Tag Archives: Maryland politics

Hogan’s Unmistakable Popularity

By Barry Rascovar

October 19, 2015 – Make no mistake: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. is an anomaly in today’s “hate everything” society: He’s a popular public official.

Unmistakable Popularity

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

Hogan tops out at 58 percent approval in a Goucher College poll and gets a 61 percent rating in the Washington Post poll.

Good for him.

He has carefully avoided most hot-button political issues and sought to minimize controversy during his initial year in office.

Sympathy for Hogan

Yet a substantial part of Hogan’s high ratings in a heavily Democratic state stems from his health problems – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Hogan has been transparent and open with Marylanders about his illness and has become a strong advocate for those with cancer.

His obvious courage and heartfelt effort to boost the spirits of his fellow cancer patients naturally won widespread applause from all corners.

At the same time, Hogan’s aides haven’t missed a beat in pulling on voters heartstrings and reminding everyone of Hogan’s arduous and courageous trips through chemotherapy treatment.

That skews the poll results. By how much we will never know.

Honeymoon Phase

Hogan most likely still would have polled well at this early stage in his administration without coming down with such a serious medical condition.

It’s interesting to compare Hogan’s numbers with Bob Ehrlich’s and Martin O’Malley’s at similar points in their administrations.

Ehrlich encountered huge, unexpected problems with the General Assembly in his first year in office yet managed approval ratings almost identical to Hogan’s.

O’Malley, faced with a huge deficit and joblessness caused by the Great Recession, took immediate and unpopular steps to right Maryland’s fiscal ship of state. That partly explains why his first-year approval rating came in at 52 percent.

But Hogan should take note: This pretty much was the high water mark for his predecessors in polls. The first year in office traditionally is viewed by citizens as a honeymoon period for the governor. He really hasn’t done much to stir anger in his initial months in Annapolis.

Hogan has followed that script closely.

Popular Moves

He’s made some moves he knew would be popular with most Marylanders – cutting highway and bridge tolls, killing an expensive subway project, closing a decrepit jail in Baltimore and coming to the aid of the mayor when rioting broke out in Charm City.

No wonder Hogan did so well in these polls.

But by this time next year, thing might be quite different.

Hogan’s team only now is getting a true handle on the inner workings of state agencies so it can cut spending and shrink the bureaucracy. They’re putting together next year’s budget, which could stun Democratic legislators with the size of cuts to some programs that matter deeply to lawmakers.

The governor also is likely to push hard for conservative initiatives, such heavily promoting charter schools, doing away with common core education standards, loosening business and environmental regulations and reducing the scope of some social services for the poor and near-poor.

Any of these steps could become flashpoints for loud, angry opposition – the sort of controversies that hurt a politician’s poll numbers.

So enjoy the high approval marks while you can, governor. The tough part of your job lies ahead.

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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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Redistricting Reform: Mission Impossible?

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 17, 2015 — Reformers want to take partisan politics out of the redistricting equation. So does the governor. That may be Mission Impossible.

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

Maryland’s Current Congressional Districts

On the surface, their goal sounds easy to achieve. Pass a state constitutional amendment empowering an impartial panel of citizens to revise Maryland’s congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years (after the new U.S. Census is taken) so the districts conform to the Supreme Court’s 1962 “one-man, one-vote” edict.

Conservative Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. has joined liberal reformers in this crusade. He’s positioned himself so it looks like those mean Democrats are defiantly standing in the way.

As usual, the situation is far more complicated than the cover story.

Hogan’s Goal

The governor’s motives are hardly pure. He’s looking for political advantage for his outnumbered Republican Party. Stripping control of redistricting from the Democratic controlled General Assembly is his objective.

Right now, thanks to manipulation of redistricting maps by Democratic leaders, seven out of eight Maryland congressmen are Democrats. Hogan thinks a 4-4 split would be more like it.

Yet the current distribution isn’t far off the voter registration numbers.

Had state and national Republican organizations given Sixth District challenger Dan Bongino more financial and organizational support last year (he lost by less than 2,800 votes), the congressional split in Maryland would be 6-2, or 25 percent. That’s almost precisely what the GOP’s registered voter figure is in Maryland today.

So maybe Republicans aren’t so bad off under the current redistricting process after all.

GOP Pickup?

Hogan, though, believes creating more evenly balanced districts would benefit the state GOP, particularly in the General Assembly. He’s placing his bet on a non-partisan revision of legislative district lines in 2021 or 2022.

That premise may not be valid, either.

Republicans currently hold 30 percent of the state Senate seats in Annapolis and 35 percent of the House of Delegates seats. Both figures exceed the party’s statewide voter registration percentages.

