Tag Archives: Maryland

Hogan’s Curious Facebook Blasts

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 2, 2015 – Like every politician these days, Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. has a Facebook page. His political organization, Change Maryland, is on Facebook, too. The comments on the two blogs often are identical.Hogan's Curious Facebook Blasts

Hogan’s Facebook blogs tend to be powder-puff, good-news summaries of visits and actions by the governor. That is par for the course.

It’s pretty much what his predecessor, Martin O’Malley, put out on his Facebook page – at least until O’Malley started planning his run for president. Then his Facebook musings turned heavily partisan and highly politicized.

That doesn’t work as well, though.

Social networking websites are ideal for promoting ideas and policies, of telling the world about your successes and new programs and ideas. It’s perfect for promoting all the good deeds and heart-warming things you do every day.

Facebook isn’t the best vehicle for expressing anger and hurling cheap shots at your enemies.

Facebook Stories

Hogan has endeared himself to his supporters and even to his political opponents by his courageous fight against cancer and his willingness to use his illness to promote cancer awareness and sympathy for others with this dangerous disease. He has used his Facebook page to tell those stories.

Most of the other blogs are revised versions of press releases on Hogan initiatives and Hogan speaking appearances around the state.

But occasionally, Hogan’s Facebook writer gets carried away and turns the governor’s remarks venomous and stridently partisan.

Last week, the governor’s online comments went too far. His staff writer lied.

“Today, a small band of out-of-touch legislators have convened a ‘hearing’ in Annapolis to complain about our closing of the {Baltimore City] jail,” Hogan wrote on his page. “[I]t seems a few professional politicians in Annapolis want to try somehow to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan should disavow his staff writer’s statements. He knows they aren’t true. His Facebook “friends” deserve an apology.

The Facts

Fact: There was a hearing in Annapolis on Hogan’s decision to close the City Jail. Such a “hearing” is routine. It’s what legislators all over the country do.

Fact: There was no “small band of out-of-touch legislators.” Indeed, no one at the hearing made any “out-of-touch” comments. It was a status-updating session.

Fact: No one at the hearing complained about the jail closure. Legislators wanted to know how the closure was proceeding. Some lawmakers praised the governor’s action.

Fact: Not a soul at the hearing tried “to defend the indefensible failed status-quo.”

Hogan’s Facebook remarks were made up out of whole cloth. The blog was written before the hearing even commenced. It was a trumped-up display of partisanship designed to make Hogan’s foes look like fools.

Instead, Hogan’s staff writer made the governor look like the fool by criticizing something that never happened.

Misleading Message

Then the governor’s minions compounded this error with another strange and intentionally misleading post.

It stated the legislature had held a “partisan” hearing to “question” Hogan’s jail closure. Wrong on both counts.

It was an impartial, fact-finding session where Hogan’s prisons chief received plaudits for a job well done.

Then Hogan’s post mocked the Baltimore Sun for daring to write in an editorial that Hogan had tried to politicize the hearing with his Facebook comments.

The Sun’s assessment, though, was on the mark.

The fact that Hogan’s Facebook staff writer didn’t like that his boss had been caught trying to turn a routine legislative hearing into a political ambush (which it was not) makes Hogan sound petty, parochial and a bit paranoid.

What Hogan’s minions did in his name on his Facebook page should embarrass the governor.

It gives ammunition to his enemies and needlessly antagonizes legislators he will need on his side when the General Assembly convenes in January.

In His Own Words

Even worse, these errant Facebook diatribes run contrary to Hogan’s own words.

Here’s what the governor wrote on his Change Maryland page and reproduced on his Facebook page on October 26:

“Too often we see wedge politics and petty rhetoric used to belittle our adversaries and inflame partisan divisions.

“It is only when the partisan shouting stops that we can hear each other’s voices and concerns.

“I am prepared to create an environment of trust and cooperation. . .”

“Wedge politics,” “petty rhetoric,” “belittle our adversaries,” inflaming “partisan divisions.” That describes Hogan’s Facebook blasts. There’s no hint of “trust and cooperation.”

