the Post editorial.

The Post’s Predicament

Now the newspaper’s editorialists have to hope Brown doesn’t screw up before June 24.

Instead of critiquing campaign developments with a critical, impartial eye, the newspaper’s editorials must defend Brown if scandal erupts, or refute charges against him. The Post becomes Brown’s defender and advocate.

It’s a wound one of the nation’s best newspapers inflicted on itself by endorsing prematurely.

Holding off until later in the campaign would have given Post editorialists better insight into Brown.

It would have made for a stronger, more thoughtful endorsement.

The newspaper could have produced for readers a more complete picture of the governor’s race.

That opportunity now has been forfeited.

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Reviewing the First Governor’s Debate

By Barry Rascovar for MarylandReporter.com

May 12, 2014 — Now the important part of Maryland’s gubernatorial election campaign begins. The kickoff took place last week with the first televised debate among the three Democratic contenders.

Gubernatorial Debate May 7

The Scene at College Park

Though far from inspiring, that debate finally focused voter attention on the election. Equally important, it riveted the attention of reporters, who are now intently following comments and policy statements of the three candidates.

There’s roughly six weeks until voters must decide in the June 24 primary. And given the massive majority held by Democrats in Maryland, the results of the primary could be the ball game.

Notes From Debate No. 1

Here are some observations on the first debate, held at the University of Maryland, College Park:

  • Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown tried mightily, but no one drew blood.

Gansler delivered some strong blows on Brown’s flubbed role in Maryland’s disgraceful health exchange rollout, but the issue was largely forgotten after the first ten minutes.

Gansler-May 7 debate

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Brown tried to hammer Gansler for not stopping a teen beach party, but the attorney general muted that attack by reminding the audience how difficult it is to make the right decisions when it comes to raising kids.

Del. Heather Mizeur decided to step aside while the two other candidates went after one another.

  • No one delivered a compelling message.

What we heard was standard campaign rhetoric the candidates have voiced hundreds of times before. New ideas never entered the debate. The candidates rushed through their one-minute responses so rapidly there was no time to expound on specifics.

  • Brown “won” by not losing.

As the clear front-runner, the lieutenant governor had the most to lose but he didn’t make a major blunder and stuck to his prepared responses and attacks on Gansler.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown-May 7 debate

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

He didn’t give many Democratic voters a reason to vote for him, but he also didn’t give them much to dislike, either.

  • Mizeur “won” by refusing to attack her opponents.

She tried to show she was the issues candidate but in the process revealed an extraordinarily narrow agenda — women’s rights and wage disparity.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

  • Gansler “won” by presenting himself as the one candidate willing to criticize the O’Malley-Brown administration.

He objected to the administration raising taxes 40 times and worsening Maryland’s anti-business reputation. He suggested voters might want to try a different approach.

  • Kudos to NBC’s David Gregory for running the debate with a firm hand.

No one was allowed to abuse the time limits. When attacks were made, Gregory gave the other candidate a chance to respond. He followed up  on hot-button issues with additional questions. Most questions from the panelists were on the mark — except for the dumb Redskins question that wasted valuable time better devoted to pivotal issues confronting the next governor.

  • All the candidates got away with stretching — or misplacing — the truth in their remarks.

Gansler misled viewers about the reasons he was sanctioned when Montgomery County state’s attorney by the Maryland Court of Appeals for ripping into defendants in criminal cases at press conferences. We haven’t heard the end of this.

Brown inaccurately claimed credit for fixing the health exchange, saying he “changed leadership” (no, the exchange leader quit) and all is now hunky dory. Hardly. He also claimed leadership of the base-realignment effort in Maryland. That’s overstating the case.

Mizeur gave dubious reasons for legalizing marijuana. Her rationale: It is “less harmful to the body than alcohol or tobacco.” (And that makes it a wise public health policy?) Then she switched direction and said legalizing pot would generate enough revenue to pay for all her new programs. (Ugh.)

  • All three blew it on their opening and closing statements.

Gansler: He’ll give “voice to the voiceless” and stand up to unnamed “special interests.”

Brown — He’ll “build a better Maryland” and continue the direction of the current administration.

Mizeur — She’ll “bring results for Maryland families.” She promises “policy, not platitudes.”

Those clichéd statements explain why a majority of voters remain undecided. They may look for the “none of the above” button on primary day.

  • Finally, there’s one thing the candidates agree wholeheartedly about: the winning political color this campaign season is Columbia Blue.

During the debate, Mizeur, Brown and Gansler all displayed that unique shade of blue-gray named after my New York alma mater’s collegiate color.

Governor's Debate

A sea of Columbia Blue

At glance I thought the “in” color for Maryland pols in 2014 was Carolina Blue, named for that university in Chapel Hill, N.C. But a closer examination of photos from the debate revealed the color selection was a darker shade than sky blue.

By the way, Columbia Blue also is the school color of Johns Hopkins University.

And it is, oddly enough, the team color of baseball’s Kansas City Royals (why not Royal Blue?) and in a sad twist of fate, it’s the team color of racist Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

Wonder what Brown, Mizeur and Gansler will be wearing at the next debate on June 2?

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