Even under Democratic control of the redistricting process, the GOP is doing better than expected.

What skews such comparisons are the large number of unaffiliated voters — 672,000 of them statewide. They are neither Republicans nor Democrats yet they make up 18 percent of registered Maryland voters.

Winning over these independents has been the GOP’s downfall in Maryland. When a Republican candidate reaches out to these middle-roaders, like Hogan did, success is more likely.

How unaffiliated voters will react under impartially drawn redistricting maps is unknown. Nothing may change. Or everything.

Miller’s Response

Hogan knows that Democrats in the legislature will not allow him to win this redistricting fight. Senate President Mike Miller, the savviest politician in Annapolis, has said, quite bluntly, “It won’t happen.”

Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch have nothing to gain from cooperating with the governor.  They understand that Hogan will do whatever it takes to help the Republican Party, with or without a new redistricting commission. They’re not going to help him in that effort.

The best practical outcome would be a pledge by both Hogan and the two Democratic legislative leaders to turn to a group of impartial redistricting experts and citizens for their preliminary re-mapping of Maryland after the 2020 Census.

Such early guidance from non-politicians might dissuade either side from creating the kinds of grotesque districts that now dominate Maryland’s congressional boundaries. It also might lead to more sensible boundary lines for legislative districts that respect communities of interest.

Ever since the Supreme Court removed itself from most redistricting decisions, the two political parties have had a field day throughout the country twisting and turning congressional and legislative districts to their advantage. Each party has sinned mightily.

Gerrymandering is a longtime American tradition, starting with Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812.

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry, Vice President and Mass. governor forever linked to “gerrymandering.”

Trying to remove all political partisanship from this politically sensitive process is wishful thinking.

Still, we can do better than what Maryland has now.

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Hogan: Strike One

By Barry Rascovar

April 14, 2015 — In his stubbornly conservative and highly politicized approach to governing Annapolis over the past week, Republican Larry Hogan Jr. took a step that may seal his fate as a one-term governor.

Hogan: Strike One

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Let’s see: In just a few days Hogan managed to alienate and infuriate state workers, public school teachers and education advocates, disability workers, supporters of medical assistance for poor pregnant women and doctors who treat Medicaid patients.

He also left a trail of non-accomplishments.

Hogan’s refusal to follow-through on a final budget accord and instead turn the issue into a political football left Democratic legislators resentful and itching to show they can play hardball, too.

For someone who entered the governor’s mansion as Mr. Nice Guy cooing bipartisanship, Hogan ended his inaugural legislative session as Mr. Tough Guy defiantly declaring great success for what was clearly a disappointing 90-day performance.

Seeds for a Pushback

His flimsy legislative agenda got shredded. He turned victory on the state budget into an easily avoidable defeat.

He sowed the seeds for a strong Democratic pushback that could make Hogan’s legislative life miserable over the next three years.

The Republican governor’s inexperience showed.

He let hard-line ideologues on his staff get their way. Democrats reacted by tying his hands in future years on making budget cuts to education. They blocked him at nearly every turn.

Teacher layoffs that are sure to follow from Hogan’s budget-cutting actions will haunt him. He has awakened a key element of the Democratic Party’s base. Teachers and public school parents in core Democratic jurisdictions will neither forgive nor forget.

Pay Cut Coming

He also made enemies of 80,000 state workers by cutting their paychecks 2 percent, starting in July.

He still has a chance to spend the money set aside by the legislature for those two groups but that would require political accommodations Hogan doesn’t seem willing to make.

The irony is that Hogan had a golden opportunity to negotiate a budget giving him much of what he wanted without enraging large voting groups.

Indeed, Democratic negotiators thought it was a done deal — until Hogan made intentionally unacceptable demands at the last moment.

The new governor showed his naiveté and lack of insight into Maryland’s complex legislative process. His hard-nosed, conservative roots were showing.

His biggest mistake: Failing to accept the divided nature of governance in Maryland. Election as governor does not entitle Republican Hogan to rule the land in an imperial, “I’m the boss” manner.

Democrats firmly control the General Assembly. They are co-rulers. They make the laws, set policy and sit in judgment on the governor’s budget.

Hogan can’t demand obeisance to his legislative wishes. He can’t insist Democrats support a decidedly Republican agenda. Yet that’s what he tried to do in the final week before Monday’s sine die adjournment.

Budget Progress

Picking up the pieces won’t be easy for the governor.

He did, though, take a major step toward truly balancing the state’s budget. Simply by trimming government spending in the next few years, identifying areas where money can be saved without significantly impacting services and keeping expenditures lower than Maryland’s growth rate, Hogan can tame the state’s structural deficit demon.