What to Do

If Hogan is serious in what he wrote for Change Maryland, if he wants to bridge the political divide in Maryland and solve problems based on mutual respect, he’s got to clamp down on his Facebook staff writers, who seem eager to light fires, divide and exploit the politics of nastiness.

As governor, it is his obligation to follow his own written words and stop the partisan shouting.

Hogan has a choice: Stick to the facts and try to overcome Maryland’s political divisions through good will and honest dialogue, or snarl sarcastically at the opposition and fabricate events and intentions.

He can’t have it both ways.

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Hogan’s Hopes for Bus Transit

By Barry Rascovar

October 26, 2015 – Let’s take Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., at his word: He sincerely wants to make Baltimore’s inadequate bus transportation system better.

He’s come up with a plan to achieve that goal, too.

Hogan's Hopes for Bus Transit

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., and a mock-up of a CityLink bus he wants to bring to Baltimore.

The odds, though, are stacked against him.

He’s given himself an unrealistically short time frame (June, 2017) to totally revamp Baltimore’s complex bus network.

He’s underestimated the cost ($135 million) of pulling off such a massive turnaround.

He’s got no support from key elected local executives.

Is It Possible?

Much of what he calls for in his plan may not be feasible or sensible. It also might make traffic gridlock worse rather than better.

He ignores the past sensitivity of Baltimore’s bus riders to major route changes. Resistance to his plan could be strenuous among those who are inconvenienced or will lose access to existing jobs via bus routes being eliminated.

If, indeed, Hogan intends to shrink Baltimore’s bus system to a dozen color-coded routes, his approach could well be “transformative” in shrinking the state’s operating costs. It might make the system less accessible for Baltimoreans, too.

We may not get a good handle on the viability and pros and cons of Hogan’s bus initiative until the state Department of Legislative Services gives the plan a thorough analysis early next year.

Going Negative

As is his pattern, Hogan in his announcement excoriated Baltimore’s current transit system in sweeping, negative language. He once again pilloried the rail transit Red Line he killed earlier this year with hot rhetoric that bears little relationship to the facts.

Once again, he portrayed his Republican administration riding to the rescue of a mismanaged Democratic city with “transformative” changes.

This time, though, Hogan has got to deliver a vastly improved bus system. Executing his plan may not be as easy as he made it appear in his announcement.

Exactly how will Hogan pull off this transformation without cooperation from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake over the next 13 months? The two are barely civil and don’t see eye to eye on Baltimore’s people-mover needs.

Exactly which north-south and east-west roads does Hogan intend to use for his dedicated, separated bus-only lanes? There are no good options, especially downtown.

Such a move would squeeze existing traffic into fewer lanes, making rush hours more of a daily nightmare. Besides, Hogan needs the city to bless such an undertaking, which doesn’t seem likely given the uproar and traffic mess that could result.

Changing Signals

Exactly how is Hogan going to implement computerized bus signalization to turn red lights green on his 12 new, color-coded bus routes?

Every light change commanded by a bus driver will exacerbate traffic tie-ups on the cross street. What happens when buses going north-south and east-west hit the same downtown intersection at the same time in rush hour?

There’s a serious question whether Hogan’s signal-change idea will even do much to cut travel times. It sounds good on paper but in practice it doesn’t work well. The state and city have been trying to do this along the light-rail route on Howard Street for several decades with minimal success.

Hogan will get little opposition and some cheers for other parts of his plan, such as moving bus routes closer to suburban job centers; extending light-rail hours on Sunday; putting more focus on “last mile” problems for urban dwellers trying to reach their jobs in the suburbs; creating multi-modal transit hubs, and giving some financial support to Baltimore’s popular, free Charm City Circulator.

It’s now up to Hogan to make his bus plan reality.

Given the last Republican governor’s muddled attempt to markedly improve Baltimore bus service, there’s considerable room for skepticism that Hogan can pull it off.

Here’s hoping he succeeds. The city needs something to go right for a change.

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Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

None of that matters one iota.

