By Barry Rascovar
May 13, 2014 — Forty-five days before Maryland’s primary election (May 11), the Washington Post endorsed in the all-important Democratic race for governor.
Nothing wrong in selecting Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. He’s the clear front-runner.
But for a major newspaper to make its endorsement selection six weeks in advance of an election is stunning — and highly risky.
The final weeks of any campaign can be unpredictable.
Anything Could Happen
What if news surfaces that deeply embarrasses Brown? What if it turns out Brown was more involved in Maryland’s dysfunctional health exchange than he admits? What if a scandal erupts in the O’Malley-Brown administration? What if Brown performs poorly in the June 2 debate?
That early endorsement could look ludicrous.
Does the Post consider the rest of this campaign irrelevant? Apparently.
The newspaper’s editorialists seem to regard Maryland with an arrogance and disdain that insult its Free State readers.
When the Post endorsed for Virginia governor last year, it did so 23 days before the election, not 45.
That Virginia endorsement, running 1,008 words, gave a detailed analysis of the two candidates. The Post’s superficial endorsement for Maryland governor ran just 467 words.
Rather than place its Maryland endorsement prominently at the top of the page, as the Post routinely does for elections in Virginia and the District of Columbia, this one was positioned as the last of three editorials — almost an afterthought.
The editors didn’t even bother spelling out the word “Maryland” in the headline, though they had oodles of extra space.
When the Post endorsed for D.C. mayor earlier this year, its editorialists produced a carefully reasoned, 1,082-word analysis. Clearly, the writers took great care crafting it — which clearly wasn’t the case with the Maryland governor’s endorsement.
I helped produce editorial pages for the Baltimore Sun for 20-plus years as deputy editorial page editor under the legendary Joe Sterne. I understand the pressures that come with newspaper endorsements.
But the Post’s effort last Sunday was inexcusable in its timing. Anything can happen over the next six weeks.
Sadly, the editors based their endorsement on a scant one-hour televised debate that contained more fluff than meat.
The editorial’s vapid reasoning was a marvel of shaky logic. It brought guffaws from two dozen readers who wrote critical email responses — all of them mocking the Post’s sloppy arguments.
Anthony Brown indeed may be “the best of three Democratic candidates,” but the Post made some laughably weak assertions:
- He’s “a mainstay of the Democratic establishment and a paragon of the status quo.”
That’s a two-edged sword, as the Post went on to illustrate in mentioning Brown’s role in the miserably managed health exchange rollout. Does this mean the Post is endorsing the status quo in Maryland?
- He is part of an administration that has a number of “substantive accomplishments.”
A point well taken.
- Brown “strikes us as a conscientious public servant with broad experience.”
True, but what has he actually accomplished in all those years? That’s the crucial element the Post needed to address.
- Brown may not have “offered a soaring vision” but “he has also not overpromised.”
Is that the Post’s way of supporting an “O’Malley Lite” administration for Maryland?
- Brown has “the right approach” to help Maryland “compete with Virginia for jobs,” which would “foster a business climate more conducive to employment growth.” He “strikes us as the best candidate and the one most likely to improve what Democratic leaders concede is the state’s anemic track record in attracting and retaining jobs and employers.”
Those last editorial points are the most baffling. According to the Post endorsement, “the focus of Mr. Brown’s campaign” is a more positive business climate.
You could have fooled me.
Brown and Economic Growth
Brown’s statements, campaign ads and campaign documents don’t emphasize economic development but rather improving life for Maryland families, especially in education.
Is the Post’s candidate improving Maryland’s business climate by calling a plan to lower the state’s heavy corporate tax rate “a $1.4 billion corporate giveaway”?
Maryland’s corporate tax is 37 percent higher than Virginia’s. That’s a huge economic disincentive. No wonder Virginia cleans Maryland’s clock.
Brown’s jobs plan involves increased support for a smattering of business development programs. It will cost an average of $28 million annually for four years. That’s a skimpy investment. It won’t make Maryland more appealing than Virginia.
Paying for New Programs
The Post editorial blasts Attorney General Doug Gansler for lacking “a convincing plan” to pay for his corporate tax cut. Yet Brown’s payment method for his jobs plan is equally lacking.
Brown wants to offset his jobs program costs through tax receipts from construction of the Purple and Red light rail lines. Those are phantom numbers.
First, little new tax money will be generated by light-rail construction in the early years of Brown’s administration. Delays are inevitable. The heavy work is at least two or three years away.
Second, revenue forecasts based on economic “multiplier” calculations rarely prove accurate.
Third, Brown’s revenue source dries up when construction stops. At that point, he’s left with a big revenue hole.
Fourth, essential federal aid may not come through. The Surfacing Transportation Act expires Oct. 1. Republicans and Democrats are light years apart on what to do. Gridlock could mean major cuts in transit aid.
That could doom or delay Maryland’s projects, thus erasing Brown’s revenue for his jobs program.
None of this is mentioned in the Post endorsement. Don’t let facts get in the way of a hastily crafted editorial.
There are plenty of solid reasons for a newspaper to support Anthony Brown. Unfortunately, you won’t find many of them in the Post editorial.
The Post’s Predicament
Now the newspaper’s editorialists have to hope Brown doesn’t screw up before June 24.
Instead of critiquing campaign developments with a critical, impartial eye, the newspaper’s editorials must defend Brown if scandal erupts, or refute charges against him. The Post becomes Brown’s defender and advocate.
It’s a wound one of the nation’s best newspapers inflicted on itself by endorsing prematurely.
Holding off until later in the campaign would have given Post editorialists better insight into Brown.
It would have made for a stronger, more thoughtful endorsement.
The newspaper could have produced for readers a more complete picture of the governor’s race.
That opportunity now has been forfeited.
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