Tag Archives: Baltimore

Pimlico’s Improving Future

By Barry Rascovar

March 20, 2017 – Thanks to revenue from Maryland’s successful slots casinos, the state’s thoroughbred racing industry has seen a re-birth that hints at prosperity for the Free State’s billion-dollar horse industry in future decades.

Breeders are returning to Maryland to take advantage of the huge jump in purse money fueled by slots proceeds. Off-track gambling revenue is rising. And the state’s most important day of sports entertainment, the Preakness, is breaking attendance and wagering records.

To keep those good times a-rollin’, though, will require a major investment by Annapolis political leaders and by their counterparts in Baltimore City.

Pimlico's Improving Future

The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as horses near the first turn.

It won’t be easy but it is achievable.

The centerpiece of Maryland horse racing is the Preakness, run at historic Pimlico Race Course since 1873 (108 consecutive years since 1909). Last May’s second jewel of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown drew 135,256 fans to Old Hilltop – a record turnout for any sports event in Maryland.

But Pimlico is badly in need of a facelift.

Stronach’s One-Track Plan

The Stronach Group that owns Maryland’s two major race tracks at Pimlico and Laurel, would love to shutter the Baltimore facility and run exclusively in the Washington suburbs to multiply its profits. Laurel is where Stronach is putting all its improvement money.

That would be a wise business decision if not for the history, tradition and psychic ties between the Preakness and Baltimore. Move the race to a more southern location and the race loses all its history and records. Close Charm City’s race track and the community, already in bad straits, suffers mightily.

A new Preakness site can never duplicate the warmth and friendliness that exists between Baltimoreans and the nation’s racing community during Preakness week. Ask any trainer of a Preakness entrant and you’ll hear nothing but kudos. Pimlico, despite its physical limitations, is far and away their favorite stop on the Triple Crown circuit.

Preakness guests are received like old friends and acquaintances and get VIP treatment in a relaxing, comforting environment.

If the Preakness moved to Laurel, where would Stronach take racing’s VIPs that week for fabulous, down-home evening functions? Beautiful downtown Laurel? The nearby Holiday Inn?

Move the Preakness and a century-old bond would be broken. The gloss and mystique of the Preakness would disappear. Stronach would be devaluing one of its most valuable commodities.

Legal Barriers

Beside, Stronach can’t move the Preakness or shutter Pimlico without approval of the state racing commission and the Maryland General Assembly. Neither is in a mood to oblige. Not now and in all likelihood not ever.

But Stronach certainly is trying to present a case for such a move.

This year it has put Pimlico on a starvation diet of just nine days of racing. That’s an insult to Baltimore area racing fans and to Baltimore officials. Mayor Catherine Pugh should take note.

There is a glimmer of hope, though.

Thanks in large measure to Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the Maryland Stadium Authority has come forth with a plan for modernizing and saving Pimlico.

It’s a “situational analysis” that paints an exciting future for a rejuvenated race track – if Pimlico’s owners are willing to take a realistic look at the state’s political landscape and accept a two-track solution.

Achievable Solution

This is a much-needed first step. It outlines a $285 million renovation program that is eminently achievable. There are amply ways to pay for this, thanks to the fact that it will have to be done on a multi-year basis.

By way of comparison, Churchill Down, home of the Kentucky Derby, underwent a $121 million renovation starting in 2001; it took nearly four years to complete. More renovations took place at Churchill in 2015 and 2016 (ultra-luxury suites, a fully renovated clubhouse and plans for a $37 million suite tower).

There’s no reason Pimlico’s re-make can’t be done in a similar phased-in way that divides the re-make into chunks with workable price tags over a decade.

Pimlico's Improving Future-2

Any they’re off on Preakness Day at Old Hilltop in Baltimore.

Stronach will have to chip in big-time if it wants Maryland and Baltimore to contribute handsomely, too. A public-private partnership only succeeds if all sides are fully committed financially.

Millions toward a Pimlico renovation could come from the 1 percent of slots revenue that already flows into a race track improvement fund. The $2 million in tax revenue generated each year by the Preakness also could be dedicated toward paying the interest on bonds for the renovations.

And remember how the Ravens’ football stadium was built: With special instant scratch-off lotteries. A similar money-raiser through the lottery agency could be devised for Pimlico’s facelift.

With bond interest rates near historic lows, this is an ideal time to start getting serious about what a beautified Pimlico will look like, the timing of improvements and the financing arrangements.

Racing Revival?

Moving the Preakness is out of the question. From a sports perspective, such a move would be a PR and financial disaster. It would be devastating to Baltimore and a black eye if the state of Maryland allowed such a travesty to take place.

Thoroughbred racing once was the Sport of Kings with huge crowds flocking to the tracks daily. The sport has been in decline in recent decades but there are signs of a rebound.

That rebound is clearly evident in Maryland. Additionally, cutting-edge technology advances such as virtual reality, augmented reality and electronic sports gaming hold immense potential to boost racing’s popularity and profitability.

