Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why I Oppose Making the Minimum Wage a Living Wage

I get flack for opposing living wage schemes and minimum wage hikes... but I'm proud to oppose both. And I oppose them because I believe in a simple philosophy, "from each according to ability, and to each according to need." Neither the living wage nor a higher minimum wage live up to that belief - in fact, they undermine it. A column today from David Neumark perfectly captures my beliefs on the matter - so I quote from it heavily in the paragraphs below.

"Proponents of raising the minimum wage often point out that the real minimum wage is lower now than it was decades ago.  But the federal policy aimed at low-wage work and low-income families has shifted — wisely — away from reliance on the minimum wage and toward a generous earned-income tax credit, which is better focused on poor families.  There is nothing wrong with reducing our reliance on a less effective policy when we have adopted a more effective one.  In fact, we should hope that research on public policy leads to exactly this kind of outcome."

Minimum wages and living wages are indiscriminate and incredibly inefficient policy tools. I don't care if an 17 year old living at home earns $7.50 an hour to put a basket of frozen fries into a vat of oil. I would care if that kid suddenly made $15 for doing the same skilless task. However, I do care if a mother or father is working a full time or even several part time jobs and is still unable to meet the basic needs of their family. As a policy person, and as someone who believes in "to each according to need," the question must be - "how can we best support that family?" The answer is not some misguided one size fits all minimum wage that treats the 17 year old and the parent as if they are the same.

The Earned Income Tax Credit allows us, as a society, to support working families by targeting income to those who need it most. "So suggesting that federal policy addressing low-wage work and low-income families has somehow failed because the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation ignores the fact that we have moved away from a focus on the minimum wage — a policy with many flaws — and toward the earned-income tax credit."

"Nonetheless, there are important differences between the earned-income tax credit and the minimum wage. The fundamental difference is that the earned-income tax credit aims benefits at low-income families with children, rather than simply low-wage workers. This is in large part its virtue, and it makes a lot more sense than the minimum wage’s focus on low-wage workers."

The earned income tax credit is targeted to working families, it enjoys bipartisan support, it's indexed to inflation, and it does not negatively impact the employment of teens and unskilled workers. It is in every way superior to a living wage or a higher minimum wage. And people and policymakers who want to help working families really need to shift their focus away from those inefficient and inappropriate policy options.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why Are So Many Saying Obama Has Had A "Katrina Moment"? Because He Has.

I've been amused of late by the hyperbolic reaction of Obama supporters to the myriad commentaries arguing the Obama has had his "Katrina moment." Most of the folks making such statements are referring to the failure of the Affordable Care Act rollout. I'm actually proud to have been among the first to have written of an Obama "Katrina moment." In an piece for the Baltimore Sun this Summer, I argued that Obama had lost control of the narrative and that the 1, 2, 3 hits of the Benghazi attack, the IRS scandal, and then the first major leak regarding the monitoring of reporters' phones threatened to undermine his second term. Of Obama I wrote, "Mr. Obama was ...the reliable and competent manager who understood there was a positive role for government in improving people's lives. If Mr. Obama is not careful, that image will collapse in spectacular fashion." And collapse it did, then he found himself in the midst of the failed roll-out with no political capital to draw on.

The main point of contention offered up by the rose colored glasses crowd is that there is no literal comparison between hurricane Katrina and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, or the IRS scandal, etc... To their argument I say, "well duh." Of course there's no literal comparison. The "Katrina moment" is what those of us who took high school English refer to as an analogy  -  an assertion of similarity, on some point of comparison, between things that are otherwise unrelated. No one is making a literal comparison to Katrina, rather we're making a figurative comparison. 

Let me provide an example of an analogy in action. In late 2010 we learned that US students were trailing students from Shanghai in reading, math, and science - according to the Program for International Student Assessment standardized test. In reaction to the news, President Obama said, "Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back...” People in India and China are now “plugged into the world economy,” and nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now, America is in danger of falling behind.”

Now understand, there is no literal comparison to be made between the US government falling behind the Soviet Union in the space race and our high school students falling behind other nations in math, science, and reading. No literal comparison, but an assertion that, on some point of comparison, our students' poor performance on the tests was the same as the otherwise unrelated Sputnik launch. What was the point of comparison? The US was falling behind.

So why are some now saying Obama has had a Katrina moment? Simple, back in 2005, President Bush's approval rating was already in decline when hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and FEMA botched the response. But Bush's favorability rating had remained strong. In other words, people didn't like the job he was doing, but they still liked him and still considered him to be trustworthy and competent. All of that changed after Katrina and Bush never recovered. Therein lies that point of comparison essential to any good analogy. Heading into the Summer of 2013, Obama's approval rating was in decline, but his favorability rating was very strong. Folks weren't thrilled with his job performance, but they still liked and trusted him. The cumulative effect of the IRS scandal, the ongoing leaks from Edward Snowden, and now the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act and the clearly false assertion that people could keep their existing health insurance has been a collapse in Obama's approval rating AND his favorability rating. People lost faith in his competence and his trustworthiness. I maintain that the Katrina moment came this past Summer, most others say it was health reform. Either way, the analogy is appropriate.

