Tag Archives: Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Is Anthony Brown an ‘Empty Suit’?

By Barry Rascovar

April 28, 2014 — LET’S GET THIS out of the way up front: The answer to the headlined question is “no.” Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown didn’t graduate cum laude from Harvard and later from Harvard Law without having substantial intellectual chops.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Yet that inelegant question – does Brown have what it takes to be governor? – could become a defining issue as Maryland’s aimless gubernatorial campaign enters the stage where voters start paying attention.

Attorney General Doug Gansler keeps fumbling the rhetorical ball whenever he tries to raise the subject of Brown’s readiness to run the state of Maryland. He must be onto something, though. because the Brown camp is ultra-sensitive to charges of “empty suit-ism.”

Not that his handlers will allow Brown to escape from his self-imposed cocoon to rebut Gansler’s charges. They let surrogates and campaign officials go on the counter-attack instead.

Front-runner tactics 

Brown is following the Rose Garden strategy favored by front-runners, appearing at events where his handlers can control the candidate’s every move and keep him on script.

After all, Brown is very good at reading a scripted speech. It’s when unscripted, detailed questions start flying that Brown hastily looks for the exit.

Gansler sought to stir things up by questioning the notion that Brown’s year in Iraq as a military lawyer qualifies him to be governor.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

He was trying to point out that being chauffeured in an armored caravan to Iraqi government buildings to educate Iraqi officials on American jurisprudence isn’t the same as taking on the Taliban in gun fights. Counseling Iraqi officials does not teach you much about running the state of Maryland.

But Gansler stepped in deep doo-doo when he blurted out that this wasn’t “a real job” – as though service in the military doesn’t count.

Counter-attacking Gansler

Brown and his veterans supporters pounced on Gansler for that faux pas. Why he’s insulted the military! He’s a loose cannon! He’s out of control!

That’s a great way to divert attention from the central point Gansler was trying to make – Brown’s good-sounding resume gets a bit thin when examined in detail.

His decades of military service are not only admirable but courageous. He’s led men on missions. He’s got lots of service ribbons.

Col. Anthony Brown

Col. Anthony Brown, USAR

But his year in Iraq, while a difficult personal sacrifice, was quite secondary and far from the battles waged by Gen. David Petraeus that made an American exit possible.

Brown’s service as lieutenant governor also looks better at a glance than it does under a microscope.

That’s not as much his fault as a quirk of the office.

No Fun Being No. 2

Nearly every lieutenant governor winds up outside the governor’s inner circle. He’s not included when key questions are decided. He isn’t given substantial duties to run parts of government.

So Maryland’s elected No. 2 spends his time touring the state, giving speeches that mimic what the governor has already said. The lieutenant governor isn’t an executive decision-maker. He’s just there in case the governor drops dead.

No wonder Brown’s predecessors – all seven of them – failed to become governor. It’s a jinxed office. As comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “I can’t get no respect.”

So Brown, despite being the early front-runner, has his work cut out.

Questions for Brown

Can he handle ad lib queries from reporters on a wide array of topics?

Can he show where he has been an effective policymaker?

Can he rebut charges that he botched oversight of the state’s much-maligned health care exchange rollout?

The spotlight is turning toward Anthony Brown, who must persuade voters he has not only the resume but more importantly the substantive accomplishments and breadth of knowledge that merit election as governor.

We’re eight weeks from the June 24 primary that almost definitely will determine Maryland’s next governor. At this point, the job is Brown’s to win – or lose.

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The Political Isolation of Garrett County MD

By Barry Rascovar

April 21, 2014–There is nowhere in Maryland more isolated and cut off from the rest of the state than Garrett County.

Distance (200 miles uphill from Baltimore) and the Alleghany Mountains present formidable barriers for the hardy souls who inhabit the state’s western-most county.

Garrett County-map of state                                                       Isolated Garrett County (in red)

It is a large, forested county with prime tourist attractions in the summer (Deep Creek Lake) and winter (Wisp ski resort).

But its tiny population, not surprisingly, is shrinking. Help from Annapolis has been modest at best.

Only Pittsburgh TV News

Here’s how bad the situation is for Garrett residents: They are considered part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan census area rather than the Cumberland census tract. The only news they get from cable TV is from Pittsburgh.

They see plenty of TV ads about Pennsylvania’s heated race for governor but not a peep about Maryland’s coming elections.

Only the recent intervention of the internet had allowed Garrett citizens to keep in touch with news from Baltimore and Annapolis on a timely basis.

Adding to the county’s isolation is a political reality: Garrett is overwhelmingly Republican. Democrats are outnumbered 2-1. The mountain politics practiced there are decidedly conservative and at odds with the ruling liberal Democratic majority in the megalopolis far to the east.

Speaking “Out West”

I ventured “out west” this past week to address the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Due to a late-arriving bout of laryngitis, those packed into a conference room at Wisp had to listen to my croaking, cracking voice. Their patience and tolerance were impressive.