For all those reasons, it’s time to get serious about making Pimlico a first-rate race course with all the creature comforts fan expect. It would be a big win for the surrounding communities, the city and the state.

Pimlico is an economic resource that holds considerable potential, but only if we take advantage of the opportunity.

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Re-imagining State Center

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 2, 2017–As an early New Year’s gift to Maryland taxpayers, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. delivered the final blow to an outrageously priced scheme to turn over to private investors the 28-acre State Center complex in Baltimore for redevelopment.

Re-imagining State Center

The $1.5 billion State Center plan rejected by the Board of Public Works.

Hogan’s predecessor as governor, Martin O’Malley, had pushed hard  forthe State Center deal in a way that benefited the developers but left the state with unconscionably high rental payments for the next half-century – beginning at $30 million or more per year and escalating by 15 percent every five years.

O’Malley’s proposal also would have threatened the state’s triple-A bond rating by smashing through Maryland’s debt ceiling.

Additionally, the deal hinged on the state constructing for the developers a high-priced underground garage, costing $28.3 million. The money to pay for the 20-year bonds on the garage would come out of the state’s struggling Transportation Trust Fund at roughly $2 million a year.

As an extra kick-in-the-pants, state workers would have to pay to park in the underground garage even though they now get free parking on surface lots at State Center.

It was a boondoggle of immense proportions disguised as a mixed-used redevelopment of State Center to help revive midtown Baltimore.

Public-Private Partnership

The initial plan, worked out by former Gov. Bob Ehrlich in the early 2000s, made sense as a model for smart transit-oriented development. It was the sort of public-private partnership that would benefit Baltimore, the state and the developers – office space, retail, apartments and community amenities centered around two mass-transit lines.

Then came the Great Recession. What had been feasible plans for State Center’s re-birth crumbled. As lingering effects of the recession dragged on, the State Center proposal took on more of a Mission Impossible cast.

When O’Malley revived the concept with new developers and a new set of financing figures, what had been a good deal became more and more suspect.

The legislature started asking questions and looking at the proposal’s details. Analysts for the General Assembly didn’t like what they discovered.

The state was being asked, essentially, to underwrite this massive $1.5 billion project. There would be only one prime tenant in the developer’s lone Phase One building – the state of Maryland, occupying nearly all of the office space.

Even worse, the developers wanted to charge the state unheard of water-view rental rates for a mid-town building in a tenuous neighborhood overlooking other mid-town buildings, a hospital and a public housing project.

Then the underground garage was added to the state’s to-do list by the developers. As the Department of Legislative Services put it, “A significant amount of private investment has been continuously stripped out of the plan.” It was replaced by state taxpayer dollars.

Kopp, Franchot Skeptical

Comptroller Peter Franchot bailed out as a State Center supporter some five years ago, complaining about the exorbitant rents and the fear of losing Maryland’s money-saving triple-A bond rating.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp kept worrying about breaching the state’s borrowing limit by undertaking the capital leasing costs of the State Center project.

Thus, O’Malley no longer had the votes to gain Board of Public Works approval to complete the revised deal with the developers.

When Hogan entered the picture, he tried to work out a fair settlement that would not leave the state holding the bag and the developers reaping all the rewards.

He even turned to mediation with the developers. But the numbers wouldn’t work unless the state contributed heftily to the privately built project.

So Hogan pulled the plug on the State Center arrangement just before Christmas and then sued the developers to leave no doubt the deal has been cancelled.

What Next?

The fate of State Center after the legal finger-pointing ends is an open question.

It would cost in excess of $200 million for the state to replace its office buildings on the site. That’s capital money the state lacks at the moment.

More sensible would be leasing deeply discounted office space for state agencies in nearly empty downtown high-rises while working with the city on a new residential-and-retail plan for the State Center acreage.

Franchot even proposed a pie-in-the-sky idea: a large sports arena for Baltimore at  State Center. Hogan immediately asked the Maryland Stadium Authority to investigate this remote possibility.

It’s unfortunate a prolonged recession cut the economic legs out from under the original State Center development plans.

But it did.

Now it’s time to start all over.

Let’s re-imagine what State Center could become a decade from now: A catalyst for strengthening midtown neighborhoods, creating a new corridor of residences and shops, and givng state workers quality office space for state workers on the current site or at a more affordable location somewhere in Baltimore’s downtown area.

Hogan faced reality and pulled the plug because the deal on the table didn’t work. His next move will be even more important: defining the future uses for this valuable 28-acre property.

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Responsive Legislative Actions

By Barry Rascovar

April 18, 2016 – In chalking up results from the 90-day Maryland General Assembly session that concluded a week ago today, it appears lawmakers have much to crow about.

In at least four areas, they achieved major steps forward that should prove enormously beneficial to Maryland residents.

Re-shaping prison sentences and parole

No bill holds more promise than this one, which had the backing of blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the governor and lawmakers.

The goal is to unclog prisons by placing minor drug offenders in alternative treatment, counseling and training programs instead of sitting unproductively in a jail cell.