But don’t expect savings large enough to support major tax cuts. Even if that were to happen, Democrats in Annapolis would write laws that re-direct this surplus in ways more appealing to their constituents in Maryland’s big, Democratic subdivisions.

Hogan gets the next nine months to operate without legislative interference. He’ll have time to assess his next moves and prepare more carefully for the 2016 General Assembly session.

Will he seek to re-build bridges to Democratic lawmakers on issues of mutual concern?

Or will he continue to take the path of political opportunism that makes governing impossibly difficult in the Maryland State House?

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Madaleno Crosses the Line

By Barry Rascovar

April 2, 2015–If only it had been an April’s Fool joke — but it wasn’t. Instead, a highly regarded Maryland state senator, who happens to be gay, got carried away with his anger over a discriminatory Indiana law and dragged the governor’s wife unwillingly into the conversation.

Sen. Richard Madaleno went too far. He crossed the line. His letter to the governor was hurtful to an innocent bystander.

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

State Sen. Richard Madaleno

Madaleno lost his credibility, and his argument, as soon as he dragooned Gov. Larry Hogan’s wife, Yumi, into his pitch for the governor to ban travel by state officials to Indiana.

Yumi Hogan, Madaleno wrote, could be subjected in Indiana to “public humiliation” under the new law and refused service by a business because she is a divorcee.

Spouses as Fair Game

It’s ludicrous statement. Worse than that, it unfairly makes a spouse fair game in rough-and-tumble political controversies.

How would Madaleno like it if the governor made a disparaging remark about the senator’s gay partner during a heated political debate?

It is unacceptable. Period.

Senate President Mike Miller did the right thing by telling senators “we don’t mention other people’s spouses in any type of correspondence — their spouses or children.”

Senate President Mike Miller

Senate President Mike Miller

Madaleno knows better.

He harmed his cause and his effectiveness in the State House. While his intentions were pure, his recklessness proved counter-productive.

Hogan rejected the senator’s letter as a “stunt.” He didn’t even bother reading beyond the offensive statement about his wife, who was needlessly reminded of a painful chapter in her life.

Rich Madaleno is respected for his fiscal expertise. He plays a major role in the legislature’s all-important budget deliberations.

Hurting Constituents

Now, though, he’s persona non grata on the second floor of the State House. The governor isn’t going to accommodate his requests or give his statements much credence. He’s damaged his ability to help Montgomery County constituents.

The senator is right to protest loudly Indiana’s deeply disturbing and un-American law that sanctions discrimination (especially since more conservative states are following suit).

But in his haste and emotional distress, Madaleno made a mess of his message.

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A Republican MD Senator?

By Barry Rascovar

March 16, 2015 — Did Republican Larry Hogan Jr.’s surprisingly large victory for governor last year blaze the path for a GOP upset in next year’s open seat for the U.S. Senate?

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.

Probably not. Then again, politics is a mercurial business. Given the right circumstances, a longshot scenario might come true.

No Hogan Clones

Here’s the problem: The presumptive GOP candidates aren’t following the winning Hogan formula.

They are very much right of center and outspoken in their conservatism. In liberal Maryland, that’s a distinct turn-off for general election voters.

To understand the state GOP’s dilemma, look at the reasons Hogan won:

  • He stuck to a narrow, economic-driven campaign pitch — high taxes, overreaching government and politics as usual — with virtually no details.
  • He ignored bitterly divisive social issues, much to the discomfort of hard-nosed conservatives, and charted a moderate course.
  • He came across as Maryland’s “Happy Warrior” with a winning smile and demeanor.
  • His opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, ran a dysfunctional campaign and turned off voters with his arrogance and aura of entitlement. His voters stayed home.

It’s no secret that for a Republican to win statewide in Maryland, the Democrats really have to mess up. Did they ever in 2014.

It is entirely plausible Maryland Democrats once more will eat their own and wind up with a far-left candidate who turns off a large chunk of the state’s moderately liberal electorate.

Right-Wing Believers

That would set the stage for a strong Republican Senate challenge, backed by tens of millions of national GOP donor dollars.

But none of the names being floated are likely to resonate with dissatisfied Democratic voters and independents. They are angry, right-wing true believers who denigrate the kind of middle-road, non-ideological, problem-solving Maryland voters tend to favor.

Consider the individuals being mentioned as possible Senate candidates:

Bob Ehrlich. The former governor would win the primary in a cakewalk, but since he left office he’s moved more and more rightward into knee-jerk, pessimistic anti-Obamaism. His four years as governor disappointed Democrats and Republicans, he lost reelection and his attempt to recapture the office in 2010 proved an embarrassing flop, losing by nearly 15 percentage points. Portraying Ehrlich this time as a moderate Republican would be a stretch.