Democratic (and Republican) voters in this county of 30,000 souls will be casting their ballots with scant information about the statewide candidates. No Democratic candidate for attorney general or governor is going to devote limited resources and time to educate Garrett voters.

So these mountain voters are pretty much on their own learning about the candidates. Of the three Democrats running for governor, only Attorney General Doug Gansler seems to offer a ray of political moderation. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown knows little about the county and will continue the beneign neglect policy followed by the O’Malley administration toward this small, conservative, Republican county.

On the Republican side, neither Harford County Executive David Craig nor businessman Larry Hogan Jr. of Anne Arundel County are targeting Garrett as a priority. How voters gather data for an informed election-day decision is a bit baffling.

Garrett County

Despite its isolation from the rest of the state, Garrett has much to teach those living on the other side of the Eastern Continental Divide.

Only in conservative Garrett have elected officials taken the lead in making sure their children receive a college education.

Every Garrett high school graduate knows the county will pick up the cost (after grants and scholarships have been applied) to guarantee college study or training at Garrett’s community college.

Garrett College Offerings

That small institution, with a main campus and three outreach centers, has developed a reputation for its programs in “Adventure Sports;” natural resources and wildlife technology, and business and information technology.

This is an aggressive, pro-active plan other Maryland counties should emulate. Government ensures full tuition payment for any Garrett high school graduate. In Maryland, that’s revolutionary.

Garrett’s leaders are providing their youth with skill sets needed to man tomorrow’s plants and offices. Government is playing a pivotal role in developing a local workforce that makes economic development appealing.

Garrett County map

That may not fit the mold of a “conservative” government, but it is a practical, real-life recognition that government is there to help people, not erect barriers to their success.

That same mind-set is evident in the kinds of individuals Garrett sends to Annapolis. Yes, these are conservative thinkers. Yes, they are rock-ribbed Republicans. But Garrett’s mountain life adds a bit of cooperative pragmatism to the mix.

Both Del. Wendell Beitzel and Sen. George Edwards are hard-core conservatives. They also are realists. They understand they are vastly outnumbered by Democrats and that taking rigidly ideological positions in total opposition to the Democratic majority will get them nowhere.

They are willing to collaborate and compromise on many issues. They understand their county’s many needs. They also understand that Annapolis works best when delegates and senators try to bridge the political gap through dialogue and finding common cause.

Collaboration Pays Off

Edwards and Beitzel work with Democrats. It pays off in small ways that mean much back home. In the most recent legislative session, Garrett took home an extra $464,000 for its schools, which suffer unfairly from a state aid formula that penalizes counties with shrinking school populations.

That’s a victory for common sense and the two legislators’ ability to show their colleagues that a real need exists for extra school assistance.

On other issues, Garrett’s politicians are simply outnumbered. Garrett is the one county that could benefit substantially from shale-oil hydraulic fracturing. But the O’Malley administration seems ready to impose the toughest “fracking” regulations in the country. That may be overkill.

The net result will be to scare off drilling companies, which already have flooded into Pennsylvania and Ohio. Garrett’s natural resources will be left untapped and its landowners will be denied an economic benefit that could give the county a much-needed economic boost.

Where’s O’Malley?

The O’Malley administration’s hostility toward fracking and other business development programs that involve environmental issues has left Garrett in a precarious position. Its economic issues aren’t being addressed by the governor.

There is scant attention paid to finding ways to reunite Garrett citizens with the rest of Maryland. Garrett’s economic needs just aren’t high on O’Malley’s priority list.

Maybe things will change with a new administration in Annapolis. But don’t count on it.

What Garrett could use is another William Donald Schaefer in the governor’s mansion, a chief executive who identifies with the state’s most isolated and needy jurisdictions and who comes into office with a “do it now” attitude.

Sadly, politicians like Schaefer don’t come along often. Then again, perhaps the next governor will seize the moment to show that he understands the importance of lending more of a helping hand to Maryland’s western-most county.

Barry Rascovar can be reached through his blog-site, www.politicalmaryland.com, or at brascovar@hotmail.com.

Caution in Annapolis While Leaning Left

By Barry Rascovar

March 14, 2014–IT WAS A disappointment to liberal opinionators but the 2014 General Assembly proved surprisingly cautious and balanced in moving Maryland decidedly to the political left during its 90-day session that ended April 7.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, barely containing his national ambitions, took a hard-left turn in his legislative agenda. It was aimed at impressing liberal Democratic interest groups across the country.

But House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller wisely slowed the O’Malley Express and made sure Maryland didn’t get too far out in front of the Democrats’ march to the far left.

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Time and again, leaders in the House and Senate put a damper on overly ambitious liberal proposals. Here are a few examples:

–Minimum Wage. Yes, O’Malley is bragging that Maryland is leading the nation by passing a $10.10 minimum wage. But read the fine print.

The first wage boost next January is only seventy-five cents an hour. It won’t be till mid-2018 – over five years from now – when Maryland reaches O’Malley’s Nirvana, that $10.10 threshold.