Proponents made a big deal of the supposedly enormous savings in the original bill, which is of minor importance compared to providing offenders with constructive ways to turn their lives around while reserving incarceration for society’s truly bad apples.

State senators hesitated to give full support to the advocates’ liberal “get out of jail card” approach, worrying hardened criminals might be getting breaks they don’t deserve and return quickly to a life of street violence.

In the end, they agreed to give it a try, but the issue is certain to return to the State House next year to close unintended loopholes and weaknesses in the bill that won’t appear until the law is fully implemented.

Underwriting a Baltimore renewal program

One of Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.’s worst moments this past session was his failure to present a city revival package to the General Assembly. Given the governor’s no-show on this vital issue, Democratic lawmakers stepped in and fashioned their own combination of aid bills.

It includes state money to upgrade city parks; mentoring for promising middle-school students; a guaranteed, multi-year housing demolition aid package; youth summer jobs, and longer library hours.

It’s a step in the right direction to engage city youth in positive activities and improve life in their communities. But far more needs to be done on the state level to help the city launch an economic revival in distressed, unsafe communities. Whether Hogan views this as an imperative remains a huge question mark.

Enlarging UM’s College Park-Baltimore research ties

No, it’s not a merger between the University of Maryland, College Park and UM’s impressive professional schools university in Baltimore. Instead, the legislation fully opens the doors for collaboration between talented researchers previously separated by insular university system politics.

Equally significant, the bill allocates millions of dollars to identify promising breakthroughs and get them on the commercial development fast track. That translates into jobs and strong economic growth.

The partnership bill also provides an overdue financial boost to two underfunded campuses that have become stars in the state’s higher education constellation – Towson University and UMBC. There’s also research-development money for Morgan State University.

Almost forgotten is the bill’s mandate that Bob Caret, chancellor of the vast UM system, move his office from the College Park area to downtown Baltimore. This holds immense significance. Caret will immediately become a key figure in city business and leadership groups, an advocate for Baltimore and a potent force in leveraging the university system’s brainpower to help reverse Baltimore’s fortunes.

A healthy Baltimore City remains pivotal to Maryland’s well-being. Taking steps to rejuvenate the city puts Maryland government in a stronger position to lure companies – and jobs – to the area, to boost the quality of life for the region’s citizens and to bolster the state’s tax collections in and around Charm City.

Thwarting repeat drunk drivers

It’s about time. From now on, individuals who get caught driving while seriously inebriated will be forced to install ignition interlock devices on their cars. If they ever abuse alcohol again and try to get behind the wheel to drive home, they won’t be able to start the engine.

The bill makes our streets safer and might persuade more abusers to think twice before imbibing alcoholic beverages away from home.

That’s an impressive foursome of major legislation. Missing from this list is any tax reduction – which actually is good news.

Maryland’s economic rebound remains uneven and modest, despite the solid March jobs report. It is wiser to till next January before messing with tax cuts. With luck, Hogan will have a much bigger pot of cash to use for this purpose – a welcome move as he starts gearing up his reelection efforts.

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

 

 

 

Baltimore: Opportunity Knocks

By Barry Rascovar

March 21, 2016 –Nearly a year after violence, arson and widespread looting tore apart impoverished portions of Baltimore there still is no comprehensive, long-term plan for reviving and improving Baltimore from the governor’s office.

Nor is there an all-inclusive recovery plan from the mayor’s office.

Leadership is lacking.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at least has the excuse that she’s stepping down as Baltimore’s leader in December. A detailed, long-range recovery program will have to be devised and implemented by her successor.

Her silence, though, is deafening.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has no such excuse. He’s had a long time to figure out how the state can step in with both feet and assist Baltimore rebound from a devastating blow.

He also had a golden opportunity to lay out his full range of ideas for a Baltimore renaissance in his State of the State Address in January.

It didn’t happen.

Vacant Housing Initiative

To his credit, Hogan announced a large, multi-year plan to demolish and replace blocks and blocks of vacant housing. Yet when his budget was released, not one penny had been allocated for this effort.

Pressed by the legislative black caucus, Hogan included a portion of the demolition funds in a supplemental budget, but not before he generated a good deal of ill will among legislators.

He also agreed to legislative demands to add $12.7 million to help Baltimore schools compensate for declining enrollment.

It was left, though to Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch to cobble together a multi-pronged package of economic and social initiatives to help Baltimore in its hour of need.

Such a move is not ordinarily the province of the Maryland General Assembly. Large bail-out and economic rebound efforts normally come out of the governor’s office.

But since Republican Hogan failed to formulate a Baltimore recovery agenda (other than the vacant housing plan), state legislators stepped into the void.

Legislative Plan

Their $290 million proposal, spread over five years (thus limiting the fiscal impact on the state) helps not only Baltimore but other parts of the state.

