Tag Archives: election

After Iowa

By Barry Rascovar

After Iowa

Feb. 2, 2016 — ITEM: Now that Martin O’Malley is an ex-presidential candidate, he still has time to file for the Democratic mayoral primary in Baltimore.

Why not? None of the current candidates for mayor is catching fire in the polls, O’Malley loved the job when he had it, and he was a successful mayor. Even the New York Times liked his performance in Baltimore.

And he still lives in a big house in Homeland.

ITEM: Three out of four Iowa Republican caucus-goers voted for someone other than Donald Trump.

Yet you’d never have guessed that listening to the unprecedented media hype given The Donald.

ITEM: Someone ought to remind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio that finishing a third still means you lost to two other candidates.

ITEM: As for retired Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he did worse in Iowa than the 2015 Orioles in the American League East. The Os disappointed fans by barely finishing third. Carson disappointed his supporters by finishing a distant fourth.

ITEM: Carson’s efforts gained him 17,395 votes — about half the size of an Orioles-Yankees crowd at Camden Yards.

ITEM: Is winning the Iowa Republican caucus a jinx?

Is it the bad-luck equivalent of a team pictured on the pre-season cover of Sports Illustrated to win the World Series or Super Bowl?

It sure was for Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012). Et tu, Ted Cruz?

ITEM: When the media proclaims a “record” turnout in Iowa for the caucuses, better take that with a grain of salt. The GOP turnout was under 30 percent and the Democratic total made it just over the 30 percent mark.

ITEM: If you thought O’Malley got wiped out in Iowa (not a single delegate), what about former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore? A grand total of 12 Republicans voted for him in Iowa.

ITEM: Bernie Sanders’ big day is coming!

He came so-o-o close in Iowa, but he should romp in New Hampshire, the Vermont senator’s New England neighbor. He’s leading big-time in nearly every poll over Hillary Clinton.

But then reality starts to sink in. The next two primaries are in Clinton Country — Nevada and South Carolina, states with large minority voting blocs that adore the Clintons. Those states could be momentum shifters.

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Not Picking a President

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 1, 2016 — Here’s the good news for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley: Iowa is not America in miniature. Neither is New Hampshire. Each state has an abysmal record for picking the next president.

Not Picking a President

Former MD Gov. Martin O’Malley campaigning

Getting humiliated in the first two primary states – which seems highly likely for O’Malley starting tonight—may not signal the demise of his 2016 quest. His carefully packaged liberal message is pegged to appeal to the broad Democratic Party base, which is not well represented in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

On the other hand, miracles can happen in these early primaries. Long-odds challengers have emerged victorious more often than not. Indeed, two times out of three, the Iowa winner is usually the underdog. It happens even more often in New Hampshire.

That’s a positive for O’Malley, though he’s so far back in the polls it is difficult to see him emerging out front.

No Bump in Recent Polls

The Des Moines Register-Bloomberg poll on Sunday gave O’Malley 3 percent of the Iowa vote. Other recent polls gave him 5 percent and 7 percent. Meanwhile, O’Malley is polling 2 percent in New Hampshire. In the next primary state, South Carolina, O’Malley also is running at 2 percent.

Even in neighboring Pennsylvania, where the ex-Maryland governor should be better known and respected by Democratic voters, he’s getting just 2 percent in a recent poll.

O’Malley can take modest comfort from a New York Times editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton for the Iowa primary caucus. In the editorial, the Time editors call him “a personable and reasonable liberal.”

Unfortunately, the rest of that sentence indicates how far he has to go to be taken seriously on the national stage. The Times editorial concludes O’Malley “seems more suited for the jobs he has already had – governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore – than for president.”

Translation: Martin O’Malley isn’t even close to being ready for nationwide, prime time politics.

Polls and Endorsements

Newspaper endorsements and polls can be misleading, though.

An editorial-page backing doesn’t carry the weight with voters it once did.

And polls can prove highly deceptive in a caucus state like Iowa.

Voter sentiment in a telephone poll becomes meaningless in Iowa unless the voter is determined enough to attend one of 1,681 precinct caucuses this evening that could last for hours.