This cautious approach is dictated by legitimate concerns that a rapid, 39 percent wage boost will hurt many small businesses and retail chains and could lead to layoffs, store closings or cutbacks in work hours.

Weakening the Bill

The final bill also exempts certain employers, adds a lower, trainee category, contains no automatic annual inflation boost and denies higher wages to tipped workers.

O’Malley can brag all he wants, yet the final version is a far cry from his original proposal. The new law does provide higher baseline wages for low-income workers, but it takes a decidedly conservative approach getting there.

Pit Bull Legislation

–Dog Bites. Yes, lawmakers finally found comity on reversing a dreadfully misguided ruling by the state’s Court of Appeals that called one breed of dog, pit bulls (though they are not really a breed) “inherently dangerous.”

Pit-bull owners aren’t off the hook, though. Lawmakers added language making all dog owners legally responsible if their pet bites someone. That thoughtful, moderate step levels the field and strikes a blow for individual responsibility when good dogs do bad things.

Puff-and-Pay

–Decriminalizing marijuana possession. This move is being hailed as the first step toward fully legalizing marijuana. In truth, lawmakers aren’t opening the floodgates.Marijuana smoker

A $100 fine for a first offense is a hefty price to pay for getting caught with pot. A $250 fine for a second offense will put a crimp in most wallets, and a $500 fine for a third offense comes with possible mandatory drug counseling.

That’s quite a penalty for inhaling this carcinogenic weed.

Perhaps the bill will reduce jail overcrowding in large jurisdictions, as some predict, and allow police to focus on serious criminal offenses. Or it could mean a deluge of new pothead offenders. We’re in virgin territory that could well require a re-thinking of this move by the 2015 or 2016 legislature.

Medicinal Pot Smoking

–Medical marijuana. This law could make it easier for seriously ill patients to get relief from their pain, anxiety and/or nausea. Academic medical centers refused to participate in the existing program for fear of endangering their massive federal research grants, so now legislative sponsors are trying a different approach through pre-approved physicians.

Still, drawing up the rules and regulations will be complicated and could take quite some time to complete — at least 18 months. Lawmakers continue their go-slow approach.

Creating a market for marijuana growers could easily spin out of control. Some physicians may abuse the privilege of prescribing this controlled substance. The law may have to be revised yet again in future years to make it effective.

Early Start to Schooling

–Pre-K expansion. Yes, Maryland is enlarging its program to give pre-kindergarten education to underprivileged children. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is crowing about this grand achievement.

But wait a minute: Only 1,600 kids will be helped under this legislation. That’s a drop in a very large ocean.

At that pace, Brown will be eligible for Social Security before all the needy kids in Maryland get into this worthwhile program. His claims of a great step forward ring hollow.

Easing the ‘Death Tax’

–Estate tax reduction. O’Malley could still veto this bill to impress ultra-liberal groups that idolize candidates who bash the rich. Keeping this punitive tax on the wealthy would appease the left wing of his party.

Still, there’s no denying wealthy Marylanders are moving to Florida and other states that don’t punish the heirs of an individual who happens to leave relatives great sums of money.

Both Miller and Busch recognized Maryland was losing many of its best and most committed civic leaders as result of this soak-the-rich policy.

House Speaker Mike Busch

House Speaker Mike Busch

They pushed through changes that will make the state’s estate tax identical to federal limits – but only gradually over the next five years.

It’s a nod to the business community from top lawmakers based on practical realities. It’s also a pullback from O’Malley’s perpetual, liberal business-bashing.

All of these measures indicate that the state’s legislature remains stubbornly moderate in tone, fearful of moving too quickly or too aggressively on social issues. Rarely do Maryland’s legislative leaders fully embrace the knee-jerk crusade du jour. They keep worrying about the unintended, negative consequences.

Cooler heads prevailed in Annapolis this session. Though the legislature is increasingly dominated by liberal Democrats, it’s a positive sign that caution remains an integral part of the Maryland General Assembly’s DNA.

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Stonewalling MD Health Exchange Probe

By Barry Rascovar

April 7, 2014 – The Maryland General Assembly concludes its 2014 session Monday in good shape – except for one monumental omission: the mystery surrounding Maryland’s fatally flawed health exchange, which has squandered uncounted tens of millions of dollars.

It’s now clear both Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown are content to stonewall and impede any detailed investigation of what went wrong in setting up the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange until well after the June 24 primary election.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley

Is there a cover-up going on?

Judge for yourself.

On Thursday, the state’s legislative auditor told lawmakers he had been thwarted in his attempt to conduct a meaningful review of the health exchange.

Because the exchange’s leaders only gave state auditors what was available to the public, “We don’t have the complete story,” said the chief auditor, Thomas Barnickel III. “There’s a lot we don’t know.”

Heavily Redacted

The documents auditors received were heavily redacted — a sure sign things are being hidden from view.

It’s also not in line with accepted auditing practices of state government agencies.