  • It offers Baltimore assurance that Hogan’s housing-demolition and replacement plans will be mandatory in future years, not voluntary.
  • It expands existing scholarship programs for disadvantaged kids throughout Maryland.
  • It adds mentoring and other support for middle-school kids in Baltimore and promises them scholarships if they stay out of trouble and get good grades.
  • It adds money to keep city libraries open longer.
  • It allocates funds for after-school and summer programs for children.
  • It provides grants for community groups to develop blighted city areas.
  • It gives Towson University funds to train Baltimore residents as construction workers.
  • And it provides $16.5 million to improve the city’s important system of public parks.

The Miller-Busch package roared through the House last week. The same thing is likely to occur in the Senate.

Hogan hasn’t said much about this important package of bills. His spokesman supported the good intentions of the legislative initiative but worried about the fiscal impact – even though state funding is limited to five years.

Now is the time for the governor to get off the fence and involve himself in shaping a significant Baltimore recovery effort coming from Annapolis.

The legislative package aims at improving depressed neighborhoods. It focuses on giving youngsters better schooling, more positive activities away from school, involving universities and non-profit groups in reviving communities and making Baltimore a more inviting city for those living there.

Time to Act

This is the moment for both Baltimore and the governor to join hands with the legislature in this ambitious undertaking.

With assistance from the governor’s office, objectionable elements of the bills can be modified, new ideas can be added and city officials can come together with the two branches of government in forming a triad of commitments for making Baltimore better.

Hogan brings to the table a businessman’s eye for how to help Baltimore. Even better, he is a businessman with expertise in private-sector land development. He needs to be involved.

Creating the environment for a phoenix-like bounce-back by Baltimore is important for Maryland. The city remains the state’s economic center as well as its regional population, cultural and education center. Tackling the city’s worst problems and overcoming them will pay handsome dividends for the governor in the long run – and for Maryland.

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2015’s ‘Dumb & Dumber Award’

By Barry Rascovar

Before we get too far into the New Year, let’s dispense with the Maryland political maneuver deemed as the low point of 2015: Civil rights advocacy groups waited till the very end of the year to file the worst and most counter-productive legal complaint that’s been filed in a long, long time.

The groups, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, are essentially suing Gov. Larry Hogan administratively for daring to kill the $2.9 billion Red Line rapid rail route through Baltimore. Their reasoning: Hogan made a racially discriminatory decision that harms African Americans in Baltimore City.Red Line logoNot only is the complaint historically inaccurate, it is pointless and damaging to their cause. For this publicity-seeking waste of time and energy, the groups’ complaint richly deserves 2015’s “Dumb and Dumber Award.”

Leap of Logic

Republican Hogan has been heavily criticized for cancelling the Red Line project, but racial bigotry isn’t one of the charges that sticks.

Not only is it a stretch to make that wild accusation, there’s no evidence to back up the charge.

Did Hogan sit in his office plotting the death knell of the Red Line so he could keep African Americans “in their place”? Did he divert most of the Red Line money to rural and suburban highway projects as a discriminatory move against blacks?

The accusation is preposterous on its face.

Protesters even claim the Red Line was a vital piece of the state’s plan to remedy racial disparities, and that rejecting the Red Line was part of an historic pattern of racially imbedded transportation decisions by state governors.

Pure hogwash.

Red Line History

Never once in all the years I have reported and commented on the Red Line project have I heard such a distorted argument.

Never once did the Democratic O’Malley administration or the Republican Ehrlich administration make the argument that they wanted to proceed with the Red Line because of its civil rights implications.

Never once did the Hogan administration even hint at a racial motive for stopping the Red Line in its tracks.

The civil rights groups are far, far off-base.

Yes, cancelling the Red Line, and the $900 million in federal funds, ranks as the most boneheaded decision of the century (so far) in Maryland.

Yes, it will harm African Americans in Baltimore – but also whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

But Hogan’s move was largely a political decision. Racial discrimination didn’t enter into the discussion.

Not Worth the Cost

He did it because he’s a rigidly conservative Republican who hates big government spending projects that primarily benefit Democratic strongholds. He didn’t feel this controversial construction undertaking was worth the huge outlay of state funds.

He wrongly called the Red Line a “boondoggle” because in his mind any oversized project that won’t help his voter base in rural and suburban Maryland isn’t a priority.

He called the Red Line “unaffordable” even though it clearly could have been downsized and revamped to make it more cost-efficient and make it fit into the state’s long-term transportation budget.

Nixing the Red Line was decided by Hogan long before he took office.

He promised during the 2014 campaign to kill the Red Line. Race had nothing to do with it; conservative ideology had everything to do with his decision.

The civil rights groups also make the argument Maryland has a long history of racially discriminatory transportation and housing decisions.

Excuse me, but how did housing get into this argument over building the Red Line?

Not in My Neighborhood

There’s no doubt housing discrimination was at play in the Baltimore region over the past 100 years. My former colleague at The Baltimore Sun, Antero Pietila, brilliantly presents the case against the federal, state and city governments for their racially biased housing policies in his book, “Not in My Neighborhood.”

But the issue here is transportation, not housing.

Where did the civil rights groups get the idea that building Baltimore’s Central Light-Rail Line and the region’s Metro Line were purposely designed to discriminate against blacks?