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

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

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

Gerry’s Salamander

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

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

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

Gerrymandering: Here to Stay

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

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

Over 200 years later, little has changed.

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

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

Each Party is Guilty

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

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

Maryland's Current Congressional Districts

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

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

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

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

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

Is Reform Possible?

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

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

The panel’s work is for naught.

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

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

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

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

They hold the high cards in this game of brinkmanship.

What to Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Census

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

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

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

Lots of sound and fury signifying very little.

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

That, at least, is a realistic possibility.

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Hogan’s Cancer Awareness

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 28, 2015 – We’re coming to the end of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., has played a big role in both campaigns.

Hogan's Cancer Awareness

MD Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

As most Marylanders are aware, Hogan was diagnosed with late stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma in June. That’s an extremely serious but treatable disease in most cases.

Since then, he has undergone a series of exhaustive hospital stays that included three small surgeries, three spinal taps and 25 chemotherapy sessions. He’s got one more round of these arduous chemo treatments next month.

The good news is that 95 percent of his cancer has disappeared. The treatments – painful, uncomfortable and in every way disagreeable – so far seem to be working.

Throughout this ordeal Hogan has been an exemplary advocate for bringing awareness to cancer treatments and keeping spirits high among adults and children with cancer. The more people know about cancers, the more likely they will be to keep themselves healthy and react promptly when they suspect health problems.

They won’t look upon it as a certain death sentence, either.

No Secrets

Hogan, as a public official, recognized early on that he has a special responsibility to be forthright with Marylanders about his situation.

Unlike public officials of the past, he never tried to keep his illness a secret.

Indeed, he has gone out of his way to let people know about his lymphoma and his hospitalizations at University of Maryland Medical Center.

During those five-day stays, Hogan has taken upon himself the role of cheerleader, especially for cancer patients in the pediatric ward at UMMC. Brightening the day of these kids and letting the public know the governor of Maryland is on their side helps the kids and their parents immensely.

They no longer feel alone or that important government official don’t care.

Hogan also has scheduled plenty of cancer awareness appearances since June, including one at Oriole Park with baseball stars Rick Dempsey and Jim Palmer and others with pediatric cancer patients at Redskins and Ravens football games. He not only shows up but broadcasts these promotional visits on his Facebook page to spread the word.

Papal Encounters

Hogan took his cancer advocacy to a totally different level last week in making a big deal about his encounters with Pope Francis, first at an event at Catholic Charities in Washington and then at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County.

He called his brief conversations with the pope “the experience of a lifetime.”

When Hogan, a Catholic, greeted the pontiff, he said, “Holy Father, may I ask that you please give a blessing to all those suffering from cancer around the world?”

What followed was dramatic to say the least. The pope placed his hands on Hogan’s head – bald from the chemo treatments – then traced the sign of the cross on his forehead and said, “God bless you.”

Hogan's Cancer Awareness

Pope Francis blesses Governor Hogan

At Andrews, Hogan and his wife, Yumi, stood in the receiving line as the pope boarded his customized jet, Shepherd One.

This time, according to the governor, Francis placed Hogan’s hands in his own and said, “I pray for you.”

This powerful episode will long be etched in Hogan’s memory. He took on the mission of representing all cancer victims before the pope rather than his own predicament.

Making Political Hay

There is clearly a political dimension to Hogan’s activities. That is unavoidable.

Hogan’s cancer diagnosis and treatment make him a sympathetic person even among Marylanders who strongly disagree with his actions as a conservative Republican governor.

Partisanship disappears, though, when people fall ill or experience personal misfortune.

There’s no doubt Hogan is benefiting from his Facebook page emphasis on cancer awareness and his own chemo treatments. His political aides have capitalized on this situation.

Yet other public officials might want to keep serious health conditions under wraps, to handle the chemo treatments, the unwelcome side effects and the personal problems that result as a private family matter.

Hogan isn’t giving the public a blow-by-blow account of this difficult journey he’s embarked upon. That’s only natural.

Still, he is being open, inclusive and transparent with Marylanders about his cancer. He is a role model for us in this regard.