But when the governor and lieutenant governor want to make sure no one gets to the bottom of this historic debacle any time soon, the administration knows how to obfuscate.

No Sign of Rebecca Pearce

For instance, the exchange gave auditors 600 emails to or from Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein — the administration’s spokesman on this issue — but nary a single email involving Rebecca Pearce, who ran the troubled exchange until December.

Could such an astounding omission have been accidental?

The redactions were so numerous in the 14,500 documents that auditors couldn’t determine if the controversial contract awards were done legally or appropriately.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Auditors also couldn’t figure out how the exchange went about selecting the vendor who screwed up the exchange’s computer program — Noridian of North
Dakota — or how in the world the exchange opted to buy off-the-shelf software — as opposed to customized software — from IBM.

This software proved incapable of doing the job.

Auditors did learn from documents there was confusion within the exchange over points of contact, meeting schedules, lack of a program manager and even a lack of details about the project plan.

They made one definitive finding: The exchange conducted no performance testing whatsoever.

Is it any wonder this lemon of a software program crashed on Day One and has yet to fully recover?

Limited Document Release 

Exchange leaders also saw to it auditors didn’t get enough information to figure out who made those horrendously poor decisions, who was really in charge and who should be held to account for this debacle.

Democratic leaders in the legislature aren’t in any hurry, either, to pin some of the blame on Brown because that would hurt his campaign for governor.

So no one was indignant when it became clear last Thursday at a hearing in Annapolis that the legislature’s own auditors had been stonewalled.

Earlier in the week,  O’Malley and Brown laid out their own line of attack: We’re not at fault because it’s the evil contractors who messed up.

And who, exactly, hired those contractors? Aren’t those the ones who ought to be fingered?

What was Brown’s role as co-chair of the exchange’s oversight committee?

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Didn’t he have to approve those contracts? Or was he only a figurehead?

It’s clear now the prime contractor never should have been chosen in the first place. Is that the contractor’s fault or the O’Malley-Brown administration’s?

What genius decided to launch the state’s most complex and expensive IT project with off-the-shelf software?

Is it IBM’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration decided to take the cheaper route  and ended up with a turkey that was never designed for the tasks assigned it by the exchange?

Bait-and-Switch Tactic

Is it Noridian’s fault the O’Malley-Brown administration pulled a bait-and-switch?

Exchange leaders signed a fixed-price contract with Noridian that included 261 requirements for the software program — and then later added 227 new requirements, changed 28 of the original requirements and dropped 73 of the mandates Noridian had bid on.

O’Malley seems content to blame IBM for what went wrong. Yes, IBM made the off-the-shelf software, but it was never tailored for the complicated interfaces envisioned by the IT gurus in Maryland government. Yet IBM is now the governor’s fall guy.

Now IBM is pushing back. The computer giant says it went the extra mile to fit a round peg into a square hole, but it couldn’t “overcome the state’s failure to properly manage the implementation of the exchange.”

We may never know if that’s true because O’Malley won’t launch an impartial investigation. Indeed, he’s not launching any investigation into how potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars were wasted.

This is the guy who wants to run for president?

Permanent Stain?

What an unmitigated calamity. No authority figure in Maryland state government wants to get to the bottom of this disgrace. No public group is pressing for action, either.

We’re left with an appalling mess.

The lack of accountability, transparency and responsibility — if not remedied — will become a permanent stain on the record of O’Malley and Brown. History will not remember this episode kindly.

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Obamacare Accountability — Oregon, not MD, Got It Right

By Barry Rascovar

March 31, 2014–Today’s the deadline for folks in Maryland to start the application process for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. If you miss this deadline, you face a tax penalty next year.

The good news is that tens of thousands of people have health insurance who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — obtain it before.

The bad news is that Maryland’s health exchange has been an unmitigated disaster — a painfully small number of people actually applied and paid their initial insurance bill.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Those responsible for this stupendously costly debacle aren’t going to be held accountable.

Those at the top of Maryland’s political food chain still stonewall this issue hoping it fades from public view.

State legislators have ordered a slow-motion assessment of the damage by their own analysts. It’s doubtful this will be a detailed, CSI-style examination of what went wrong.

By the time the report surfaces in mid-summer it will be too late: The decision on what comes next — most likely connecting Maryland to Connecticut’s software system — will be made (as early as this afternoon).

And by the time that legislative report appears, the June 24 primary will have come and gone — and with it any danger Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s gubernatorial campaign might be fatally damaged by the findings.

It’s also possible any legislative report will be sanitized by House and Senate leaders so as not to embarrass Brown (by then he could be planning his inaugural) and Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has national aspirations.

What a shocking lack of accountability to the public.

The Oregon Way

It stands in stark contrast to the way another liberal, Democratic state, Oregon, handled its own Obamacare calamity.

Oregon, like Maryland, has a two-term Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber. It has Democratic majorities in both houses of its Legislative Assembly.

But unlike Maryland, Oregon has a strong second party. Republicans hold 26 of 60 House seats and 14 of 30 Senate seats.