That’s buncombe. It rewrites history to fit the groups’ distorted, conspiratorial world view.

Marvin Mandel built the Red Line not to serve white Marylanders but because there was a right-of-way available from the old Western Maryland Railroad that ran through Northwest Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

Today, Baltimore’s first mass-transit rail line well serves areas that are both black and white, as well as Hispanic.  Even the line’s county stations serve a very large and growing African American community.

Key Right-of-Way

William Donald Schaefer built the Central Light-Rail Line because there was an abandoned right-of-way available — the former Northern Central Railroad route. It was a cost-and-efficiency engineering decision. The goal, then as now, was to make public transportation to jobs, stores and entertainment easier for EVERYONE – especially those living in Baltimore City.

Neither Mandel nor Schaefer posed as George Wallace seeking to deny blacks better public transportation. Quite the opposite. Race was never a factor in their decisions to build those routes, plain and simple. It did not enter into discussions.

There’s no question Baltimore lacks quality public transportation. There’s no question the city and the state should have done a better job anticipating the need for a comprehensive, coherent and connected mass-transit system that gets low-income adults to job sites.

It’s been a huge failure by state and local officials.

You can blame it on politics, both in Annapolis and in Washington. But you cannot blame Baltimore’s sorry transportation situation on racial discrimination.

Civil rights groups are wasting time and money on this canard. There are important civil rights issues confronting Baltimore at this time, but not the Red Line’s demise.

Fait accompli

The civil rights groups’ complaint to Washington bureaucrats contains another huge leap of illogic: It’s too late to undo what’s been done.

Hogan killed the Red Line. It’s a fait accompli. The federal government is redistributing that $900 million to other cities that weren’t stupid enough to turn their backs on such a huge federal gift.

You can’t revise history to satisfy your wishes. The Red Line money from Washington is gone. A civil rights complaint, even if upheld, won’t make that money reappear.

Besides, who’s to say the Red Line would have solved Baltimore’s discrimination woes? Since when did these civil rights groups become experts in the most advantageous public transportation modes for Baltimore residents of color?

How do they view Hogan’s decision to spend $135 million on improving Baltimore’s sub-par bus system? That’s a whopping amount of money for such an undertaking that will primarily benefit the city’s lower-income workers and residents.

Is that part of the discrimination conspiracy, too?

What a distraction.

These civil rights groups should be ashamed. Demonizing Larry Hogan for unfounded civil rights affronts is a terrible mistake that politicizes the legitimate work of those groups. It polarizes the situation and needlessly antagonizes the one person who holds the purse strings for future transportation projects.

The complaint hurts, rather that helps, Baltimore City in its appeals to Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get.

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Void in Baltimore

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 14, 2015 — Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s retirement announcement last week turns next April’s election into a free-for-all among a group of imperfect, little-known or inexperienced candidates.

Void in Baltimore

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

It reveals the reality of Baltimore’s sorry class of politicians. There are no lions in this crowd, no movers-and-shakers.

Few have much elective experience. Few possess proven management skills to run a complex, $2 billion organization.

So far, no one in the list of putative or announced candidates has shown the sort of leadership charisma Baltimore sorely needs.

Rawlings-Blake will be remembered more positively by historians than she is today. Her once bright political future lies in shambles, the result of a series of poor decisions and her laid-back demeanor during April’s civil unrest.

Burned Out

She’s not the first Baltimore mayor to lose her appetite for Baltimore’s top elective office following days of destructive rioting, looting and arson.

Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, from an illustrious political family, gave up a bright future after one term as mayor. He was burned out emotionally and physically by the strains of the 1968 conflagration after the assassination of Martin Luther King — and the massive effort required to restore order, rebuild and convince citizens that Baltimore had a bright future.

It was left to William Donald Schaefer to take on that monumental task, which he did brilliantly.

Rawlings-Blake was too cerebral (much like former Mayor Kurt Schmoke) and too deliberative to deal effectively with a terrible crime wave and civil unrest that required quick, firm decisions and public assertiveness.

She botched one key element of her job, public safety, by forcing into retirement a popular and successful police commissioner (Fred Bealefeld), replacing him with a West Coast outsider who never hit it off with the community or rank-and-file, and then turning Anthony Batts into a scapegoat following her administration’s botched handling of disorder in West Baltimore.

She trusted only a handful of intimates with policy decisions, blocking the kind of broad networking and communications good CEOs need.

She exhibited a coolness and unapproachability for a job requiring just the opposite. Her calm, dispassionate demeanor came across as uncaring. She never struck the right chord with Baltimore’s citizens or with the business community.

She lacked outward warmth, humor and emotion — three essential elements for successful leadership.

Keen Eye for Budgets

Nevertheless, she was an excellent fiscal steward for Baltimore. Much like her father, Rawlings-Blake knows how to dissect a budget and take steps to get government’s financial house in order.

She negotiated a long-term deal with the state to embark on a $1 billion, long-overdue school-building and renovation program. She sharply lowered teen pregnancies and recruited a highly regarded health officer.