It’s what true leadership is all about.

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Furniture, Iran & Mandel

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 11, 2015 — Odds and ends covering Government House furniture, the Iran odd couple and Marvin Mandel miscellany:

‘Junk’ Mansion Furniture

How quickly they forget!

Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s criticism of the bargain-basement deal outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley got on distressed Government House furniture (beds, lamps, mirrors, chairs, desks, a couch) is a great political sound-bite but distorts the facts — and ignores history.

Furniture, Iran & Mandel

Government House, Annapolis

Hogan’s minions penned words for him about O’Malley’s unseemly stripping from the governor’s mansion of “expensive, beautifully used furniture.”

The stuff cost $62,000 new and after being appraised and declared “excess property” and “distressed” by a veteran Department of General Services employee, it was bought by O’Malley for $9,638.

Hogan thought that was an outrageously cheap grab of mansion furniture he could have used in his private quarters.

Fair enough.

But the check the state got from the ex-governor represents 15 percent of the furnishings’ original value.

My wife, who has done interior decorating and interior design for a living, tells me the going rate for furniture drops dramatically once it leaves the showroom. She says used furniture sells for about 10 percent of its original value, especially if it has some age on it.

Most of the O’Malley pieces were eight years old.

So maybe the state actually got a good deal.

It’s also worth remembering — which Hogan didn’t for obvious political reasons — that when fellow Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich left the mansion, he purchased nearly $10,000 worth of furniture for a mere $992 — 10 percent of the original price.

That’s still a fair deal for the state, but not nearly as good a deal as the state got from O’Malley.

Mansion furniture

One of the used pieces of furniture the O’Malleys purchased from the governor’s mansion.

Funny, but Hogan never saw it that way.

Either transaction pales compared with the biggest mansion furniture heist — the emptying of private-quarters furnishings by the late Marvin Mandel.

It was engineered by his second wife, Jeanne, and included removal of 57 items (including two wing chairs, a dresser, a leather sofa, a roll-top desk, Waterford lamps, Chippendale chairs, Lenox china, Waterford crystal champagne glasses, 350 liquor and wine bottles and $489 worth of dog food).

Here’s how the son and namesake of Mandel’s temporary successor, Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, recently described the appearance of the mansion’s private quarters after Marvin and Jeanne departed — “our family moved into the Governor’s Mansion and found it stripped bare. . .  the Mandels even took the frozen food and the fire wood!”

After the 1978 elections, Mandel tried to make amends with a check for $3,187, but Gov. Harry Hughes refused to accept it. A five-year legal battle ensued with Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs writing a 327-page report on Mandel’s moving-van loot.

Eventually, Marvin and Jeanne Mandel forked over $10,000 — more than triple what he had originally offered to pay.

According to O’Malley, though, two historic door panels taken by the Mandels remain missing.

Is any of this kosher? That’s the key question.

Technically, the sales violate government policy about not giving state employees preferential treatment.

But the Ehrlichs, the O’Malleys and the Mandels were just barely government officials at the time they paid for state furnishings their family had used in the mansion.

For instance, the appraisal of furniture O’Malley wanted to purchase was made the day the family moved out of the mansion and just six days before O’Malley became a private citizen. Mandel had been convicted and legally removed from office when his moving van pulled away from the mansion.

It’s a grey area in need of clarification.

The State Ethics Commission might provide Hogan with some guidance, but departing governors don’t easily fit under regulations covering state employees. For one thing, they are constitutionally elected officers and exempt from ethics commission rulings.

At the least, common courtesy should have been in play.

O’Malley needed to ask Hogan if it would be OK to buy items in the mansion’s private quarters. Ehrlich should have done the same with O’Malley. Mandel should have requested approval from Acting Governor Lee.

It’s a minor brouhaha reporters are exploiting as though it were an armored-car heist.

The Board of Public Works should establish a new policy: If about-to-become ex-governors wish to buy used private-quarters furniture, the stuff must be appraised by private-sector professionals and the incoming governor must formally approve.

That would clarify matters and set in place a procedure for future ex-governors, which one day will include Hogan.