Andy Harris. The First District congressman is as far right ideologically as you can get and still be elected in Maryland. He can come across as arrogant and stridently sure of himself on just about any issue. A former state senator, Harris’ vocal and energetic conservatism might generate a backlash that results in a heavy Democratic turnout on Election Day. He’s far from an ideal statewide candidate in Maryland. Besides, he’s got a lifetime seat in his House district that he’d have to give up.

Dan Bongino. The almost-congressman nearly upset Democratic Rep. John Delaney in a gerrymandered district that includes Western Maryland and portions of Montgomery County. He lost by less than 3,000 votes. Bongino also ran against U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin in 2012 and got clobbered, winning just a quarter of the votes. He’s charismatic and a former Secret Service agent. But he’s all conservative all the time. He’d have little drawing power outside rural and exurban areas.

Michael Steele. The former lieutenant governor and GOP national chairman doesn’t have much to crow about other than espousing traditional conservative Republican themes. He lost badly when he ran for the Senate in 2006, losing to Cardin by 10 percentage points. He has no base beyond traditional GOP precincts and no credibility in Democratic strongholds.

Kendel Ehrlich. The other half of the Ehrlich team, she considered running for judge in Anne Arundel County and is not bashful about expressing her hard-edged conservative views. She’s never held elective office and has few credentials to promote. She’s much farther to the right in her political thinking than her husband.

That’s hardly an exciting list of GOP contenders. Too many retreads or not-ready-for-prime-time players. None of them fits the winning Hogan mold.

Still, the fate of the GOP primary winner may lie more in the hands of Democratic primary voters. Should Dems select another dud like Anthony Brown last year (or Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002), anything would be possible for Maryland Republicans.

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Rating MD’s Senate Contenders

March 9, 2015 — The stampede began almost immediately — just as retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski predicted.

The savvy senior U.S. senator knew her announcement last week would shake up political Maryland and give ambitious younger officials an opportunity to consider entering the race to succeed her next year.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski

Many are mulling the possibilities, but in the end most will choose to remain in their present jobs.

After all, running for Mikulski’s seat is no sure thing. These contenders have to weigh the risks, which are considerable.

Do you give up a prestigious, hard-won seat and gamble your entire career that you can win a difficult, crowded Senate contest?

Can you put together a statewide operation in a little over a year after only running far smaller district campaigns?

Can you raise $5 million or more in the next 12 months when others are likely to hit up the same donors with similar requests?

Can you run a campaign with statewide appeal? That’s no easy feat. Washington-area officials and Baltimore-area officials are looking at this race but none has appeal outside his or her parochial boundaries.

Given those imposing caveats, let’s look at the early list of wannabes.

Most Likely to Run

Chris Van Hollen, Jr. — He’s popular in heavy-voting Montgomery County. He’s been tabbed as a rising star in both the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives. His ambitions always included ascending to the U.S. Senate.

Unlike the others, he’s had phenomenal success raising tens of millions of dollars for Democratic congressional candidates across the country. He will tap those same sources for a Senate race. He starts with $1.7 million already in his campaign account.

Giving up his seat was’t be easy because he’s a member of leadership and a potential future speaker of the House. But he’s crossed the Senate Rubicon.

Van Hollen, 56, is likeable, an excellent speaker and telegenic. He’s a typical Montgomery County liberal, which puts him in the mainstream of today’s left-leaning state Democratic Party. He’s also gained enormous expertise on federal budget issues.

He could be the class of the field.

Donna Edwards — The most liberal of Maryland’s congressional Democrats, she owes her political career to her strong ties to organized labor, which could go the extra mile for her.

She has decided to risk her prominent role in Congress as an outspoken voice for labor, civil rights and women’s issues.

Edward, 56, is not beloved by her colleagues and she is not wildly popular among constituents, who have found her lacking on constituent service. She would rather speak out loudly on national issues she cares about.

If she is the lone African-American in the race and the lone woman, Edwards might squeak through in a crowded Democratic primary. But her far-left liberalism would make it difficult for her to win in a general election if Republicans nominate a moderate Senate candidate.

John Delaney —  He used his self-made multi-millions to finance a successful run for the House in 2012, thanks to a gerrymandered district that favored a Montgomery County Democrat. Yet he barely won reelection last year.

Still, he’s got burning ambition and he considered running for governor last year. Given his shaky performance in last year’s congressional race, Delaney, 51, may figure it is time to move up or out.