Even after Katrina, Bush maintained the support of a dedicated 35-40% of the public. No matter what, there was a delusional minority convinced that all was well. The folks who are now refusing to accept the relevance of the Katrina analogy are just the members of the Obama minority - the core group who will never be able to accept that Obama is not the transformational deliverer of hope and change that they believed they were voting for. Instead, he is and was a rather conventional politician with no special governing talents. Now, he's a rather conventional politician with no political capital and the very real possibility that he will spend the next three years as a lame duck.  No calm down, he's not literally a lame duck, it's just another one of those analogies.

And no, I do not derive any pleasure from making the analogy or from seeing Obama's popular support collapse. With the exception of the changes to the individual market, I support the affordable care act and want it to succeed. I want comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. I want No Child Left Behind to be reauthorized, but with an incentive structure and not a penalty structure. I support the Common Core as a replacement for the perverse incentives created by Adequate Yearly Progress and 100% proficiency requirements. All of these issues are on Obama's second term agenda. None of them will happen so long as Obama has a 40% approval rating and an upside down favorability rating. And once a president loses the confidence of the people, it's nearly impossible to earn it back.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

In Maryland Speech, Obama Promised No Changes for Individual Market Plans

Let me preface this post by stating something that some new readers may not know, I supported the Affordable Care Act when it was passed in 2010. I continue to support substantial portions of it, especially the use of tax credits and insurance exchanges to extend coverage to the uninsured. That said, I consider the substantial disruption of the Individual Health Insurance Market to be an unacceptable outcome. As pointed out I my last post, the original legislation grandfathered most existing plans, but when the Department of Health and Human Services published implementing regulations they made the grandfather restrictions so severe that their own estimate was the decimation of the Individual Market. It serves no purpose, it is not essential for the law's success, it is paternalistic and cruel. I am also outraged by the fact that the President continued to promise people they could keep their existing plans long after who knew it wasn't true. On a recent trip to Maryland, the President once again made his all to familiar pledge.

As the news on millions of cancellation notices continues to grab headlines, the White House and sympathetic supporters have been trying to pretend that President Obama never actually promised that Americans could keep their existing health plans. The President himself has suddenly claimed that he always told people there would be exceptions to his promise... too bad that he never actually told people there would be exceptions. And the President kept making that promise even after his own Department of Health and Human Services published predictions in the Federal Register acknowledging that upwards of 10 million Americans will see their existing coverage cancelled.

President Obama brought his promise to Maryland on Sept. 26 in a speech meant to tout the soon to launch healthcare.gov website. In his speech, he repeated the claim that people could keep their existing insurance. What makes this speech different is that he made specific reference to the individual market.
"Now, let’s start with the fact that even before the Affordable Care Act fully takes effect, about 85 percent of Americans already have health insurance -– either through their job, or through Medicare, or through the individual marketSo if you’re one of these folks, it’s reasonable that you might worry whether health care reform is going to create changes that are a problem for you -- especially when you’re bombarded with all sorts of fear-mongering.
So the first thing you need to know is this:  If you already have health care, you don’t have to do anything.  In fact, for the past few years, since I signed the Affordable Care Act, a lot of you have been enjoying new benefits and protections that you didn’t before even if you didn’t know they were coming from Obamacare."

The Maryland speech marks one of the few times the President made a specific reference to folks in the Individual Market and he clearly implied promised "If you already have health care, you don’t have to do anything." No caveats. No reference to plan changes. Just a promise. A completely untrue promise that he knew to be untrue at the time he made it. It's hard to explain how a President could tell folks that they "don't have to do anything" when his own folks tolk him that roughly 10 million of those people on the individual market would have to find new coverage.

*** I've actually received emails from folks arguing that nothing in the excerpted paragraphs could possibly be interpreted as a promise that folks could keep their existing coverage. Seriously. Sorry, folks, the reality is there's simply no other way to read those paragraphs other than as just such a promise.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Obama Administration's Disingenuous Reaction to Canceled Policies

Let me start by saying that I support the goal of universal health coverage and I supported most aspects of the Affordable Care Act as passed by Congress (though I never accepted a commerce clause power to impose an individual mandate - I'm perfectly comfortable with the mandate operating as a tax penalty). That said, I continue to be troubled by the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the individual market. But I'm bothered more by the disingenuous response from the Obama administration - they're claiming that individual plans were grandfathered and are being canceled by the choice of the insurers. This is not correct. The actual legislation did have  a grandfather provision that should have allowed people to keep their insurance - as the President repeatedly assured the public.