In Iowa, it will be candidates with the most hard-core followers who have the best shot at pulling a surprise. Precinct-level organizing is absolutely essential, too. The Iowa event is long, drawn-out and a test on voters’ patience and commitment to a candidate.

That’s why Hillary Clinton may have a decided edge over Bernie Sanders and O’Malley. The depth of Sanders’ enthusiastic support among college-age students and disenchanted Democrats is one of the great unknowns.

GOP Surprise?

Grass-roots organizing and caucus-level attendance could be key on the Republican side, too. That’s where Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas could surprise front-runner billionaire Donald Trump.

The same holds for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose organizational strength and quiet determination to challenge Cruz among Iowa’s large bloc of evangelical Republicans could lead to a larger-than-expected showing.

As for retired Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, his meteoric rise in the polls has been eclipsed by his meteoric fall. His off-point remarks in the last Republican debate in Iowa emphasized how unready he is to live in the White House. Voters in polls seem to sense that, too.

Misleading Indicators

Regardless of the outcome, losing candidates can take solace from the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire are hardly indicators of the eventual outcome.

If those two state primaries were true stepping stones to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the list of presidents by now would include Iowa and New Hampshire winners such as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart, Tom Harkin and Richard Gephardt.

The media has made a BIG DEAL of these two early primary states. Inflating the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire has been great for TV ratings and created a surprise bonanza of advertising dollars.

Yet the truth is that this is deceptive reporting by the media. Television commentators are vastly overstating the role the two states play in the nominating process.

In the larger presidential election picture, Iowa and New Hampshire are minor starting points. We’ve got a long way to go.

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The ‘Trump Effect’ in Baltimore

 By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 16, 2015 – Let’s call it the “Trump Effect” or the “Trump-Carson Effect.” Either way, it’s come to Baltimore.

The 'Trump Effect' in Baltimore

Donald Trump in action

In the campaign for mayor of Charm City – a dubious honor these days – there’s a veritable stampede of unqualified “outsiders” running to become the most powerful elected insider.

They’re betting on the same public discontent that has rocketed an unqualified, mouthy billionaire developer, Donald Trump, and an unqualified retired pediatric neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, to the lead in early Republican presidential polls.

Here’s how Baltimore wannabes have gotten into the mayor’s race:

You leak to the media that you’re thinking of running for mayor, thus garnering flattering press coverage. Then you leak word that you’re going to hold an announcement event, gaining more uncritical attention. Finally, you hold a rah-rah, “yes, I’m running” media event where you promise that you have the key to ending all of Baltimore’s most troubling ills. More positive media spin.

Something is missing from this scenario, which has been followed by an ex-phone company engineer, a government lawyer and a venture capitalist in their mayoral campaign unveilings.

All of them are certain that their lack of strong political credentials makes them ideal for the city’s most powerful political job.

What’s lacking is realism.

No Details

Not one of them – Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry or David Warnock – comes close to describing what their administration would do to miraculously transform Baltimore from an impoverished, crime-infested and crumbling urban center.

Mosby, 36, at least has one term under his belt as a city councilman – time enough to barely get his feet wet in city government. He says he’ll fight for “a better Baltimore,” fight “against poverty, against illiteracy” and bring “world-class education” to town. He’s promising safer streets, less homelessness and an open government.

The big, unanswered question: How?

If it were easy, those things would have happened long ago.

Elizabeth Embry, 36, has white liberal support because of her well-known dad, Abell Foundation President Bob Embry. His daughter lacks elective experience. She does, though, promise to “hustle” and “work hard” as mayor.

Golly. That sounds like a pledge from kids running for class president. Can we have free ice cream on Fridays, too?

Elizabeth Embry proudly asserts she’s “not a politician” – echoes of Trump and Carson. (That attribute sure is going to help when she confronts real-life politicians.)

She says that thanks to her years as a government prosecutor she will “end the killings on our streets,” “dismantle pockets of poverty,” improve transportation and “rationalize taxes” – whatever that means.

Once again, we’re missing an answer to that vital question: How?