Iran Odd Couple

Who would have guessed that in the Maryland congressional delegation, just two members would come out in opposition to the president’s Iran nuclear deal, and that they would be polar opposites.

Liberal Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin has linked arms with ultra-conservative Republican Rep. Andy Harris to say “no” to the president’s negotiated agreement to slow, if not block, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

It may be the first and last time this odd couple sings from the same hymn book on a major, highly politicized issue.

Harris’ opposition was expected. He’s a knee-jerk, anti-Obama, anti-Democratic politician. If the president says the sky is blue, Harris sees grey skies.

Cardin, though, is a left-leaning Democratic loyalist. This time, he was under enormous pressure from Jewish lobbying groups in Maryland, especially within his own synagogue. He’s also up for reelection soon, which played into his thinking.

It also helped that his vote wasn’t needed to ensure that Democrats blocked Congress from rejecting the Iran accord.

Still, it’s rare when Harris and Cardin have something in common. Voters on both extremes of the political spectrum might find this Iran union hard to stomach.

Mandel Miscellany

Readers responded mainly with positive reviews of the two-part assessment of the late Governor Mandel. Here is a sampling:

Gov. Marvin Mandel

Former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel

Blair Lee IV (now a resident of Hilton Head, S.C.): “a wonderful trip down memory lane.”

Former Baltimore Sun reporter Bob Erlandson:  “That’s as good a concise exposition of the Mandel case as there could be. It’s been so long that I’ve forgotten many of the details you wrote. Very well done!!”

Attorney and former Assistant Attorney General Tom Lingan: “Congratulations on finally setting the record straight. I believe you captured well the ambiguity of Governor Mandel which was lost in the deification following his passing. There are still a few of us around who remember.  Thanks for not giving him a pass.”

Attorney and Lobbyist Bruce Bereano: “You really should be ashamed of yourself that at Governor Mandel’s passing you wrote such an unnecessary, nasty and despicable piece in your Part 2 of the Mandel legacy. The sad thing is that you have no shame and you have no [conscience] about this.”

Former Sun reporter and Care First executive Jeff Valentine: “This was the best explanation of that convoluted transaction that I ever read. For the first time, I understand what happened.”

Former environmental lobbyist Ajax Eastman: “You really covered the essence of the man, the good and the bad in depth. Thanks.”

Former Sun reporter Skip Isaacs: “The two Mandel columns were terrific. I knew him much better as speaker than governor, but the contradictions you describe sound exactly right to me.”

Former television reporter Patrick McGrath: “Mandel’s extraordinary achievements that you reminded us of in the first piece, contrasted with the details of his downfall in the second piece  . . . paint a truly balanced picture of the complicated man.”

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Marvin the Magician

By Barry Rascovar

(First of two parts)

Sept. 8, 2015 — Simply put, Marvin Mandel — who was laid to rest last week at age 95 — ranks as the greatest and most effective Maryland governor of the 20th century.

Only Gov. Albert C. Ritchie comes close to matching Mandel as a government reformer. But Mandel was far more ambitious in his efforts to improve society, expand the reach of government and anticipate future trends.

Marvin the Magician Mandel

Gov. Marvin Mandel, official State House portrait.

Our lives first intersected in 1972 as Mandel pulled off a stunning coup. In a tumultuous General Assembly session, the governor.

  • He defeated the potent National Rifle Association by enacting the nation’s toughest handgun-control law.
  • He defeated the powerful insurance industry to win passage of the nation’s first state-run insurance company for high-risk drivers.
  • He defeated the influential petroleum lobby to gain approval of a nearly 30 percent gas-tax increase that financed Baltimore’s first subway line, portions of the Washington-area Metro and local highway construction.

He slugged it out with tavern owners and the potent beer barons to win a tripling of the state beer tax — the first increase in that alcohol levy in 33 years.

He gained approval to buy Friendship Airport from Baltimore City for $36 million, beginning a modernization program that turned the re-named BWI Airport into one of the nation’s premier low-cost flight destination.