He’d have no trouble financing a Senate race but he is unknown in much of the state. His campaign also is likely to be run by the same individual who put together such a dreadful political operation last year for former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Delaney has carved out a moderate, pro-business posture in Congress focusing on his sensible infrastructure-funding bill that has drawn support from both sides of the aisle. That’s not a good campaign sound-bite, though. He may well run (since he’s not a career politician) but he won’t be the favorite in a Democratic primary where a heavy turnout among liberal voters is expected.

John Sarbanes — The son of a popular retired U.S. senator who has been in Congress three terms, he’s a chip off the block — quiet, publicity-shy, intelligent, diligent and super-cautious.

At age 52 he’s got to determine if he wants a long career in the House of Representatives or is he willing to roll the dice and possibly sacrifice his political future. His father, Paul, did but this time the odds are much steeper.

John Sarbanes could tap into the affluent Greek-American community for campaign funds. Still, does he want to spend all year begging donors to contribute and flying around the country to line up financial support?

His father’s name is well known in the Baltimore region but not so much elsewhere.  John Sarbanes is a solid liberal vote in Congress and he’s a down-the-line Democrat but his bland personality and cautious disposition aren’t ideal in a crowded race.

Less Likely to Run

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — Baltimore’s mayor has a big decision to make. Does she abandon her so-far successful effort to resurrect Baltimore’s fortune or does she set her eyes on a career in Washington?

Rawlings-Blake, who is only 44, has been an elected Baltimore official for 20 year. She would roll up a big vote in Baltimore and in parts of the metro region but she’s an unknown in the D.C. suburbs and rural Maryland.

She’d also start with zero funds in the bank — none of the dollars she has raised for her reelection bid next year can be used in a federal campaign. That’s a huge detriment.

Running a complex and troubled city like Baltimore while simultaneously mounting a statewide Senate campaign could be a bridge too far.

Compounding her decision is that there is no highly competent successor waiting in the wings to succeed her as mayor. Apres moi, le deluge?

Dutch Ruppersberger — If he were 10 years younger, the Baltimore County congressmen would be in the “likely” category. But at age 69, with a succession of surgeries over the years, taking on a grueling statewide campaign while maintaining his normal congressional schedule might not be his cup of tea.

Ruppersberger’s huge popularity in Baltimore County and his district’s reach into key parts of the Baltimore metro area would give him a solid vote base. How he would fare in the Washington suburbs — where he’s not a familiar face — is a tougher question.

Raising such a huge amount of campaign dollars isn’t something Ruppersberger would relish, either.

He’d also have to give up his House seat, where he is one of the leading experts on cyber security. Chances are he opts to remain where he is.

Elijah Cummings — The Baltimore congressman has never ventured beyond district races but he is a fiery speaker and determined fighter for Democratic Party ideals. If he were the only African-American considering the Senate race, he’d be tempted.

Putting together a statewide operation and raising such sums of money could be distasteful and difficult. Cummings, 64, is unfamiliar with much of the heavy-voting Washington suburbs but he’d do exceptionally well in Baltimore.

He’s a national spokesman on liberal and civil rights issues in the House and often in the national spotlight. Why give that up?

Tom Perez — The Obama administration’s labor secretary and former high-ranking Justice Department official wanted to run for attorney general but couldn’t because he hadn’t practiced law in Maryland.

He is ambitious and well-liked in his home base, Montgomery County, but in a large field his support could be too narrow. He also might have trouble raising enough dollars.

Will he give up two more years in a national Cabinet position for a longshot bid? It’s possible but unlikely.

Kweisi Mfume — The former congressman and former head of the NAACP tried once before to win a Senate race, narrowly losing the primary to current incumbent Ben Cardin nine years ago.

Mfume, 66, might jump at a second chance to start a Senate career were he a bit younger. He’s eloquent and has a riveting life story to tell. But fund-raising was a problem in his last Senate attempt and he’s not been part of Maryland’s political dialogue since then.

Already Out

Martin O’Malley — The former governor and Baltimore mayor would have been a favorite but instead opted to run for president (really!). He loves the executive role and knows he would chafe in the Senate with its snail’s pace and bitter partisan gridlock.

If he plays his cards right, O’Malley, 52, could gain a high executive post in a Democratic administration and build his credentials for a future run for the country’s top post.

Steny Hoyer — At age 75, it makes sense for the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives to stay put. He ran once on a statewide ticket, in 1978 as lieutenant governor, and lost. He knows how tough it would be.

Besides, Hoyer is far too valuable to Maryland in the House. With Mikulski’s departure from the Senate, he’ll be the only “go-to” guy in Congress in prime position to secure funds and advantages for the Free State.