But the implementing regulations (see page 34560), as written by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, altered the grandfather provision such that any changes to a grandfathered plan, as small as a $5 increase in co-pays, would require that the plan meet the minimum requirements of the ACA. Plans change yearly - co-pays, deductibles, premiums - so the regulations essentially guaranteed that most grandfathered plans would be canceled by the time of implementation. The proof of this can be found in the regulations as published in the Federal Register. The Department of Health estimated that 50-75% of the 14 million people with insurance on the individual market would lose their coverage. So it's simply untrue for the Administration to deny responsibility - the regulations came from the Executive branch and because they are regulatory and not legislative they could be undone by the Administration. It was a conscious choice to have these insurance plans disappear. And the President continued to assure people they could keep their existing plans even after the estimate of 50-75% cancelation of coverage for the 14 million in the individual market was published. 

The other argument from the administration is that these folks who lose their existing coverage will now receive much better coverage than they did under the canceled plans. But this better coverage comes at a price and in many cases very severe price increases. Some of the people will qualify for subsidies while others won't. And premium increases are so steep in some cases that even with the subsidy out of pocket costs will be higher. Of greater concern are the very high deductibles allowed by the ACA. So many people are now facing higher premiums AND thousands in deductible costs. High deductibles have been shown to discourage health care utilization - challenging the claim that people will be better covered.
Then there is the argument that folks will get subsidies. The subsidies come in the form of tax credits. Folks have two choices - they can wait until they file their taxes and receive a lump sum subsidy OR they can have the government send the money from the estimated credits to insurers each month. Under option one, you're required to shoulder the full cost throughout the year and then get repaid at tax time (without interest). Under option two, you must estimate your income for the year and then your monthly subsidy will be based on the estimate. If you underestimate, you will be required to repay the government come tax time. Many of the folks in the individual market are self-employed and therefor lack easy to predict income.

The subsidies phase out as income rises and any person earning more than $46,000 per year, or a family earning more than $94,000, receives no subsidy. NBC news provided the example of George Schwab of North Carolina - his existing plan for he and his wife cost $228 per month, but it was canceled. The best price he's been able to find so far is $948 per month. According to the subsidy calculator provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation even if Schwab and his wife earned as little a $45,000 per year - combined - the subsidy would bring the cost of their new plan down to $368 per month. That's a 50% increase even after the subsidy - assuming they earn no more than $45,000 per year. If they earn $55,000 per year their premium costs, after subsidy, would nearly double. The Schwabs would need to have combined earnings of $35,000 per year or less to qualify for a subsidy sufficient to bring the cost of their new plan below that of their canceled plan.  And none of this takes into account the fact that minimum coverage plans allowed under the affordable care act have large deductibles.
Based on the Administration's own estimates, the coverage of upwards of 10 million people will be disrupted. The ACA will extend coverage to 32 million of the roughly 50 million uninsured - this is a laudable accomplishment. But to me, the extension of new coverage does not justify the disruption of so many existing plans. Especially given that the disruption of those plans is not essential to the ACA. In fact, it increases the overall cost of the law due to the new subsidies unanticipated during the legislative stage. And these subsidies will simply serve to enrich insurance companies.
Legislation is set to be introduced in the House to overrule the regulations and reinstate the grandfather provision. But I doubt Harry Reid will allow a vote in the Senate and at this point, many plans have already been canceled. Ten Democratic Senators have signed a letter requesting a delay of the individual mandate. This should be done to allow time to sort out some of these serious problems. Unfortunately the GOP stance appears to be "no help to fix the law" and the Democratic approach appears to be no willingness to acknowledge this very serious problem. So 10 million Americans will continue to receive cancelation notices.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Quick Thoughts on New Gonzales Poll

Maryland's best pollster, Gonzales Research, has a new survey out looking at the Democratic primary in 2014. I'll have a longer post soon, but here are my quick thoughts.

He's clearly the frontrunner, The poll has him topping Gansler 41% to 21%. The Brown folks made a decision last year to start the campaign early and gather endorsements. They knew that Gansler was the presumptive frontrunner and they wanted to upend that conventional wisdom - the succeeded.
But there are warning signs for Brown. After 7 years as Lt. Gov and months of dominating the MD 2014 news, he has a 4% favorability rate and 35% have a neutral opinion of him. Most concerning is the fact that he has 82% name recognition - but is at 41%. Is that his ceiling?

Fire your campaign manager now! The time between Halloween and Thanksgiving is a great time for a campaign shake-up, because people are distracted. Gansler is at 21% in the poll. But Gansler has an opportunity. Fully 37% of Democrats did not recognize his name - so some of Brown's lead may be simple name recognition (there is evidence of a name recognition effect in the poll of Attorney General candidates). Gansler needs to start spending some money and get his name out there. Gansler has to hope that the 37% who don't know his name didn't learn it this weekend with stories about speeding and mistreatment of state troopers, to say nothing of the "henchmen" comment. Gansler has to introduce himself to that 37%, before the Brown campaign introduces him.

The news is just bad. The poll has her at 5%. Mizeur has been running a clean and positive campaign. An unorthodox campaign centered around community and volunteerism. Mizeur is running the kind of campaign that would make people proud of politicians. But no one knows it. Fully 79% of Democrats did not know her name. Gansler has the money to introduce himself to voters, Mizeur does not.