No Maryland governor took on so many entrenched and muscular special interests at one time.

Legislative Magician

It was a stupendous achievement, following on the heels of three previous legislative sessions marked by sweeping government reforms that turned Maryland into a national model for streamlined efficiency and modernization.

Mandel totally overhauled Maryland’s antiquated judicial system, junking the politically inspired magistrate system for a professional District Court with experienced and respected lawyers nominated by a judicial selection commission serving as judges.

He created an intermediate appellate court that dramatically improved the quality of judicial decisions and anticipated the enormous jump in appeals cases.

He removed politics from District Court and appellate court reappointments.

He named cracker-jack deputy attorneys general to implement these judicial reforms — Robert F. Sweeney to run the new, statewide District Court system and Robert C. Murphy Jr. to lead first the new Court of Special Appeals and then the state judiciary as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.

Cabinet Government

Mandel used his immense influence with the General Assembly (he served there as a key player for 17 years)  to win approval of a massive government reorganization, shoe-horning 248 formerly independent agencies into 12 cabinet-level departments.

It was a long and bitter reorganization with fierce resistance coming from deeply entrenched bureaucrats and interest groups.

Cutting the powerful tentacles of the Maryland Port Authority and State Roads Commission proved especially difficult for the new transportation secretary, Harry R. Hughes.

The new secretary of licensing and regulation, John R. Jewel, encountered enormous obstacles from dozens of special interest groups that no longer could dictate policy to various licensing boards.

The new Department of Natural Resources ran into such intractable opposition from watermen and rural constituencies that Mandel persuaded former Gov. J. Millard Tawes to come out of retirement in Crisfield to smooth hurt feelings and pave the way for a successful transition.

Mandel rarely lost battles with the legislature. He understood the psyche of lawmakers and how to play to each one’s weaknesses and vanity. He knew what strings to pull and when. He became known as Marvin the Magician, pulling a legislative rabbit out of his hat time after time when defeat seemed imminent.

Sweeping Reforms

He battled hospitals to create the nation’s only state regulatory body setting hospital rates to bring down costs. It worked.

He took on the hospitals again in establishing the nation’s first Shock Trauma network, prompting a nationwide revolution in emergency medicine.

He set up the nation’s second statewide school construction program (Hawaii has the other) to relieve local governments of burdensome construction debt that was delaying urgently needed school buildings to handle a huge surge in school-age children.

He fought for state land-use controls decades before “smart growth” came into vogue.

He supported the Lee-Maurer education aid formula that steered a larger percentage of state funds to poor subdivisions, especially Baltimore City.

It is an astounding record for the state’s second longest-serving governor (Ritchie beat him by a considerable margin, serving four terms in the 1920s and early 1930s).

Pollack, then Kovens

Yet Marvin Mandel is the last person you’d expect to earn the label of reformer and good government crusader.

He was a product of the old-time political machines of Baltimore City. Soon, though, he broke from the grasp of corrupt boss James H. (Jack) Pollack and joined forces with a more modest political operative, Irvin Kovens, forming an anti-Pollack ticket in northwest Baltimore.

He rose to political prominence by cunning and sheer luck.  When the House speaker was indicted in Maryland’s first savings and loan scandal, Mandel took his place.

When Spiro Agnew ran for vice president with Richard Nixon in 1968 — and won — House Speaker Mandel had the votes to succeed Agnew as governor.

Through it all, Marvin Mandel remained an enigma. His prestidigitation was so flawless you never knew what was really going on. Three-dimensional chess was Mandel’s game and no one in Annapolis was capable of taking on the grand master.

He could be amiable, jocular and easy-going, yet he turned into a tiger in formulating and carrying out political strategies.

Clouded by Smoke

He seemed to fool everyone with the smokescreen he created when smoking his ever-present meerschaum pipe.

Marvin the Magician

Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel and his ever-present pipe.

Puff, puff, puff. A few nods of the head. Visitors thought they were getting agreement from the amiable governor — only to discover later they had misread the situation.

In political mid-stream, though, Mandel’s fortunes and his demeanor changed.