Warnock’s Entry

The same thing applies to Warnock’s entry into the race. The 57-year-old venture capitalist and philanthropist says he’ll attract new business and jobs to Baltimore and revive parts of the now-dead Red Line rapid-rail plan.

Pardon the skepticism, but here we go again: How?

Running government is pretty simple when you’re taking uninformed potshots and promising to deliver idealized results without bothering with the specifics.

It’s one thing to pick stocks, run a mutual fund and invest in companies. You’re not dealing with the nitty-gritty of keeping a poor, on-edge, tax-poor city on an even keel.

Once you have to run a $2 billion government with billions of unmet problems staring you in the face, it gets complicated in a hurry – even as people pound on your door demanding immediate results.

None of these candidates, although well-meaning, has a clue about what it takes to sit in the mayor’s chair. Not one has the experiential credentials to handle the next big crisis.

No Qualifications Necessary

But thanks to Trump and Carson, many voters today believe political qualifications aren’t necessary, that they are a detriment. Just make impossible claims of what you will do and, voila, voters line up to cheer.

Baltimore does have a trio of mayor candidates with solid political backgrounds. Yet they could find themselves overshadowed by the political newcomers who have captured the media’s fickle attention.

Sheila Dixon was a first-rate mayor till she appropriated for herself gift cards meant for the poor. She’s been mayor, City Council president and a council member – 22 years in elective office.

Carl Stokes has been in the City Council 22 years, chairs the budget committee, ran for mayor before and knows what should be fixed within city government.

Kathy Pugh has served in both the state legislature and the City Council – 10 years in Annapolis (currently majority leader) and five years on the City Council. She, too, understands what’s not working at City Hall.

Street Politicians

None of the three is a glamour candidate. These are nose-to-the-ground street politicians with decades of experience in helping citizens resolve problems with government.

Yet they could become the Jeb Bush and John Kasich of the mayor’s race – exceptionally well-qualified politicians lacking the social media buzz and new-face-on-the-scene novelty of a Trump or a Carson.

Baltimore is at a crossroads. It is a deeply troubled community with deeply ingrained societal problems. Turning control of City Hall over to a relative neophyte with barely an inkling of how to do the job would be a tragic mistake.

But it could happen. Baltimore would be worse off if it does.

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GOP-style Campaign Entertainment

By Barry Rascovar

October 29, 2015 – Yikes! This is how Republicans are going to pick a presidential nominee?

The Reality TV Circus – also known as the GOP presidential debates – continued in Colorado Wednesday night and it was rip-roaring fun to watch.

Campaign Entertainment

Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado

Not that we learned very much about the candidates’ abilities to lead the nation. Heck, no one got to speak for more than 10 minutes during the two-hour performance.

Even then, what we heard were wise-cracking broadsides, accusations against other contenders, shouting matches, sweeping promises of revolutionary change (with no detail) and denunciations of the media.

The youthful, Republican audience loved it. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. The candidates played to the audience’s prejudices.

What a bizarre scene. Imagine what viewers in other parts of the world thought.

Fantasyland

Give Ohio Gov. John Kasich credit for beginning this comedic romp through Politics, GOP-style by angrily shouting that what other candidates were offering America is “just fantasy, folks. We’ve got to wake up.”

Some of the gibberish espoused by Ben Carson & Co. is “a joke” and “empty promises,” Kasich said. He clearly believes experience in government actually counts, that rank amateurs cannot simply walk into the White House and magically turn everything around.

Those trying to talk common sense were drowned out or given little or no time for detailed explanations. If you’re not a loud, angry and skilled 30-second debater, you don’t stand a chance in this venue. Jeb Bush, an accomplished Florida governor, is the prime example.

The night belonged to the slick and quick-witted. Ted Cruz, a champion college debater and darling of the tea party, shined. Marco Rubio had rehearsed his lines extremely well and delivered them in machine-gun rapidity. Chris Christie, when he could get a word in, showed he will tell it like it is.

Was any of this presidential? Not by a long shot.

Inept Questions

That includes the terribly inept work of the CNBC questioners, who had been primed to stir controversies and high ratings, but instead ended up as targets of hostile responses from the candidates.