She had the guts to implement pension reforms that threatened to bankrupt the city. She cut property taxes. She halved the city’s structural deficit.

Rawlings-Blake made the right choice in declaring she will not run for reelection. Restoring Baltimore’s equilibrium between now and the time she leaves office late in 2016 won’t be easy, especially with more unrest looming if the results of police jury trials displease local hotheads.

America’s Curse

Concentrating on getting reelected instead of the nitty-gritty of governing would have been irresponsible.

It is one of the curses of America’s electoral system that incumbents are asked to do the impossible — govern and campaign simultaneously. You can do one or the other well, but not both.

Rawlings-Blake now can focus her undivided attention on the needs of Baltimore as it tries to pick up the shattered pieces of progress after April’s disturbances.

It was a logical and thoughtful move that placed her personal political desires on the shelf.  The mayor deserves applause: The city will have a full-time mayor for the next 15 months.

Baltimore is the winner.

Who’s Next?

But who will succeed Rawlings-Blake? So far, the list of candidates and potential candidates is depressingly unimpressive.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon has the management experience to run the city in a highly effective manner. She is dogged, though, by her theft conviction of gift cards for the poor and homeless. Still, she is one of the few people in the race who has run citywide, has a broad-based organization and name recognition.

Carl Stokes is a seasoned city councilman who has run for mayor before, but his too-obvious ambition may turn off voters.

Cathy Pugh is a shy state senator and former councilwoman who has done solid work in Annapolis but lacks an appealing, outgoing personality.

Nick Mosby is only in his freshman term as a councilman and is married to the most polarizing figure in Baltimore.

There’s not a bona fide lion in the bunch.

Baltimore used to have plenty of political heavyweights but these days the list has dwindled. Barbara Mikulski is retiring. Martin O’Malley is quixotically running for president. Elijah Cummings is ensconced as a powerful voice for African Americans on Capitol Hill. Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman, hasn’t shown any previous interest in becoming mayor.

Uphill Challenge

Perhaps someone will emerge with strong backing from the legal or business community, much as Schmoke did when he came out of nowhere to defeat an incumbent state’s attorney.

Perhaps Mfume will look seriously at running for mayor this time.

The next mayor faces a daunting challenge. Baltimore is a poor city with huge, unmet needs. It is the last refuge for the region’s underclass — the homeless, the unemployed, the dispossessed. Much of the city’s former middle class now lives in the suburbs. A conservative governor in Annapolis shows little desire to make Baltimore’s needs his priority.

It’s a bleak picture. Whichever candidate voters select had better be up to this Herculean task.

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Hogan’s Holt Problem

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 24, 2015–Maryland Housing Secretary Ken Holt may be a nice guy, a financial expert, a former member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County, a cattle rancher and a breeder of thoroughbred race horses, but he has turned himself into a giant liability for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Holt’s stunningly ignorant claim made at the Maryland Association of Counties gathering in Ocean City — that some low-income mothers poison their children with lead weights to get free housing — was so far afield from reality that both Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford disassociated themselves from his assertions.

Hogan's Holt Problem

MD Housing Secretary Ken Holt

The governor then had choice words for Holt in private about his “unfortunate and inappropriate statement” — but is keeping him on as housing secretary.

Holt’s comments were far more than “unfortunate and inappropriate.”

They had no basis in fact and showed an abysmal understanding of Maryland’s lead paint law — an area that Holt’s department deals with.

Lacking Evidence

Even worse, it turns out Holt has no evidence to back up his claim that low-income moms intentionally poison their kids to receive free, long-term government housing. It was an anecdotal story, he said, that came from a housing developer.

Holt told the MACO attendees that he wanted to submit legislation to ease the legal burden on landlords if their rental properties contain lead paint that harms children.

That proposal is now DOA — dead on arrival.

Indeed, Holt’s credibility with Democratic legislators has been destroyed by his hideous comments and intentions. Easing landlords’ liability for lead-paint poisoning on their rental units is a terrible idea.

Who’s responsible for not taking steps to encapsulate or remove the lead paint in these rental units? Holt’s proposal would turn those who are poisoned, and their parents, into the culprits while freeing landlords from their clear responsibility.

It’s idiotic and gives the appearance Holt is pandering to the whims and desires of landlords.

Reductions in Lead Poisoning

Over the past 20 years, Maryland’s lead-paint laws have led to a steep, dramatic drop in  poisoning cases, from 14,546 in 1993 to just 371 cases in 2013.

Hogan's Holt Problem

Flaking lead paint can poison children.

The law is working and the children living in low-income rental housing are being protected. Why in the world would Holt move to weaken this law without even researching the topic?

It raises major questions about Holt’s fitness for the cabinet-level post. He had no low-income housing expertise when he took the job. It shows.

What an embarrassment for Hogan and his administration. Is this the sort of pro-business “reform” the governor has in mind?

Holt’s blunder pretty much closes the door on legislative changes coming from his department. Indeed, it puts a bull’s eye on just about anything Hogan proposes in the next legislative session that would weaken existing laws designed to protect the public.