With such a potent countervailing force, it’s no wonder Governor Kitzhaber wasted little time launching an independent probe of his state’s dysfunctional health exchange, known as Cover Oregon.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

Its Oracle-based software crashed so badly on Day One that all applications were done by hand. Yet Oregon still signed up more people for health insurance than Maryland.

What the independent review in Oregon found is likely to be mirrored in Maryland — if there’s ever a similar third-party critique.

Among the Oregon findings:

–“There was no single point of authority on the project.”

–The governance structure “was not effective.”

–There were “competing priorities and conflicts between [state] agencies.”

–Cover Oregon failed to hire a prime contractor or a system integrator.

–The governor and others were repeatedly warned by Cover Oregon’s quality assurance firm, Maximus, that the project was seriously off-track. These warnings started years ago and were ignored.

–In 2011, Maximus wrote that the state was acting as its own prime contractor and thus was assuming “more of the overall project risk.” How true.

–There was no Plan B as required by federal law — but there was a backup plan in case the lights went out.

–Cover Oregon picked off-the-shelf software; Oracle claimed it required only 5 percent customization. The actual number was 40 percent.

–The selected software “was not stable” and to this day “more items are breaking than are being repaired.”

–Top state officials “did not understand or acknowledge the significance of the website issues” until it was too late.

–There was a lack of “a consistent, cohesive enterprise approach to management of the project.”

–There was “no authoritative direction.”

–There was “Ineffective and at times contentious” communications and a “lack of transparency.”

Cover Oregon

The Oregon report is highly critical of the Executive Steering Committee leading the project — similar to Maryland’s oversight panel co-chaired by Brown and Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein:

–“Oversight authority was inconsistent and at times confusing or misinterpreted.” This led to “unclear or incorrect understanding about the true state of the project approaching the Oct. 1, 2013 deadline.”

–The steering group lacked “formal meeting notes and decision tracking and documentation.”

–Perhaps worst of all, the Oregon project did not have “a single enterprise decision-tracking tool to document and manage decisions across entities.”

When Kitzhaber received the damning 77-page report in March, he cleaned house.

He fired the state’s top health official — a longtime friend and ally — who had been running the exchange since January. The chief operating officer and chief information officer of Cover Oregon also got the heave-ho. (The exchange’s original leader had been forced out in December.)

The Maryland Way

Don’t expect such drastic action in Maryland. It doesn’t fit the image O’Malley and Brown want to project going forward. Accountability is giving way to practical political considerations.

Still, the Oregon autopsy rings many familiar bells in Maryland. What happened in Oregon seems to have happened here.

Here’s what a forensic analysis of Maryland’s failed healthcare sign-up effort is likely to show:

*O’Malley and Brown created the exchange as an independent agency unshackled from the state’s formal procurement process. Support services and the normal chain of command within state government were lacking.

*Brown and Sharfstein never gave the project the intense oversight and strong, authoritative leadership it needed.

*They hired the wrong contractor — a minor-league player in the world of healthcare IT — who then quarreled bitterly with the sub-contractor it hired to do the IT project’s heavy lifting.

*No one was riding herd on the contractor.

*The state’s IT gurus picked off-the-shelf software to save money and time, software that never had been used in this way.

*There was no back-up plan in case Plan A failed (as it did).

Quality assurance and system integration were lacking. There was no general manager and no effective tracking system.

*There was no exhaustive trial period built into the schedule. 

*There was a lack of clear and honest communication up and down the line. Transparency continues to be a problem.

What Citizens Deserve

That pretty much sums up what went wrong in Maryland — even without an impartial investigation by outside experts.

But it is worth considering whether Maryland citizens deserve the same type of no-holds barred forensic autopsy Oregon conducted into its health insurance debacle.

In a lopsided one-party state like Maryland, that may prove far too embarrassing for those in power to let it happen.

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Voters must choose governor’s image

Barry Rascovar For the Community Times

March 19, 2014 — Have you seen the first batch of TV ads in the race for Maryland governor?

They are introductory commercials but tell us quite a bit about Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Brown is the early front-runner. He’s got the full weight of the O’Malley administration and much of the Democratic establishment behind him.

Anthony Brown

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Gansler, although he’s been the state’s top legal officer for seven-plus years, is running as the outsider, the candidate who — in the words of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “can’t get no respect” from Democratic powers that be.

Atty. Gen. Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

He started his TV campaign on March 6, which spurred Brown into action the next day.

They take different approaches, which are reflective of the candidates’ styles and strategies.

Gansler’s Direct Approach

Gansler’s ad is casual, personal and direct. He’s dressed in a red polo shirt, looking right into the camera and speaking to viewers at home.

His tone is soft and relaxed.

As he mentions the legal battles he’s won, pictures flash on the screen showing the kinds of individuals he’s helped:

Brianna (a $4.6 billion settlement against polluters), Karen (a $1.6 billion mortgage relief settlement), Myra and her kids (bringing “the beltway snipers to justice” while Montgomery County state’s attorney and fighting child pornography), Eric and Mitchell (fighting for marriage equality in court) and for “thousands of Baltimore kids” (starting an inner city lacrosse league).