You’ve Got to Be Kidding

Heather Mizeur — Yes, the former delegate ran an impressive and respectable race for governor last year as an ultra-liberal but now she’s supposedly farming on the Eastern Shore.

Her appeal is to the gay/environmental/feminist community. That proved not nearly enough for her last year (roughly 20 percent of the primary vote). Does she want to spend 12 more months trekking through Maryland on a crusade going nowhere?

Ben Jealous – Another former leader of the NAACP, he is considering jumping into the race. It would be primarily ego-driven. Jealous has no political roots in Maryland and the most tenuous of ties to the Free State. He’s not well known in any part of the state.

Even if he is the only African-American in the race, Jealous is unlikely to prove a big draw among his own constituents. In other communities, he’d barely register on Election Day.

Doug Gansler — Yes, he still wants to run statewide again — though he was embarrassed in last year’s race for governor, getting embroiled in pointless controversies.

The two-term former attorney general is just starting a career with a Washington law firm. Jumping back into fund-raising mode and 24/7 campaigning so soon may not be his best option.

Ken Ulman — The former Howard County Executive gave up his gubernatorial dreams last year in part because of the fund-raising challenge.

Running for the Senate would pose a far more daunting financing obstacle. Besides, he’s just beginning his new job trying to juice up College Park’s economic development efforts.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend — Whaaa?? She says she’s considering a run. It sounds preposterous given her pathetic run for governor in 2002 and the lack of political sympathy for her poor performance. Still, politics is in the Kennedy family’s DNA.

Townsend, 63, may want to redeem herself, but she has been absent from Maryland politics for over a dozen years. It would be a Quixotic effort that almost certainly would end in a humiliating second defeat.

That takes care of the likely Democrats considering the Senate primary. As for the Republican wannabes, that is grist for another column.

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Hogan’s Era of Good Feeling

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 21, 2015 — At least for a brief moment, Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s Era of Good Feeling ruled Annapolis.

Hogan Inauguration

We’ll soon learn if his strong message of bipartisan harmony and mutual respect can survive the harsh reality of Hogan’s first, greatly diminished budget, which he’ll release Thursday.

Hogan’s inaugural, with snow flakes falling faster and faster as the event progressed, struck all the right chords.

“Dignity, respect and camaraderie” is what we expect from our public servants, said Jim Brady, who presided over the outdoor ceremonies on the State House steps and also ran Hogan’s transition team.

“Focus on things that unite us” and “work across party lines,” was how Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford put it.

“Compromise and consensus are not dirty words,” emphasized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who introduced the new Maryland governor and championed Hogan’s election.

Hogan’s Themes

“A rebirth of our spirit and common purposes,” is how the 62nd governor of the Free State expressed it. No more “wedge politics and petty rhetoric.” A “new beginning.” A “sense of optimism.” “Limitless possibilities.” “An environment of trust and cooperation” where ideas are acted upon “based on merit.”

All the right words. It was a typical inaugural, full of positives and good wishes.

Hogan came across as he always does: a down-to-earth fellow who wants to run government with the focus on efficiency and effectiveness, not political ideology. He repeatedly used the term “common sense” to describe how he will govern.

He quoted a Democrat (John F. Kennedy) and a Republican (Abraham Lincoln) to stress the need for a new approach in political Annapolis that sets aside differences and finds “middle ground.”

A Little Red Meat

There were a few digs sprinkled among the words of comity, especially when Hogan spoke of “rebuilding the forgotten middle class” and getting government “off our backs and out of our pockets” — red-meat Republican applause lines straight from his campaign monologue.

Once the celebrations are over late tonight, the real work begins. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be met with unified applause.

Hogan promised to set Maryland on a different course, one that re-shapes the bloated state budget in ways Democrats are likely to resist.

The Inauguration Scene

The Inauguration Scene

There is growing agreement even on the Democratic side that Maryland has been living beyond its means, that spending on programs is expanding faster than the tax receipts coming in.

But will lawmakers stand by idly as cuts are made to education and health care? Are they willing to forego mass transit lines? These are the kinds of questions intentionally left out of inaugural speeches.

Putting Maryland on a more sustainable fiscal footing is an admirable goal that could help Hogan meet his pledge to lower taxes. Yet it will be difficult to achieve in the short term and possibly even in the long term unless Hogan gets  a boost from the national economy.

On another front, Hogan can take early, unilateral steps to cut red-tape and bureaucratic regulations. It’s been needed for a long time. The push-back from special interests could be intense, though.

For a day, Larry Hogan’s vision of a less partisan, more practical state government in Annapolis held sway.