Brown's ahead and his campaign should be proud of what they have accomplished. In a true three person race Brown's 41% would be fantastic. But this doesn't look much like a three person race. And with high name recognition and 7 years on the job, I wonder if Brown is nearing his ceiling at 41%?

Gansler has an opportunity to introduce himself to the 37% who don't know him and to start tapping into the one-third of undecided voters. With Mizeur at 5% this is starting to look like a two person race and Brown's clearest advantage was in a 3 or 4 person race. But before Gansler can recover, and he has plenty of time, he needs to shake up his campaign - the sooner the better. The Brown team has been at least two steps ahead of Gansler and now Gansler needs a team that is up to the challenge.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Do You Think You Can Balance the Budget?

I have decided to share the Budget Simulation that I developed for my Pubic Policy class. I first created the simulation in 2007 to help students understand the various areas of the federal budget and the difficult choices involved in cutting programs or increasing taxes. Over the years I expanded and improved the simulation. It's very easy to use if you follow the directions. Your task is to get the deficit under control. The simulation contains actual budget data for FY 2013. Spending is organized by budget function and subfunction. If you place your mouse over any of the function or subfunction boxes a pop-up box will provide a description of the programs covered. You are free to increase or decrease spending. I have excluded Medicare and Social Security from simple percentage increases or decreases and instead provided specific reform options for you to review later in the simulation.

At the end of the spending changes you will find a tally box that reveals... your changes in spending and resultant changes in your deficit. The original values for each are also presented.

In the next section you are given the opportunity to change revenue by make changes to tax policy. You cannot propose specific tax rates, but what you can do is propose increases or decreases to the tax burden of different income groups - from the bottom 50% to the top 1%. The simulation shows how much income tax revenue is currently collected from each. If you mouse over the boxes for the income groups you will see additional information concerning their current share of income taxes paid. You can also change federal excise taxes and corporate taxes.

Next you're given the option to expand or decrease tax expenditures such as the home mortgage interest deduction, the earned income tax credit, and the employer deduction for health insurance costs. These popular deductions translate into lost revenue. Reducing them means more revenue and expanding them means less. Mouse over each option to learn more.

Finally, you have a selection of possible reforms to Medicare or Social Security. Here your choice is to either leave them alone or enact the specific proposal.

When you're done, return to the tally box to see how much you changed total federal revenue.

On the right side of the screen you'll see a table and graph - each tracks the effects of your changes relative to the total economy.

Give it a try, I'd love to know what you think.

Maryland 2014 and the Nonsense of Geographic Balance

The latest stir in the Maryland governors race is the suggestion that Doug Gansler, from Montgomery county, made a mistake by not balancing his ticket with someone from the Baltimore Region. Gansler picked Jolene Ivey from Prince George's. Don Norris of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County said the pick, coupled with earlier controversies regarding the role of race in the campaign and the recent allegations about Gansler and his use of state vehicles, showed that Gansler is "knee-deep in quicksand."*  I have great respect for Don Norris, but knee-deep in quicksand? Maybe he's up to his ankles in a mud puddle. I've been arguing for two years that Brown is the favorite in this race, but that does not mean that Gansler is out of contention. And his "failure" to pick a Baltimore-based running mate has not placed him deeper in the muck and mire.

No one has suggested that Lt. Gov. Brown, from Prince George's, failed the regional balance test when he picked Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. This is apparently a balanced ticket. Nonsense! Let me be clear, the only folks who would argue that a PG/Howard ticket is geographically balanced while a MoCo/PG ticket is regional are folks who have never looked at a map of Maryland!

The reality is, we have two tickets representing what could best be described as central Maryland and the DC suburbs. The tickets represent the reality of the Democratic party in Maryland - it is comprised of a shrinking Baltimore City core that travels down the I-95 corridor before blossoming around the DC beltway in Montgomery, Prince George's, and Charles counties. Vast swaths of Maryland are essentially foreign turf to the Maryland Democratic party.

Map of Maryland Counties

None of the counties represented by the Gansler/Ivey or Brown/Ulman tickets offer a reasonable representation of the state. Montgomery and Howard counties are incredibly well-off and enjoy great schools and low unemployment - they represent an upper-income privileged Maryland quite unfamiliar to residents in Western Maryland, significant portions of Northern Maryland, and a lot of folks on the Eastern shore.

Demographics of MD, Montgomery, Howard, and Prince George's Counties
  Maryland Montgomery Howard Prince George's
White 53.90% 49.30% 62.20% 19.20%
Black 30.00% 16.60% 17.50% 64.50%
Asian 6.00% 13.90% 14.40% 4.10%
American Indian and Alaska Native 0.50% 0.40% 0.30% 0.50%
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander 0.10% 0.10% 0.00% 0.10%
Multi-Racial 2.50% 4.00% 3.60% 3.20%
Hispanic or Latino 6.90% 17.00% 5.80% 14.90%
Number of Schools in Newsweek's Top 20 Best High Schools in the state        
  7 4 1
Placement among the 25 wealthiest counties in US   11 3 -
Unemployment (July 2013) 7.10% 5.30% 5.50% 7.10%

More than anything though is the nonsense that a ticket that sought to balance the Baltimore and DC region has been a long standing tradition in Maryland politics - one that Gansler has broken.