Bad Timing

The timing of Holt’s indiscretion doesn’t help, either. It looks more and more like the Hogan administration is hostile to Baltimore City and its minority citizens.

The vast majority of lead-paint poisoning cases are in Baltimore, and nearly all the victims are African Americans.

Hogan also refused to allocate $11 million in sorely needed school funds to Baltimore City, where the vast majority of underperforming students are African Americans.

Then he killed the $3 billion Red Line rapid-rail project designed to help Baltimore’s inner city residents reach job centers and greatly improve their transportation options. The vast majority of citizens who would have benefited from the Red Line are black.

Just to rub it in, Hogan snubbed city officials in announcing the closing of Baltimore’s detention center. He didn’t even give the mayor the courtesy of a phone call before his announcement, which was highlighted by his harsh and gratuitous condemnation of his predecessor, Martin O’Malley.

Anti-City?

The Holt fiasco adds to the impression Hogan’s administration is anti-city and anti-black. At the least, it gives weight to the notion that the governor and his staff are insensitive and uncaring — and not well informed — when it comes to urban problems.

The best thing Holt could do to help the governor is make a quiet exit from state government later this year.

He’s become Enemy No. 1 to a large number of Democratic legislators. Everything he says or does from now on will be put under a microscope. He’s dragging the governor down.

Hogan, meanwhile, has yet to take any major step that shows he understands the state has a significant role to play in uplifting and improving life and economic opportunity in Baltimore.

Fortunately, it is still early in the governor’s tenure.

The situation in Maryland’s only urban center cries out for strong leadership and assistance from Annapolis. That is Hogan’s most complex and perplexing challenge, one he has yet to confront.

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Hogan Column — Readers Respond

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 5, 2015 — It’s clear I hit a nerve with my Aug. 3 column on Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and what I perceived as a new, sharply condemnatory tone in his statements.

If you are on my blog, politicalmaryland.com, you can read the printable responses sent to the website — 14 of them — in the right-hand column under the heading “Recent Comments.”

Gov. Larry Hogan

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. shows off his new look for reporters.

Here are other reactions that I’ve received:

Kevin wrote: “I was very sad and disappointed in the tone of your column about Governor Hogan.

In a follow-up missive, he elaborated: “As the son of a high school graduate and a high school dropout, your comment, ‘most with limited education’ is mean-spirited and what are your facts behind this quote? People can have limited education and have decency and intelligence. Does it make you feel good to belittle individuals and groups?”

Jeffrey wrote: “I used to always agree with you, but perhaps not as much in recent years. . . However, I APPLAUD you for the outstanding journalism vis a vis Gov. Hogan.  Many of us have diseases or injuries but don’t use that as an excuse for anything.  There is no reason to treat the Governor any differently just because he has cancer. I am glad you continue to be hard-hitting, honest and objective.  You are a credit to your profession. Personally, I feel that the Governor should resign and take care of himself rather than short-changing the state with his current limited leadership.  (It was quite ‘limited’ even before he was diagnosed!!).  And, yes, he has become mean and nasty and it’s only going to get worse.”

Mike, on the other hand, let Len Lazarick of MarylandReporter.com (which ran the column) know he was outraged: “There was a lot of false information used and it was clearly emotional. . . ‘Uneducated white people’? Really? LOL good luck with that. Welcome to the world of propaganda. Not everyone can handle responsibility.”

A tweeter wrote: “Closing the Baltimore jail was absolutely the right decision. Hooray for Gov. @LarryHogan

David H. chimed in: “I disagree with your article wholeheartedly. Your way of thinking is what has screwed up Maryland in the first place. People are tired of the media and their ‘opinion.’ I’m glad we cleaned house in Maryland, it was high time. I’m glad BALTIMORE is on Larry Hogan’s agenda. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake  is a worthless dud and has done nothing to support her constituents. Look at the condition of the police department, countless murders every day and the roads, just to name a few.  Not Larry Hogan’s fault.  It’s an absolute mess. The liberal agenda is to blame.  Time to wake up and smell the coffee. Your way doesn’t work. Never has, never will.”

S.B. sent in this: “Mr. Rascovar, I have never heard of you before but after reading the article you so viciously wrote recently regarding our fine governor, I had to respond. Gov. Hogan is the best thing that has ever happened to MD. No doubt you are a Democrat who has enjoyed the one-party rule in our state that we have suffered through forever here in MD. Finally we have a fair-minded governor whose decisions are well thought-out, common sense, non-political, and looking out for the best interest of all Marylanders. For the record, Donald Trump is a joke. . . Larry Hogan is the real deal, sorely needed in this world of such political divisiveness that you obviously relish. Larry Hogan compromises, he reaches out & brings people together. He has in his administration people of other political parties, and, yes, he makes tough calls when needed. A great leader for MD, how refreshing. . . If only we had such a leader in the White House. You should be writing instead about our president; your article actually sounds like him & the way he has ruled our country.