The Hogans and Rutherfords in the State House.

The Hogans and Rutherfords in the State House.

His unfailing optimism and ability to search for areas of agreement are his greatest assets. He’s taking a more accommodating track than Maryland’s last Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich.

So far, Hogan is off to a cheery and encouraging start.

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The O’Malley Years: An Assessment

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 12, 2015 — One of the ironies of Martin O’Malley’s eight years as Maryland governor is that a progressive, liberal Democrat spent most of his time cutting budgets and raising taxes just to keep the ship of state afloat.

Gov. Martin J. O'Malley

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley

Another irony is that O’Malley started his tenure in 2007 by acting too slowly to stem a predicted tide of red ink in Annapolis. Now he is ending his second term by again responding too late to a huge, looming budget deficit.

However, when the history of the O’Malley years is assessed by scholars decades from now, what will stand out is the ease with which Maryland navigated the Great Recession — the nation’s worst economic decline since the 1930s.

The credit belongs to Martin O’Malley.

He eventually bit the bullet and did what Democrats hate above all else — he cut back on government services to the middle and lower classes, especially those who need a helping hand.

He found ways, though, to temper these hammer blows — shifting large sums from flush government accounts, borrowing heavily on the bond market, converting cash payments for farmland and Chesapeake Bay preservation into 15-year bonds and raiding the transportation fund.

Turning to Taxes

When that wasn’t enough, O’Malley taxed the wealthy, raised the corporate tax, raised the sales tax, raised the tobacco and alcohol taxes and, belatedly, the gasoline tax.

These weren’t popular moves, but it meant that social services for those without much money or with disabilities still could turn to Annapolis for assistance.

It still remains a mystery why O’Malley, who had weathered a host of fiscal storms as mayor of Baltimore for eight years, hesitated to recognize the brewing recession as he took office.

Legislative analysts already were predicting a future budget hole of $1.5 billion. Yet O’Malley ignored these forecasts.

Instead, in his first budget he hiked school construction handouts to a record $400 million, froze tuition for state college students by pouring extra funds into those institutions, and stripped the state’s Rainy Day fund of $1 billion to paper over Maryland’s financial woes until the economy improved.

Storm Clouds

Yet even as O’Malley’s initial budget was being passed, the state’s sales tax collections were declining along with other revenue sources. Loud alarms should have sounded in the governor’s suite.

Within months, O’Malley was forced to backtrack. He raised a slew of taxes, cut his initial budget requests and reversed his opposition to casino gambling.

The state’s worsening fiscal reality followed O’Malley throughout his two terms.

By the end, he was still unwilling to take proactive steps in mid-2014 to prevent what became an 18-month, $1.2 billion fiscal hole created by an agonizingly slow economic recovery and budget reductions coming from Washington.

Only in the past week did the governor seek $400 million in reductions so he could leave office with his final budget in balance.

Yet his last-minute actions did nothing to close the $800 million budget hole he bequeaths to Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, Jr.

Big Government

O’Malley’s budget hold-downs also were never meant to represent a permanent reduction in state government’s expanding role in Maryland society.

He is a strong believer in the good government can do for people. He wants to deliver more education help, more health care access, more social services for the state’s underclass and more aid to the counties and the middle class.

O’Malley’s faith in Big Government puts him on the far left of the Democratic Party’s spectrum. “Big things done well make even bigger things possible,” he said early in his first term. He still feels that way.

The governor certainly put his ideas into action.

  • He expanded health insurance in Maryland way before Washington acted.
  • He was quick to crack down on handgun and assault weapons sales in Maryland.
  • He fought vigorously to allow gay marriages in Maryland.
  • He raised the minimum wage.
  • He abolished the death penalty.
  • And he made it easier for children of immigrants to attend local colleges and universities.

Green Governor

He also won the hearts of environmentalists — another core group within the Democratic Party.

O’Malley raged against the “greed” of utility executives intent on selling Constellation Energy and demanded stiff concessions, including monetary support for wind and other alternative power sources.

He signed a super-expensive agreement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

He pushed through legislation providing a lucrative subsidy for off-shore wind farms.

He restricted the use of chicken manure as fertilizer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

He delayed approval of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits for oil and natural gas drilling in far Western Maryland.

He promoted an aggressive “smart growth” strategy.

Low Points

Not all these steps were popular or successful.

The governor’s “rain tax” to stem excessive stormwater runoff ran into heated local opposition.

His failure to keep an eye on the terribly mismanaged Obamacare rollout remains a major black mark.

But overall, O’Malley leaves Maryland with a record of accomplishments that defines him as a progressive Democrat who largely delivered on his promises, despite governing in extraordinarily difficult economic times.