For over 100 years between 1867 and 1970 Maryland had no Lt. Governor. The office was abolished. So any tradition can only extend to 1970. In our first election with a restored Lt. Governor in 1970 Marvin Mandel of Baltimore City selected Blair Lee III of Montgomery County - and I guess a noble tradition of balance was born. Like so much else that came from the 1970s though, it's worth asking if we started a tradition or a fad.

Maryland's next governor, Harry Hughes, hailed from Caroline county over on the Eastern Shore (imagine that happening today). His first term Lt. Governor was Samuel Bogley from PG county and his second term Lt. was Joe Curran, Jr. from Baltimore City. So I guess Hughes continued the tradition by picking someone from each region for each of his two terms? I guess Baltimore area voters in 1978 just had to have faith that when he ran for re-election in 1982 he'd dump Bogley and deliver on the tradition of regional balance. We could split hairs and recognize that Hughes relocated to the Baltimore region in 1971 when he became Secretary of Transportation - but the vast majority of his political career was spent and his base were on the Eastern Shore. If we wanted to get that technical then we'd need to discuss Ivey's years in the Baltimore region.

This brings us to 1986 and the election of William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer, then Mayor of Baltimore City, selected as his Lt. Gov. Senate President Mickey Steinberg. Steinberg was from..... Baltimore County.  And how did voters react to this tragically imbalanced and very regional ticket? By electing and re-electing Schaefer with overwhelming margins.

PG county Exec. Parris Glendening returned to the tradition in 1994 and picked Baltimore area attorney Kathleen Kennedy Townsend - but Townsend, lacking any experience as an elected official, was picked based on name recognition and fundraising potential more so than any commitment to geographic balance. Glendening's return to tradition was greeted with a very narrow election victory. The Baltimore/PG combination held for the next two governing teams. Baltimore's Bob Ehrlich picked PG's Michael Steele (though it's unclear why a Republican team would look to the Baltimore/DC balance tradition) and Baltimore's Martin O'Malley picked PG's Anthony Brown.

Based on this history of elections since 1970 there has arisen this mythology of Maryland gubernatorial elections that a ticket must be geographically balanced. The simple reality is Maryland's population is moving. The Baltimore region, and especially Baltimore City, was once the central hub of political power in the state - that is no longer the case. The new power hub in Maryland is wrapped around the DC beltway. Montgomery and PG counties are crucial to any Democrat seeking office - Baltimore is no longer the crucial region it once was. By picking Ken Ulman as his Lt. Governor Anthony Brown very much acknowledged that transition. Howard county borders both 20th Century Maryland to the its north and 21st Century Maryland to its south. With his pick, Brown wanted credit for picking a balanced ticket that held to tradition - and the press has largely given him that credit.

But the simple truth is this - neither ticket is any more geographically balanced than the other. To say Howard county is in the Baltimore region is like saying Montgomery County is in Western Maryland - it doesn't pass the sniff test. I understand that the US Office of Management and Budget places Howard in the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), but Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties are there as well - I don't think anyone would suggest a running mate from Queen Anne's would've brought the Baltimore region into the race. Howard straddles the line between Baltimore and DC, it's no more one than it is the other. In fact, I miss my days as a Howard resident - I could get the Baltimore and DC stations on my cable and satellite service! Montgomery county is in the Washington–Arlington–Alexandria, DC–VA–MD–WV MSA, but so are Frederick and Calvert - and most folks still consider Frederick and Calvert as distinct from Montgomery and Prince George's. So the MSA groupings are less than useful measuring sticks. Especially given all of the afore mentioned counties are in the larger Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area... confused yet? The map below may or may not help....

Montgomery, Howard, and Prince George's Counties are very different from one another and each ticket offers voters with a team that does represent very different parts of Maryland. But the notion that PG/Howard is balanced while MoCo/PG is not is utter nonsense.

Rather than obsessing over geography we should be looking at the candidates themselves. Both Brown and Gansler have made incredibly impressive choices. Both Brown and Gansler are offering voters an incredibly dynamic team. Both Brown and Gansler have picked future leaders in state politics. The simple reality is this, whether Democrats nominate Brown/Ulman or Gansler/Ivey they will have nominated an impressive team. On many crucial issue there's not a dime's worth of difference between the teams. This is probably why we have been inundated with meaningless stories about the state of the campaign, and hollow scandals, instead of substantive stories about the issues of interest to voters.

Let's hope that changes soon.

*In an earlier version of this post I failed to note that Don Norris identified several factors other than the Ivey pick as evidence of the Gansler campaign troubles. I have now included the larger context of his quote. I regret the error.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Anthony Brown... the Establishment's Candidate

Maryland state government is in need of fundamental reforms, from redistricting, to campaign finance, to greater accountability to the people. Whoever becomes governor in 2014 will have an opportunity to deliver those reforms. But with every new endorsement from the party establishment bestowed upon Anthony Brown it becomes ever more clear that he will not be the guy to deliver those reforms. The establishment has circled the wagons around Brown because they expect him to return the favor and protect their every perk, preference, and peccadillo. That is not what Maryland needs.