Beating up on the press proved popular Wednesday night, so many of the candidates chimed in, drawing loud cheers from the audience.

At times it felt more like a televised, staged wrestling match than a presidential debate.

Serious voters in early primary states must be perplexed.

They’re being asked to vote for a man who wants Mexico to pay to build a 2,000-mile wall on the U.S. border (fat chance), another who wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (do we pay our taxes on the honor system?), another who wants a flat income tax rate that leaves a trillion-dollar deficit, another who wants to eliminate practically the entire federal government, etc., etc.

No Time for Explanations

When are we going to give candidates the time to set forth concrete, detailed explanations of their domestic and foreign policies?

Or are Republicans supposed to vote on the basis of who gives the best one-liners, who comes up with the most outrageously appealing schemes or who can get the loudest audience cheers?

The media insists on turning this presidential campaign into a televised horse race filled with colorful and captivating moments sure to draw high ratings. They don’t want a discussion of issues. That’s too dull. It’s not entertaining.

When it comes time to vote next year, though, that’s not good enough.

American voters need to hear informed, intelligent discussions from the candidates, not insults and shouting matches.

Otherwise, the Republican Party could be heading toward an epic train wreck. That’s not good for democracy, the country and especially for those who care about the GOP.

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Flawed Poll

By Barry Rascovar

October 19, 2015 – True or false: Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore would easily defeat the two most prominent contenders for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski next year.

A Flawed Poll

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore

If you believe the Washington Post poll published last Friday, the answer is “true.”

But don’t believe everything you see in polls, especially polling snapshots that contain serious and disturbingly invalid tabulations.

The Post poll showed Cummings with 33 percent of the vote against Rep. Chris Van Hollen (20 percent) and Rep. Donna Edwards (20 percent), the two declared main contenders for Mikulski’s seat in next April’s Democratic primary.

The results were in line with a private poll commissioned by Cummings last spring.

But if you delve deeper into the poll’s methodology, there is reason to question its reliability.

Only 550 people were surveyed on the Senate question, a small number. Most established polling organizations insist on a sample of 1,000 to 2,000 respondents to get accurate snapshots of voter sentiment.

Poor Decision

Far worse was the decision by the Post and its partner, the University of Maryland, to ask the Senate question to both registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Note to the Post and UM: Registered independents cannot vote in Maryland primaries. So why in the world would you include them in a survey of voter sentiment on the Democratic Senate race?

The Post’s Senate poll results are tainted.

It may be that even when independents are removed from the tabulations, the numbers stay roughly the same – though the sample then might be too small to accurately gauge true Democratic sentiment.

Independent voters represented one-third of the people surveyed by the Post and UM for this extensive poll. That means the number of Democrats who were asked the Senate question might be quite small, perhaps only 350 or so individuals.

There’s also the problem of polling too early in the election cycle.

Governor Brown?

Well-known names always score best when balloting is far, far away.

In prior elections, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Anthony Brown looked like runaway victors in early polls. Both failed miserably on Election Day.

Cummings says he intends to make his decision on a Senate race this fall. He’s consumed right now by his role as chief defender of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against smears from House Republicans over the death of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, three years ago.

He’s also a national spokesman on African-American issues and a prime defender of the Obama administration against determined Republican attacks in the House of Representatives.

It could be a difficult choice for Cummings, whose reelection to his congressional seat is a slam-dunk. The Post’s fatally flawed Senate poll won’t be of much use in making that decision.

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Dems in the Spotlight

By Barry Rascovar

October 15, 2015 – What a contrast between the two recent Republican presidential alley fights and the polite, wonkish policy discussions at the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night in, of all places, a luxurious Las Vegas casino-hotel.

Dems in the Spotlight

Democrats debate (left to right): Chafee, Clinton, O’Malley, Sanders and Webb

Just as Donald Trump seized the spotlight, and kept it, during the raucous GOP debates, Hillary Clinton clearly took center stage and never relinquished her dominance of the five-candidate Democratic field.

There was no doubt who was the most competent and compelling candidate on stage, the only one you could picture sitting in the Oval Office negotiating the fate of the world with Vladimir Putin.