“That’s who I am” Gansler says directly to viewers, “I take on tough fights and get thing done. . .”

The ad is meant to convey the impression that Gansler is a doer, not a talker, and that he has fought uphill battles on behalf of John and Jane Q. Citizen and delivered quantifiable results.

Brown’s Indirect Approach

Brown’s ad conveys a different impression. He is stiffer and more formal in appearance and in his speaking. He’s also talking to someone off-camera, not directly to TV viewers.

The words sound strikingly similar to lines he has delivered thousands of times before at campaign appearances describing his parents, his upbringing, his commitment to public service and his military service.

Brown lets viewers know his father was a Jamaican physician who “served others all his life.” That example, a narrator says, inspired Brown to choose “the military over Wall Street.” He joined the Army Reserve. Nineteen years later, Brown explains, he was called to active duty in Iraq.

“It was my responsibility to serve,” he says in the ad.

What Brown doesn’t talk about is his accomplishments in office, probably because as lieutenant governor he’s not in position to do much on his own.

Choice of Image

The viewer is left with an image of Gansler as a candidate who faces up to tough issues and has something to show for it. The image of Brown is less focused — a man on a mission to serve the public.

Voters can judge for themselves which is the more compelling image. Hopefully, the candidates will fill in most of the blanks before the June 24 primary.

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Redistricting, Minimum Wage & TV Debates

A Weekly Roundup

By Barry Rascovar

March 7 — TODAY’S House of Delegates session will mark the halfway point for a bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage in phases from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017 — nearly 40 percent.

Recent minimum wage protest

Recent minimum wage protest

Without question, the O’Malley administration’s bill will pass. The votes are there. But it’s not exactly the bill Gov. Martin O’Malley presented in January.

There’s no automatic inflation clause. Amusement park workers are exempted (largely to accommodate Six Flags in chairman Dereck Davis’ Prince George’s County). Implementation is delayed six months to ease the transition for businesses.

Senate Action Next

Most of the changes are sensible, but more may be coming in the Senate, where there is a little more skepticism about the advisability of such a major increase in business expenses during the weakest economic recovery in memory.

Rural counties in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore may need special attention. Living expenses are a lot less there. A 40-percent hike in wages for many small, rural businesses might prove counter-productive. Ocean City’s minimum-wage summer help is primarily college students, not adults raising a family.

Too Much in a Weak Recovery?

The bill’s three-year phase-in may be too aggressive during this exceptionally mild recovery. It might be wise to adopt a more gradual rise.

But one way or another, an increase in Maryland’s minimum wage is coming — and is necessary.

It’s now a matter of how willing lawmakers are to heed warnings by business that O’Malley’s original bill  could have unintended consequences.

+++++

ON THE OTHER END of the economic spectrum, Senate and House leaders (but not O’Malley) are pushing a bill to lower Maryland’s estate tax. This is overdue.

Wealthy Marylanders are switching their residences to avoid this state tax. Some of Maryland’s most respected business leaders are among them. The tax makes no sense, especially when surrounding states are benefiting.

A gradual return to the days when Maryland’s estate tax matched the federal levy seemed likely to pass until revised estimates on Thursday showed a new quarter-billion-dollar hole in O’Malley’s budget. That may force lawmakers to delay implementation of the phase-in.

O’Malley has not been part of the estate-tax movement. It doesn’t fit into his presidential playbook.

Instead, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch are leading the charge. They’ve finally recognized the need to start reforming parts of Maryland’s unbalanced tax laws. They’ve figures out that chasing wealthy Marylanders out of the state is a terrible strategy.

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A SIDELIGHT of the minimum wage debate this week was an attempt by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur to go beyond O’Malley’s bill and raise the standard to $11.37 an hour by 2023.

Del. Heather Mizeur

Del. Heather Mizeur

Mizeur’s amendment bombed.

She got just eight votes, including her own.

That indicates the narrowness of Mizeur’s ultra-liberal appeal, even in a liberal General Assembly. It does not bode well for her statewide campaign.

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A HANDFUL of bills in the General Assembly seek to reform Maryland’s politicized redistricting process. They aren’t going anywhere.

That’s too bad, because turning redistricting over exclusively to those in power has gotten out of hand.

The current maps are undemocratic and a disservice to voters. Maryland’s congressional maps, for instance, are appalling. No effort is made to create compact districts or keep communities together.

MD's gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Gerrymandered 3rd Congressional District

Yet until the Supreme Court and the Maryland Court of Appeals change their tunes on redistricting, legislative reforms are meaningless.

The highest federal court has washed its hands of redistricting, claiming it is purely a political matter. So much for ensuring fairness and sane congressional districts.

Interference By Appeals Court

The state’s highest court, meanwhile, has become too deeply involved in redistricting, imposing archaic thinking in drawing legislative boundaries.