Over the past few years Maryland has been cited by good government organizations for its antiquated party machine style of governance - it's an embarrassment to a great state and it needs to change. But it won't change with a continuation of the O'Malley administration and another governor who is more committed to the party machine than to the people. As much as it frustrates me to write it, it has become abundantly clear that Anthony Brown is the candidate of, by, and for the status quo. In 2014 we deserve better than business as usual. I have been critical of Doug Gansler in the past, but no one can accuse him of being in anyone's pocket. And the status quo has never been something with which he's been comfortable. In 2014, Gansler's greatest boast may indeed be, "I'm the guy the establishment wants to beat."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Intra-State Secessionist Movements a Symptom of a More Serious Disease

A small group of Western Marylanders are pursuing a quixotic secessionist movement that would see the state's 4 western counties break away and form a new state. Led by Scott Strzelczyk, the secessionists argue Maryland is controlled by a single party and by folks elected from 3 jurisdictions - Baltimore, Montgomery County, and Prince Georges County. Everyone else, they say, is being ignored.

Given that western Maryland is overwhelmingly white and rural, some have been quick to dismiss the secessionist movement as a race-based action motivated by white voters fearful of growing diversity in the state. Though such arguments may hold a kernel of truth, they obscure the more fundamental cause for these movements in Maryland and elsewhere. These intra-state movements are driven by a complex mix of issues that go to the very heart of a representative Democracy.

It's important to understand that what's happening in Western MD is not unique to the region or to MD.  For decades there has been a secessionist movement on the Eastern Shore. The movement's strength ebbs and flows much like the tides that surround the region. Proposals for a new state date back to the 1830s. In 1998, legislation was introduced that would have put the question of Eastern Shore secession on the ballot. Eastern Shore secessionists argue the region is not well represented in Annapolis, that tax dollars generated by tourists are not appropriately reinvested in the area, and that transportation monies are consistently directed elsewhere.

In Colorado multiple rural counties have pursued secession in an effort to create one or more new states. Movement organizers, including elected officials from the secessionist counties, argue their interests are not being represented in a state legislature dominated by officials from more suburban and urban counties. Recent gun control legislation as well as new renewable energy standards placed on electric cooperatives (common in rural areas) have bolstered the movement.

Lest you think the secession movements are all the result of disgruntled conservative, understand that disgruntled liberals are looking to secession as well. As recently as 2008 and again in 2012 Democratic officials in southern Florida sought to separate from the Republican rest of the state. And liberals in southern Arizona, frustrated by Republican dominance in the state capital, have pursued secession as well.

And these are just a selection of the intra-state secession movements active in the U.S. today. It's important to understand that intra-state secession movements are quite different from the secession movements seeking to separate from the United States altogether. Intra-state secessionist are not disillusioned with the United States, rather they are frustrated by a political system that they believe to be ignoring them - and the reality is, they probably are being ignored.

Given the deep divide between elected Democrats and Republicans, being a political minority in a state or legislative district likely means being marginalized. In truly competitive states and legislative districts, elected officials cannot afford to alienate voters not in their party. In such states and districts, fellow partisans lack sufficient numbers to ensure victory. As the parties have polarized and Democrats have become more consistently liberal and Republicans more consistently conservative some states that were once competitive no longer are. Maryland is a good example. Though Maryland has been dominated by Democrats since Reconstruction, Republicans were once more successful in the state. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush carried MD in 1984 and 1988. Mac Mathias represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 18 years until 1987. But the parties were not as polarized then. There were plenty of moderate Democrats and Republicans and substantial bipartisan cooperation. In such an environment, conservative leaning voters are more comfortable voting for Democrats and liberal leaning voters are more comfortable voting for Republicans. In such an environment, competitive states and districts are more likely.

In the present era, however, voting Republican only makes sense if you have a preference for conservatism over liberalism - even if it's a slight preference. Voting Democrat only makes sense if you have a preference for liberalism over conservatism - even if it's slight. As a result, once competitive states have become less competitive. The number of landslide states has grown (states where one party typically wins the presidential vote by at least 10 points). It's important to understand this can happen even if the voters themselves have not become more liberal or conservatives - more polarized. It's not that voters polarized, it's that the parties and therefor candidates polarized. In an election between two polarized candidates, a non-polarized electorate can make polarized choices.

In Congressional and state legislative districts a similar dynamic has been playing out, but it has been assisted by power hungry partisans and frustrated people voting with their feet. As recently as 1992, there were about 103 truly competitive swing districts in Congress and about 123 landslide districts. Today, there are roughly 35 swing districts and 242 landslide districts. Some of this reflects the reality of voters choosing between two polarized candidates, but it also reflects substantial advances in the gerrymandering of congressional districts - drawing districts to either advantage or disadvantage a particular political party. The same thing has been going on with state legislative districts. In states dominated by Republicans, districts have been drawn to marginalize Democratic representation and Democrats have returned the favor in the states they dominate.