The Others

Wimpy Lincoln Chafee made it embarrassingly clear he would be a lost ball in high grass as president. Jim Webb seemed to have trouble explaining himself. Martin O’Malley (oh, Martin!) too often sounded rehearsed and not-yet-ready for prime time.

Then there was Bernie.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of tiny, rural Vermont, the socialist who turned Democrat at the last minute so he could launch a fervently emotional crusade to rally support for his far-left-of-center utopian ideals.

To Sanders, capitalism belongs in the waste bin of history. Let’s make the U.S. of A. like Denmark!

Similar to Trump, Sanders is capitalizing on public anger over the gridlocked mess in Washington, the dangerously intractable foreign policy quagmires, and the strong dislike people have toward politicians in power. (Sanders may be a U.S. senator but he isn’t allowed to play an influential role.)

Bernie was wonderfully entertaining Tuesday night. He’s a riveting speaker, full of fire and brimstone and loud anger that brought cheers from his fanatical loyalists.

But he was woefully short of proposals that stand any chance of becoming reality. Free college education? Free health care for all? All his ideas would require $19 trillion in new tax revenue. Even Sanders’ relentless demands to tax and prosecute billionaires to the hilt won’t come within a continent of paying for his programs.

Perfect Foil

Sanders is a dreamer and a provocateur. He isn’t going to be president. He’s way too extreme in his notions and way too vague as to how he’d accomplish anything in a Congress that could be controlled by radical Republicans. But his anger and his impossible dreams are perfect foils for the pragmatic front-runner.

Only Clinton stood out as an accomplished presidential candidate who understands the complexities of Washington and recognizes incremental reforms are the only steps that might be possible at the moment.

She came through Tuesday night as someone in command of her facts and her goals — improve life for the middle and lower classes of American society. She is, at this point, the star of a very weak presidential class.

But be aware, we still are over a year away from the general election and over three months from the first primary. It’s a long, long road to the White House and surprises are certain to emerge.

For now, though, the Democratic presidential picture has come into sharp focus. As for the Republicans, we’re still waiting for the three-ring circus to end and real policy discussions to begin.

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Dems Debate — In Brief

[From MarylandReporter.com]

Big Dog Clinton, angry orator Sanders, and O’Malley best of the rest

Dems Debate -- In Brief

Candidates Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Lincoln Chafee (left to right)

By Barry Rascovar

Hillary

October 14, 2015–Throughout last evening’s Democratic presidential debate, the Big Dog in the room was Hillary Clinton.

She started strong and finished strongest, the only one who gave nuanced, pragmatic answers on how to solve vexing, seemingly intractable problems.

She led the charge in denouncing Republicans and the National Rifle Association and made it clear she will fight the hardest for women’s rights.

Bernie

Bernie Sanders wins the blue ribbon for most emotionally compelling rhetoric, though it frequently veered into unreality.

He must have denounced rapacious billionaires a dozen times. He admitted he’s leading a revolution, not presenting proposals that are achievable.

If you want to elect an angry orator, Bernie’s your man.

Martin

As for Martin O’Malley, he was clearly the Best of the Rest. His poll ratings should rise, perhaps even edging into double digits. He achieved his goal after a shaky start with his voice quavering. His defense of his zero-tolerance police policy as Baltimore mayor wasn’t persuasive.

And he made the biggest gaffe of the evening, mistakenly saying that Bashir Assad (rather than Vladimir Putin) had invaded Syria — undermining his credibility on foreign policy.

Still, our man Martin performed well enough to spread the word that he could be an up-and-coming future star of the party.

It would take a major miracle for him to become a real contender this year, but as the late Judge Edgar Silver would remind him, “The best is yet to come.”

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Politics Imitating Art

By Barry Rascovar

October 12, 2015 – What’s happening to American politics? Has it turned into Theater of the Absurd?

Politics Imitating Art

Oscar-winner Peter Finch as “mad” anchor Howard Beale in the movie “Network.”

Donald Trump – a philandering, controversial billionaire developer who relishes slinging insults faster than Don Rickles – leads in Republican polls.