As a result, cross-jurisdictional districts that follow neighborhood growth patterns are virtually forbidden. Rigid adherence to county and city lines trumps everything, even when citizens pay no heed to those boundaries in their daily lives.

What a mess. Redistricting, as currently practiced, is giving representative democracy a bad name.

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TELEVISED DEBATES in the race for governor have been set. All three of them.

Don’t expect much.

The candidates will be well rehearsed, especially the front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who needs careful scripting.

Televised Political Debates

Don’t expect one of these in MD’s 2014 TV debates.

But the real laugher will be the lone televised debate among lieutenant governor candidates.

These hopefuls aren’t elected on their own: They are the conjoined twins of gubernatorial candidates. So on TV, they will mimic positions taken by their far-more important running mates.

No Assigned Duties

That’s because their own views don’t count.

Under the state’s constitution, the lieutenant governor has no designated powers. He (or she) is there in case the governor drops dead or comes down with a disabling disease.

So if you happen to miss the scintillating debate among wannabe lieutenant governors, don’t fret.

Tuning in would be a waste of your time.

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MD’s Obamacare Fiasco Continues

By Barry Rascovar

March 3, 2014 – HOW HIGH will it go? How much more will it cost the O’Malley-Brown administration to fix or totally replace the dysfunctional online health insurance system that it bragged about until it crashed on Day One?

It already is the most costly debacle in state history.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

None of the state’s options are appetizing.  Meanwhile, the problems keep mounting, the latest being $30 million in extra taxpayer expenses due to the computer software’s inability to identify recipients no longer eligible for free Medicaid insurance.

Just fixing this deeply flawed software will cost untold tens of millions of dollars. Moving to a new, proven software system used in another state could send new spending into the stratosphere. Converting to the federal system has heavy costs as well as severe limitations and the potential for more breakdowns.

Frantic Scramble

“It seems like we’re shooting in the dark,” said an exasperated Del. Addie Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican at a hearing last week. She’s right.

State officials have been frantically scrambling ever since the administration’s highly touted online system froze and refused to work as promised on Oct. 1.

Officials are still grasping for straws, hoping the new prime contractor can make lemonade out of this lemon of an IT jalopy.

As for the next step once insurance enrollment closes on March 31, it’s another shot in the dark. Whatever the choice, it will be very expensive.

But will it work? There’s no guarantee that it will.

What a mess.

Loss of Federal Funds

Complicating matters is the looming end of federal largesse. Come 2015, the state is supposed to foot the entire bill for its health insurance exchange.

Maryland has expended $182 million in federal funds with little to show for it.  How much the state will be on the hook after Jan. 1 is another unknown, but we do know it will no longer by Martin O’Malley’s problem.

Gov. Martin O'Malley

Gov. Martin O’Malley on the air

What a distasteful present he’s leaving on his successor’s desk.

It’s baffling that no one running the legislator or the administration is insisting on an immediate and thorough investigation of this historic screw-up. This won’t be viewed favorably by future historians.

Not only is accountability lacking but the O’Malley-Brown administration is running away from this question as fast as it can.

Where’s Anthony Brown?

Note that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the widely promoted point man on healthcare reform, continues to be missing in action. Yet he owes the Maryland public a full and frank explanation of his central role in this debacle.

How this affects Brown’s candidacy for governor remains of pivotal importance.

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Lt. Gov. Brown testifies on healthcare bill

Does his “deer caught in headlights” performance disqualify him from serious consideration?

Is this the type of evasiveness on vital issues we can expect from him if he’s elected governor?

Do we want a governor who takes cover when controversies rage and lets underlings take the heat for him?

As Desi Arnaz famously said to Lucy, Brown has got “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

More Sinkholes Ahead?

Meanwhile, legislative committees continue to treat this disgraceful public embarrassment with kid gloves. History will not look kindly on their performance, either.

Digging out of this enormous sinkhole hasn’t been easy. The road ahead looks susceptible to similar perils.

What’s lacking is responsible, accountable leadership. That could become a dominant bone of contention as the June 24 primary approaches.

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Read other columns by Barry Rascovar at www.politicalmaryland.com

Cooking MD’s Obamacare Books?

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 25, 2014 — UNBELIEVABLE. Maryland’s healthcare exchange debacle has entered the realm of the absurd.

On Friday, the exchange announced it had signed up a mere 3,000 subscribers for private insurance over the past week, bringing the total to a pathetic 33,000. The initial private insurance goal: 150,000.

MD Healthcare Connection

MD Healthcare Connection

Yet on Sunday we learned the exchange had magically surpassed its six-month goals — thanks to a too-convenient mistake by a economic research consulting group connected to a state  university.

Instead of an overall sign-up goal of 260,000 (Medicaid plus private insurance), the number was slashed to 160,000.

How handy: So far 190,000 people have signed up, thanks to 90,000 recipients who were previously on Medicaid and were shifted automatically to the new program.

What a bizarre way to declare victory!