Political Powerhouse

As a politician, Martin O’Malley cobbled together a strong Democratic coalition throughout the state. He dominated political Maryland.

Yet he largely disappeared from last year’s gubernatorial campaign, refusing to defend his record. That was a huge mistake. Republican Hogan had a field day pummeling O’Malley, who was never there to rebut the charges.

Hogan’s easy victory on Nov. 4 signaled a sharp change in the state Democratic Party’s fortunes. The efficient statewide organization O’Malley had built crumbled.

The party lost much of its previous support in towns and communities beyond Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. Without O’Malley, Maryland Democrats appear leaderless and in disarray.

On the National Stage

Now it is on to what O’Malley hopes will be much bigger things.

He’s actively exploring a run for president. A pipe dream? Tell that to Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — small-state governors who beat the odds.

O’Malley was far from an ideal governor, but he gave Maryland honest, intensely dedicated service. The state is better off than it was when he arrived in 2007 to take the oath of office.

Best of all, Marylanders of this generation will be able to tell their children and grandchildren that thanks to Martin O’Malley:

“We beat the Great Recession and lived to tell about it.”

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Marylander of the Year

Gov. Martin J. O'Malley Martin Joseph O’Malley

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 31, 2014 — Sometimes the most important man in the room isn’t there. That was the case with 2014’s Marylander of the Year, Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The state’s 61st chief executive dominated events throughout 2014, even when he often wasn’t present.

He was the centerpiece of the summer-fall gubernatorial campaign — though his name didn’t appear on the ballot and he was rarely spotted on the campaign trail.

He forcefully took control of Maryland’s fatally flawed health insurance internet exchange, assigned his best technology aides to take over — and didn’t say much after that.

As he has done in past years, O’Malley won nearly all his fights with the 2014 General Assembly — a much-needed higher minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, domestic violence laws, expanded pre-kindergarten, education investments and public safety overhauls. Yet he did much of his work quietly this time.

He ended the year with a splash, too, grabbing headlines by commuting the death sentences of the last four inmates in Maryland on death row.

O’Malley also dominated what proved one of the state’s biggest stories — the ever-expanding billion-dollar budget deficit — by hesitating and then taking a meek step to tamp down expenses. He absented himself from stronger executive action that could have proactively reduced the troubling deficit for his successor.

Since the election of Republican Larry Hogan Jr. as the next governor, O’Malley has pretty much disappeared from view — except for his frequent forays to early primary states in his quest for the presidential nomination in 2016.

Most puzzling was the governor’s political vanishing act during the summer and fall.

This came as Hogan started pounding away at O’Malley’s tax-raising, big-spending record — the prime theme of the successful Hogan campaign.

By removing himself from the political fray, O’Malley thought he was doing Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a favor. How wrong he was. Brown never seized control of the campaign.

Brown turned out to be a terrible defender of the eight-year O’Malley-Brown administration. The lieutenant governor essentially ran away from his own administration’s record.

Instead of trumpeting the good the Democratic team had achieved, Brown chose to ignore it. That left Hogan with the perfect opening to drum into voters’ minds the “evils” of the O’Malley-Brown years — dozens of new taxes, rampant overspending, open hostility to job-creating businesses and meager economic growth.

Without effective push-back from Brown, and with O’Malley missing in action, Hogan’s message resonated in the empty room.

By failing to take the field to defend his eight years in office, O’Malley damaged his reputation with voters.

Ironically, the governor is one of Maryland’s best-ever campaigners. When he rolls up his sleeves and plunges into crowds, when he pours out his story and tells what he’s been able to accomplish, Martin O’Malley is a powerful persuader.

Yet this time he failed to heed the clarion call to battle. He allowed Hogan to speak at length about the negatives of the O’Malley years without anyone raising a vocal, convincing counter-argument.

The governor also wasn’t present to energize the Democratic Party’s base. No wonder turnout was abysmal in key Democratic strongholds. Brown turned people off instead of turning them on.

It will be years, or even decades, before historians place Martin O’Malley’s record into proper context. The negative image of O’Malley’s years in office,  planted in Marylanders’ minds by Hogan, will remain with them for a long time.

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar)

This is the case with O’Malley’s years in the State House. His good deeds aren’t what’s being talked about.

It need not have been this way. There was ample time for the governor to mount an effective counter-argument, but he fixed his attention firmly on what comes next after he leaves Government House on Jan. 21.

For his continuing role as the most dominant presence in the Free State’s political drama — even when he wasn’t on the stage — Martin Joseph O’Malley has justified his selection as 2014’s Marylander of the Year.

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