Ben Carson – the world-famous retired Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon who can’t help creating firestorms with his uninformed, politically incorrect comments – is running a close second.

Bernie Sanders – a socialist U.S. senator from tiny Vermont who thinks he can wave a magic wand and re-create America as an ultra-liberal nation – is fast gaining on the Democratic front-runner.

Meanwhile, the sane candidates can’t gain traction. They keep being pulled further and further from the center – where most voters reside.

The Horse Race

That’s the scene in Political America in early fall 2015, more than a year away from the real election.

You wouldn’t know that, though, thanks to the media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism and horse-race journalism featuring a new poll practically every day, distorting the true picture on the ground.

People are tired of the political status quo, the endless promises that never come to pass, the gridlock in Washington, the bitter partisanship, the self-aggrandizement, the failure to handle issues that affect families.

Suddenly, a new breed of pseudo presidential candidates has appeared on the scene, tailor-made for Reality TV.

Central Casting

Their facts-be-damned, messianic messages are straight out of central casting – and straight out of a screenplay that riveted movie viewers almost 40 years ago.

“Network,” written by Paddy Chayefsky, tells the story of an upstart television network on the verge of bankruptcy that, out of desperation, lets its news anchor, Howard Beale, vent his spleen with wild rants on the air to boost ratings.

Imitating Art

The 1976 movie “Network” gained 10 Oscar nominations and won four top awards.

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” says the “mad prophet of the airwaves” repeatedly.

Viewers love it. Ratings soar. The more invective he spews, the more popular Beale becomes.

Sound familiar? It’s precisely the tactic Trump, Carson, Sanders and many others (especially on the Republican side) are employing these days.

They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!

People are fed up with present-day politics and many are reacting emotionally when they hear blunt-speaking candidates promise simple-sounding but extreme steps to solve the nation’s problems.

In “Network,” the public eventually tires of Beale’s rants. Ratings sink, until the entertainment division steps in and turns Beale’s news show into reality-laden extravaganzas. Sort of like the Republican presidential debates on Fox and CNN.

In the movie, the joke’s on viewers. In today’s politics, the joke’s on the voting public.

In “Network,” things spin out of control to the point that Beale is assassinated on the air by a far-left group of radicals – all planned by the TV network to once more bump ratings through the roof.

Will the presidential race spin out of control, too, with terrible, unanticipated results?

In “Network,” the movie ends with the narrator intoning: “This was the story of Howard Beale, the first known instance of a man who was killed because of lousy ratings.”

Will we elect our next president based on who says the most outrageous things, who proves most entertaining and most insulting, who draws the highest ratings for the networks?

Politics is imitating art. Paddy Chayefesky’s Oscar-winning screenplay seemed far-fetched at the time it was produced.

That’s no longer true.

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Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

By Barry Rascovar

October 5, 2015 – Good intentions and wishful thinking will not get advocates of redistricting reform very far. They fail to grasp that the process is 100 percent political. The sweeping changes they seek won’t happen.

Reporters, editors and editorialists are strongly on the side of the reformers. So are political science academics and supporters of “good government.”

None of that matters one iota.

Ever heard of a homeowner relinquishing ownership of half his acreage so his neighbor can construct an obnoxious tennis court and swimming pool that increases the neighbor’s property value but decreases yours?

Ever heard of a politician putting his reelection in grave jeopardy by giving away his most loyal precincts?

Self-protection is a natural human response. Asking someone to place his or her career in harm’s way – especially a politician – is counter-intuitive.

Gerry’s Salamander

From the inception of political parties in this country, redistricting has been ruled by each major party’s burning desire to gain every conceivable advantage to win elections.

Thus in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with a hard G) re-drew state senate districts to help his Democratic-Republican (Jeffersonian) Party. One of Gerry’s distorted Senate districts wrapped around Boston like a salamander.

At least that’s how the Boston Gazette depicted it in a now-famous cartoon, giving birth to the conjoined name, “gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

Famous redistricting cartoon from 1812 turning Gerry’s new state Senate district into a salamander.