We see this in Maryland. Though Democrats do enjoy a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage in the state (57% to 27%) actual election results reveal a different balance. Republicans routinely receive 40% of the vote in the state and win in the counties and areas outside of the Baltimore/Washington corridor. That 40% largely precludes Republicans from winning statewide, but should ensure reasonable representation in the state legislature and some presence in the states Congressional delegate- especially given the significant swaths of Maryland where Republicans routinely outpoll Democrats . Yet the GOP claims only 1 of the state's 8 U.S. House seats (12.5%), only 12 of the 47 state senators (25%), and only 43 of the 141 delegates (30%). This under-representation is driven largely by the gerrymandering of MD's congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans are either packed into the 1st congressional district on the Eastern shore and northern MD or they are cracked and divided among the remaining 7 districts.

In the legislature, state senate districts defy county and city boundaries and divide neighborhoods and school districts all in the name of maximizing the number of Democratic seats. In the MD House most districts elect three delegates at large with the top three candidates winning a seat. As originally intended some districts were to be divided into subdistricts - either into three one-delegate subdistricts or into one two-delegate subdistrict and one one-delegate subdistrict. Democrats have used the subdistrict allowance to carve out Democratic subdistricts in otherwise Republican areas (see map below).

Almost without fail, the presence of subdistricts in MD redound to the benefit of Democrats.
Which brings me back to the secessionists... if you are a Republican in Maryland, or even an independent who leans a bit more to the right than to the left, then forget being represented in Annapolis. The deck has been stacked against you. And because the districts have been so meticulously drawn the majority party has no reason to care what minority Republicans or unaffiliated voters want. Simply stated, being a Republican in Maryland is like being a Democrat in Texas - you're invisible. It's this feeling of invisibility and irrelevance that's motivating folks in Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Maryland and elsewhere.
A recent study by Professor Philip Jones at the University of Delaware determined that political competition boosts accountability of elected officials, increases participation, and motivates voters to be more informed. We increasingly live in a system that has less and less competition, which means less accountability and less participation.
Intra-state secessionists are frustrated by a polarized and heavily manipulated political system that seeks to marginalize minority party voters in states. Nationally, the two parties may be well balanced, but it's a balance brought about by the representative imbalance in individual states.
Our system of government was not designed to ensure representation of two extreme and polarized factions. It was designed to force extremes to compromise, cooperate, and moderate. In the absence of such compromise and cooperation, the folks who are marginalized will seek alternatives ways to be heard. Alternatives that may or may not succeed, but that nevertheless point to significant problems at the heart of our representative form of government. We would do well to listen to what these marginalized voters are saying and ask whether the system is simply failing them or failing us all.
Though I understand the motivations for these secessionist movements, they are a cure worse than the disease. Were we to allow regions of states to breakaway and create politically homogenous new states we would make worse our existing problems. We already see some evidence of frustrated voters deciding to vote with their feet and move to states or districts that better represent their preferences. Such actions only make matters worse. By removing themselves from one area they contribute to the majority party's strength there and by relocating to an area where they are part of the majority they help further marginalize the minority in their new area. The solution is not ever more homogenous states and districts, the solution is to remove the impediments to true competition and representation.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Does the MD GOP have a Deep Bench?

In a recent interview I was quoted as saying:
“It speaks to the sorry state of the Republican party in Maryland... You’re not going to have Doug Gansler … you’ve got an open race, the potential for a divisive Democratic primary. If they want anyone to ever take them seriously, they’ve got to win some statewide offices every now and then, which means trying to build a bench instead of running these throwaway challenges.”
Apparently this annoyed Red Maryland's Greg Kline. After taking the obligatory GOP talking point swipe against college professors (for the record, no one who knows me would ever think I read the Huffington Post) he suggested that the MD GOP has a significant and impressive bench of potential candidates.
The good assistant professor (actually I'm an Associate Professor) is right that a lack of a candidate even being discussed does reflect poorly on the MDGOP but he his so wrong about the state party not having a bench or plenty of qualified, potential candidates.... Any potential AG candidate knows that they would be on their own running statewide.  The state party is too much focused on creating a list of people to call and too little focused on what they are going to tell the person on the other end of the phone.
Kline then goes on to explain why the MD GOP cannot get potential candidates to agree to run for office in the state. "Candidate recruitment, like recruiting for a college football team, is about selling the experience and making someone want to be a part of something. This is exactly what the party isn't doing."

Kline then rattles off a list of what the MD GOP must do if it wants to recruit candidates. And Kline is spot on. Where Kline and I actually disagree is on just what constitutes "a bench of candidates." To me, a strong bench consists of candidates preferably with some degree of name recognition and a clear willingness to run if asked. Even better are candidates already holding office. The party would be best served if they were able to tap candidates from among the swelling ranks of elected GOP officials at the county level. Kline argues that the party has a deep bench simply because there are a lot qualified potential candidates in the state (there are 5.9 million people in the state, of course there are a lot of qualified potential candidates) - but those folks aren't willing to run. To me, that's not a bench. At best it's a two-legged stool. To build on Kline's football team analogy, the bench consists of those folks on the team and ready to play. It doesn't refer to the excellent potential players that are watching from the bleachers.