More Bad News

We also learned on Sunday all work on a $19 million small business healthcare exchange ground to a halt three weeks ago, dismaying private insurers.

On Monday, the exchange belatedly announced it had fired — finally — the online sign-up system’s prime contractor at a closed-door meeting Sunday night.

The contractor, Noridian Healthcare Solutions of North Dakota (yes, North Dakota), already has been paid $67 million for producing a deeply flawed computer contraption (1,538 identified “defects” so far) that crashed on Day One. The hits keep coming.

O’Malley’s Response

To give Gov. Martin O’Malley his due, he had Health Secretary Josh Sharfstein tell a legislative committee on Monday the administration will not use those conveniently revised numbers but instead would stick with the original figures that actually were two-year, not one-year, goals.

Good for him.

But where was Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the designated point man on healthcare reform? The campaigning candidate once again wasn’t around to answer the hard questions from lawmakers.

And once again there was no indication anyone in the administration wants to launch a thorough investigation to pinpoint accountability for this historic screw-up any time soon.

Not only is it likely the state wasted at least $200 million in taxpayer dollars, but thousands of citizens in need of health insurance were denied that opportunity due to government incompetence — or worse.

It’s the biggest fiasco in recent Maryland history, yet no one in elective or appointed office seems to care enough to take action to find out who’s act fault until after the June 24 primary election.

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What MD’s Early Polls Tell Us

‘Undecided’ Wins in a Romp

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 21, 2014 — PREDICTING the outcome of Maryland’s primary races for governor based on polls four months in advance of the election is a little like wagering today on the outcome of May’s Kentucky Derby. The odds are strong you’ll get it wrong.

Early political polls are highly inaccurate. That’s clear from past Maryland gubernatorial elections for open seats. Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III easily outdistanced his rivals early in 1978, according to the polls. Lee lost.

Blair Lee III

Blair Lee III

Twenty-four years later, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a prohibitive early poll favorite to succeed Gov. Parris Glendening. It never happened.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

 Name Recognition Counts

Early poll results depend on a candidate’s name recognition more than anything else. Since neither Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown nor Attorney General Doug Gansler has had high media visibility over the past seven years, it’s not surprising the winner of both the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun early polls is Undecided.

On the Republican side, the big winner once again is Undecided at 68 percent.

The same holds true for attorney general. Still, name recognition counts. State Sen. Brian Frosh, state Del. Aisha Braveboy and state Del. Bill Frick aren’t household names by a longshot. Neither is state Del. Jon Cardin — but his uncle, Ben, the United States senator, is.

That explains Jon Cardin’s preeminence in recent polling, though Undecided wins that race in a romp with 69 percent.

When Voters Pay Attention

In truth, these campaigns won’t begin in earnest till the General Assembly goes home in early April. At the moment, few people are paying attention.

Brown continues to promote a sense of inevitability. He’s got all the establishment endorsements, especially the governor’s. So why not just crown him as the next governor?

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown

Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown

Gansler keeps trying to make up for a terrible start last summer (remember “beachgate”?), but any time he says something sensible the Brown camp hysterically denounces it as a hideous crime against humanity.

Attorney General Doug Gansler

Attorney General Doug Gansler

You can’t place much confidence in early polls. Still, Brown is obviously ahead in the first part of this race — despite growing criticism about his lack of leadership in the disastrous Obamacare sign-up program in Maryland.

The X Factor in June

What will people care about in late June when the primaries take place? That could prove pivotal. Are they content with the direction of Maryland under Gov. Martin O’Malley? Or do they want a different look and feel to state government?

Neither candidate is proposing a dramatically new path. Brown and Gansler are liberal Democrats, but the attorney general has displayed greater openness to new ideas regardless of ideology.

Polls won’t decide this election. Turnout and effective advertising will.

The June 24 date for this year’s gubernatorial primary is unheard of in these parts. That’s awfully early. This could lead to abysmally low turnout.

Outstanding Questions

Who does that help? Probably Gansler, since Brown’s strongholds have a history of lower voter participation.

Can Gansler persuade Democrats in rural counties and the Baltimore suburbs to vote heavily for him? If so, he might win. He remains the underdog.

Who will the third candidate in this race, Del. Heather Mizeur, hurt the most? She represents Montgomery County — Gansler country — but she appeals to the most ardent liberal Democrats who otherwise would vote for Brown.

Much is riding on which candidate develops the best marketing plan and produces the best ads. Brown is selling himself as a continuation of the liberal O’Malley years. Gansler is the “change candidate” who must go on the offensive to show that Brown is an empty suit.

Which candidate will capture the public’s imagination? Which candidate will come across as most likeable and knowledgeable in the televised gubernatorial debates?

Art, Not Science

It’s helpful to keep in mind that recent polls only give us a Polaroid snapshot of the governor’s race as of the moment — and nothing more. Many things will change in the coming months. The closer we come to June 24, the more meaningful polls become.

But polling is far from perfect. Pollsters can get it wrong. That’s because accurately gauging public sentiment and voting trends is very much an art and not a science.

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