The scheme worked, keeping the state Senate in Democratic-Republican hands.

Over 200 years later, little has changed.

Rules laid out by the courts require equally populated districts after each Census and due regard for forming majority-minority districts when feasible. In each state, local courts and laws set out additional mandates for state legislative districts, such as respect for geographic boundaries and communities of interest.

But ever since the early 1800s, one thing has remained constant in the United States: the political imperative of the party in power to tilt redistricted lines heavily in their favor every ten years.

Each Party is Guilty

In Republican-dominated states like Texas, that means grossly distorted political boundaries that throw most elections to Republican candidates. In Democratic Maryland, it means the reverse.

Maryland Democrats used their dominance in Annapolis to re-draw congressional lines in some weird ways after the 2010 Census.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s current congressional districts. Rep. John Sarbanes’ gerrymandered district is the one shown in light green.

Republicans were packed heavily into one district dominated by the Eastern Shore and conservative parts of Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

Meanwhile in sparsely populated Western Maryland, dominant Republicans found themselves outnumbered in a new district that joined them to heavily Democratic and urbanized Montgomery County.

All the other congressional districts were tailor-made to keep Democratic incumbents in office. Not surprisingly, Democrats won seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats (although the margin in the Western Maryland-Montgomery district last time was razor-thin).

The same tactics were used by Democrats in Annapolis in re-drawing General Assembly districts.

Is Reform Possible?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has made a big deal about reforming the redistricting process. What he really wants to do is elect more Republicans and contort future redistricting maps in the GOP’s favor.

He’s got a redistricting commission holding hearings across Maryland, listening to disgruntled citizens and interest groups seeking a more equitable system. They’re also hearing from Republican outsiders who want to get inside the political tent.

The panel’s work is for naught.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly won’t listen to recommendations for an impartial redistricting process. There is no hope of changing their minds.

Hogan understands this reality, but he knows a good political theme when he sees one. He’s happy to campaign for “fair elections” and point to the prime example of horrendous redistricting – the bizarre congressional boundary lines Rep. John Sarbanes helped draw for himself.

Hogan has a winning campaign pitch with no effective push-back from the other side.

Still, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch aren’t about to commit political hari-kari to satisfy Republican Hogan and redistricting reformers.

They hold the high cards in this game of brinkmanship.

What to Do?

There’s no getting around the fact that Maryland’s congressional districts are Exhibit A in what’s wrong with gerrymandering.

That could be overcome if Hogan drops the pretense that he can achieve a redistricting revolution and instead starts dealing realistically with the two Mikes.

Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, why not see if there’s common ground for removing the most flagrant abuses of redistricting?

Why not agree on a panel of six representatives – two pragmatic Republicans and four pragmatic Democrats – with the goal of producing for the governor and legislative leaders new congressional lines that eliminate salamander-like boundaries, that keep districts as compact as possible and that don’t hopscotch all over the state?

The results might be the same – six or seven Democrats and one or two Republicans – because that’s roughly the breakdown of the two party’s voter-registration strength in Maryland.

Yet giving voters compact districts that no longer divide communities three or four ways would help immensely. People might actually know, when asked, who represents them in Congress.

A similar gubernatorial-legislative panel could help the competing parties draw more sensible state legislative district lines.

The idea should be to eliminate the worst aspects of redistricting. That’s doable. Eliminating gerrymandering entirely in Maryland is a non-starter.

2020 Census

In the next redistricting fight after the 2020 Census, Hogan (if he’s still in office) could create headaches for Democrats, especially if Republicans win enough General Assembly seats in 2018 to uphold Hogan’s veto threat.

But Democrats are not going to give away the farm. They won’t sacrifice their built-in advantages.

What we have now is sanctimonious comments from the governor on the need for redistricting reform and support from shiny-bright, good-government supporters and Republican hardliners looking for a way to do in Democrats.

Lots of sound and fury signifying very little.

How nice it would be if Hogan momentarily set aside his political predilections and Miller and Busch did the same. Then they might reach a common-sense compromise that straightens out – somewhat – Maryland’s gerrymandered districts.

That, at least, is a realistic possibility.

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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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