His luck started to run out.

His secret private life blasted into the headlines. His expensive new lifestyle came at a cost he could not personally afford.

His backstage maneuvering to make close friends and allies rich through passage of favorable legislation in Annapolis became a long-running national scandal.

The magician who so brilliantly reformed Maryland government would pay a steep price for this terrible lapse in judgment.

Tomorrow:  Marvin the Manipulator

Hogan’s Holt Problem

By Barry Rascovar

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

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

Hogan's Holt Problem

MD Housing Secretary Ken Holt

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

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

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

Lacking Evidence

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

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

That proposal is now DOA — dead on arrival.

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

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

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

Reductions in Lead Poisoning

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

Hogan's Holt Problem

Flaking lead paint can poison children.

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

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

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

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

Bad Timing

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-City?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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There is No ‘Plan B’

By Barry Rascovar

Aug. 12, 2015 –Instead of tamping down the furor surrounding Gov. Larry Hogan Jr.’s cancellation of the Baltimore region’s $2.9 billion rapid-rail Red Line, his administration is adding fuel to the fire.

Instead of presenting alternative rapid transit proposals to Baltimore regional officials at a Monday meeting, Hogan’s transportation chief, Pete Rahn, offered nothing concrete.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn

Meanwhile, Hogan’s press spokesman continues to spew invective on anyone or any organization that dares dispute that decision.

In sixty days Rahn says he’ll having something to announce on faster bus service.

Wow.

What Happened to Plan B?

The sad truth is that there never was a Plan B.

Hogan fulfilled a campaign pledge by killing the Red Line and shifting all that anticipated state spending over the next six years to road and bridge projects elsewhere in Maryland.

That’s why there are zero plans coming from the governor’s office to bolster the Baltimore area’s sad excuse for rapid transit.

Better travel by bus is a great concept but it is one that Rahn’s department has worked to achieve for decades — with little success. The failure of Baltimore’s bus routes lies entirely at the feet of state officials.

The state owns the buses. The state set up the bus routes. The state pays the drivers. The state manages the bus agency. The state has conducted countless public hearings on improving service. We’re still waiting for dramatic improvements.

Officials know what’s not going right. Can they fix it? So far, the answer is “no.”

Congestion and Buses

Giving riders real-time information on bus arrivals doesn’t get the buses to their destination any faster. How is Rahn going to move buses through congested downtown quickly?

Buses, like cars, sit in backed-up traffic. Too many vehicles clog busy intersections and arterial roads, especially at rush hour. What is Rahn going to do about that?

Subterranean rapid rail bypasses time-consuming street congestion with ease. New York and Washington are great examples of this.

But Hogan won’t pay for digging the tunnels. He wants mass transit projects only if they are cheap and bare-bones. That means no tunnels.

Both Rahn and his boss are highway-centric suburbanites. That’s where the state is putting its money over the next six years, not rapid rail or other urban transportation programs.

On-Time Buses

Regional officials can complain about Hogan’s disrespect toward Baltimore’s rail deficiencies but that won’t move the ball forward.

Once and for all they need to face reality. There won’t be a Plan B coming from the Hogan administration. It was never on Hogan’s game board. He’s already redistributed the Red Line money to non-Baltimore projects.

At best, Rahn might offer Baltimore crumbs in the form of getting buses to run on-time and new bus routes connecting suburban job centers to the city.

Those would be welcome, long overdue steps. Yet they are small, incremental improvements on the cheap.

Between now and next January, the governor can do pretty much anything he wants. He’s running state government without meddling from the Democratic legislature.

He’s setting up a fractious clash next year, though.

Uncaring Governor?

The impression is growing that Larry Hogan doesn’t care about Baltimore City. It’s a hostile political environment for a Republican governor. The city’s chronic problems are difficult and expensive to address. He’d rather spend state dollars in communities that vote Republican. He also doesn’t seem to grasp the deep societal woes that are dragging down a once-great American community.

Yet the decline is happening on his watch.