Here’s a response from N.L.: “It would be a miracle if someone were to read your column and see you refer to angry black voters as people with a ‘limited education.’ We all know you do not have the guts.  Of course, according to elitists like you, citizens without advanced degrees are too stupid to be involved in their own government.”

D.R. pounced on the column this way: “First impression from skimming your piece: Look at the pot calling . . . Takes one to know one. Looks like the media double standard again.  I can’t see how Hogan’s purported unilateral dissing of Democrats is much different from O’Malley’s treatment of Republicans.”

John W. wrote: “I am saddened that you made mention of Gov. Hogan’s illness in your attempt to explain his decisions. By any measure, this is way out of bounds. You are better than that and you know it. Someone once said that the last defense to a weak argument is to get personal in criticizing your opponent.”

On that point, R.M. added, “Even for you, the attack on Gov. Hogan was pretty superfluous.”

M.B.. took a different slant: “Yeah. I agree he could have done things better. Could those actions be his response to us acting like the Republicans in Congress? I really hope that he will be more collaborative with Democrats in the General Assembly and with the locally elected officials, otherwise we will be in deep. . . . I live in Howard County and I see the same situation between the county executive and the county council. I am a tried-and-true Democrat and the election of Gov. Hogan in a Democratic state has to tell us something. The question is what?  We can’t do anything until that question is discussed, analyzed and answered.”

Andrew F. takes a broader view of the situation: “I tend to blame both [Martin] O’Malley and [Anthony] Brown. Gov. O’Malley seemed to burn out rather early and he left Mr. Brown high and dry, never letting him share in the spotlight.”

Patricia R. emailed this one: “And so the real Hogan emerges. . . Is anyone really surprised? If the state’s Democrats had actually put forth a decent candidate, rather than assuming that Anthony Brown, who had accomplished nothing during his terms as Lt. Governor, we might have a governor who actually understood government. Now we’ve got Dirty Larry — at least for the next four years.”

Meyer M., meanwhile, resented discussion of Hogan’s health issues: “What ugly comment to refer to his chemotherapy! The New, Nasty Larry Hogan.”

Bob B. sent this message: “I like Hogan’s smoke screen. Let B-more rot. They are just killing their own. Go Hogan for 8 more years!!!!”

T.V. had this response: “I must say I’m not shocked by the disappointment I had when I read your article. You had many good points, and in some of them I agree with you even as a Republican. However, while to a point bringing up his illness might not be taboo and to some point should be discussed, the way you did it (as perceived by me) seems like a childish attack, and quite frankly why I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream or left-leaning medias. I know asking you to change the way you write to show more respect to elected officials will be moot. I will just say the negative overtone I felt makes me not want to agree with anything else you might bring to mass attention whether it is warranted or not. Hopefully this might at the very least cause a brief millisecond of counter-thought before you attack a man’s character rather then his actions.”

J. M. added another perspective: “A big standing ‘O’ for ya for the nasty-Hogan column and follow-up. If there’s anything that makes me livid about current GOP politics (well, there are a LOT of things), it’s how everything is reduced to emotionalism and whether you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ someone. It’s a way of avoiding real policy discourse, which of course they can’t engage in because they have no policy ideas beyond opposing anything Obama, immigrant, urban, female, etc. They latched onto a single line in your column, re: chemo, to avoid actually disputing the entire list of policy decisions you detailed concerning the Red Line, etc. Anyway, glad you struck a nerve, and I just wish there were as organized an on-line commentariat on the other side as there is with the whole Red State set.”

Then there’s this from R. L.:  “Add to the Hogan list not only the abrupt curtailment of a recent, difficult-to-achieve toll increase, which jeopardizes the near-  and long-term maintenance needs for most [toll] facilities, but also virtually eliminates replacement or some other solution to the problems of the Nice Bridge [in Southern Maryland] (for which there would have been major federal funding), but also the abrupt firing of probably the most highly qualified and effective airport administrator in the country — a finalist for [the] Atlanta [airport’s top job] who turned down [offers to run Chicago’s] O’Hare Airport and under whose leadership BWI had its greatest growth phase. Really hard to understand.”

Wiedefeld Firing

I concur on his last point. Sadly, no reporters have delved into the heavy leadership turnover in the state’s Transportation Department and the mysterious firing of Paul Wiedefield at BWI, a true all-star airport and transportation administrator.

Gov. Harry Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland

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

R.L. also raises a valid point that Hogan’s decision to lower tolls will have serious long-term consequences. Critical bridge repair/replacement work on the ancient Harry W. Nice Bridge over the Potomac River and the aging Thomas Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River are badly needed. But now there’s no money to do the job.

All that may be fodder for future columns. For now, it’s good to hear from readers, whatever their points of view.

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Hogan’s Health and Harsh Words

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governor’s Response

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

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

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

Fair enough.

Gangs and the City Jail

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

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

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

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

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

Attacking the Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

Legislative Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The New, Nasty Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

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

Gov. Larry Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

Alienating Democrats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing the Mess 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Agnew?

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

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

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

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