Like it or not, Hogan will be blamed if Baltimore’s slump accelerates while he is governor and he fails to take action.

Baltimore badly needed the economic boost the Red Line would have provided. Having killed that project, Hogan haven’t come forth with an alternative stimulus.

Where are the state jobs programs and reconstruction plans for riot-torn West Baltimore? Couldn’t the governor piece together a major housing demolition-and-rehabilitation initiative? There’s a crying need for more and better drug treatment programs. Recreation activities for youth are lacking. So are after-school programs.

Three-plus months since the destructive unrest in Baltimore, the governor has yet to produce a package of helpful initiatives to make life better for inner-city residents. He knows the city’s leaders are strapped for funds. Only the state has the resources to step in and help in a big way.

That is Hogan’s challenge, especially after he axed the city’s only major economic hope.

At this point, the governor should make a point of showing he has not forgotten Baltimore. The city requires large-scale, innovative assistance from Annapolis.

Baltimore’s future lies, to a large extent, in Hogan’s hands.

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State Pension Confusion

By Barry Rascovar

August 10, 2015 — For Maryland’s 388,500 state workers and teachers — active and retired —  interpreting the pension news these days is confusing business.Maryland retirement agency logo

Item: Over the past 12 months, the state’s pension fund gained 2.68 percent on its investments.

Is that good or bad?

On June 30, the fund’s market value stood at $45.8 billion, a gain of $400 million over the prior fiscal year. All well and good.

But the state failed to come close to hitting its investment target of 7.65 percent. That’s not so good.

Mystifying, isn’t it?

Manipulating Numbers

Welcome to the fuzzy world of actuarial pension and retirement funding. Depending on the statistics and the way they are manipulated, your retirement accounts may be in fine shape or in the toilet.

Since the media loves bad news, headlines routinely give prominence to the state’s unfunded pension liabilities of nearly $19 billion.

What’s not headlined is the slow progress being made in reducing that actuarial shortfall or the misleading way that number is bandied about.

What needs to be kept in mind is that pension investing has an extended timeframe. That applies to the state retirement fund as well as folks contributing to their IRAs.

As the retirement board’s manual notes, “The investment strategy is long-term, recognizing that the average age of the System’s liabilities is relatively long.” It also notes that taking a long-term view of pension investments “could result in short-term instability.”

Ups and Downs

Over the past five years, the state’s investment returns have been darned good, raising the market value of its holdings from nearly $32 billion to nearly $46 billion. That’s an annual average rise of 9.4 percent.

Let the good times roll!

Yet good times don’t last forever. And they didn’t in the last fiscal year, with stock markets delivering an uneven performance. That downer has persisted into this year, too.

The moral is not to get caught up in year-to-year market reports and investment reports. As long as returns are heading upward by a decent amount over the decades, things will come out all right in the end.

What worries critics of the state retirement fund is that the program falls far short of being fully funded. That actuarial ratio stood at roughly 69 percent last year (or 72 percent if you look at the fund’s market value).

Ample Reserves, Ample Time

Here’s the catch: The state doesn’t need to be fully funded today. It has ample reserves to write current pension checks to former teachers and state workers. The rest of its IOUs will come due in the years and decades ahead as the fund’s active members start to retire.

Some will do so soon but the bulk of active teachers and state workers will be at their jobs for one, two or three more decades. The retirement fund has plenty of time to accumulate the dollars needed to write those future checks.

Pension reforms instituted belatedly by the General Assembly in 2011 are now kicking in. This means higher contributions from active members, a less generous pension plan for newer workers and an increase in what state government pays into the pension fund each year.

Past and present legislators, though, often tend to play games with the state’s annual contribution to the retirement accounts. Sometimes they re-write the law so they can adjust the state’s payment by $50 million, $100 million or more to bolster a favored program or balance the budget.

Governors over the decades have been known to play that game, too.

Still, the state’s pension board seems on a path to reach 80 percent of full funding within 10 years and 100 percent of full funding within 25 years — regardless of the ups and downs of the stock market and politicians’ tendency to see the state’s mandatory pension payments as “flexible.”

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