In 2010 the state GOP let Doug Gansler run unopposed for AG. Nationwide, 2010 was a fantastic year for the GOP - Maryland was a glaring exception that didn't need to be. In the U.S. Senate race Queen Anne's County Commissioner sEric Wargotz scored the highest level of support against Mikulski in two decades. With very little money and no debates Wargotz neared 40% of the vote.

As I have argued in prior posts, Maryland is not a 2-to-1 Democratic state. If you look at actual election results it's closer to a 60/40 state. Credible GOP candidates are able to hit that 40% mark, stronger candidates are able to exceed that share. But such strong candidates are rare in MD. Michael Steele and Bob Ehrlich were each able to top that 40% mark. William Campell and Anne McCarthy were quality Comptroller candidates in 2010 and 2006. In 2014 the state GOP has the potential to have strong candidates for governor and Campbell is likely to run again for Comptroller. Though I consider Harford County Executive David Craig to be the strongest gubernatorial candidate, Delegate Ron George is a solid candidate as well and either could give the Democratic nominee a real fight. Assuming Craig or George actually campaign for the job (as opposed to Ehrlich's lazy mess of a campaign in 2010) they should have no problem topping Ehrlich's 42% from 2010 and could even achieve victory.

It's important that the state GOP have quality candidates running for all statewide offices, yes they'd all face an uphill battle to win but a strong top of the ticket can boost turnout and help candidates down ballot cross the finish line in races for the state Senate, House of Delegates, County Commissioners, or other local offices. These down ballot winners then become the MD GOP's real bench. Because of redistricting and Martin O'Malley's political gerrymandering of state legislative districts the MD GOP is going to have a tough time holding onto it's meager 12 seats in the 47 seat state Senate. Falling below 12 seats would be a devastating blow to the morale of any already suffering party. The GOP needs to reach 19 seats in the Senate to truly have an impact as that's the number needed to filibuster. Gerrymandering makes that a tall order, improbable but not impossible - especially if the top of the ticket is strong. But at present, the state Republican party is just a mess. And so long as it is a mess the bench of candidates will be thin. Folks like Red Maryland's Greg Kline, Mark Newgent, and Brian Griffith have been offering the state GOP a lot a free and good advice, but I'm not sure the state party is organized enough to listen.

Though Kline may think that I'm some left-wing Huffington Post reading academic, the reality is that I'm an unaffiliated voter who would very much like to see Maryland's one party monopoly broken. I may disagree with the GOP on a host of issues, but the same can be said of the Democrats. I have no preference for one party over the other. What I do want is a vibrant and open debate of the issues, I want deliberation and not one party hegemony. I want the 40% of Marylanders who consistently vote against the Democrats to have a voice equal to their numbers, instead of the gerrymandered mess that has effectively held the GOP to less than 30% of the seats in the General Assembly and only 1 seat among the states congressional delegation. Republicans have figured out how to win and be relevant in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts. There simply no excuse for the party's continued problems in Maryland.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Will Dynamic Lollar Overshadow Craig and George?

Businessman and Tea Party favorite Charles Lollar has officially launched his bid for the Maryland Republican gubernatorial nomination. Lollar launched his campaign in St. Mary's County Maryland - the county is home to Maryland's first capital and, to the delight of state Republicans, is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and has been growing ever more Republican in recent years.

In announcing his bid, Lollar described himself as a fiscal conservative and social libertarian, insisting he was running for governor and not priest. He promised to reach out to Democrats as well as Republicans - a necessity and not a choice in Maryland. His campaign launch and message offered echoes of Bob Ehrlich's successful campaign in 2002.

Lollar's emphasis on fiscal matters and his desire to sideline any discussion of social issues are both wise decisions. Recent referenda on in-state tuition for the children of undocumented residents and same-sex marriage clearly suggest that Maryland is becoming more and more progressive with regard to social issues. Traditional Republican party stances against same-sex marriage and support for get tough immigration policies are not going to work in Maryland in 2014. For the GOP to win, their candidate must run a campaign focused on the economic and regulatory health of Maryland. Recent news that Maryland is suffering from an exodus of taxpayers should bolster such a campaign.

Lollar ran a high profile campaign against House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer in 2010. Though the race garnered national attention and high intensity support, Lollar lost to Hoyer by 64% to 35%. Lollar was unable to eat into Hoyer's base of support in the Democratic stronghold of Prince Georges county. It remains to be seen whether he can make such inroads in a race for governor.

Republicans that I have spoken with (outside of the draft Lollar movement) are surprisingly cool to his candidacy. Many question his preparedness and see little more than an inspiring candidate and gifted orator- a criticism many Republicans directed toward Barack Obama in 2008. In a race that already features MD Delegate Ron George and Harford county Executive David Craig it's difficult to see why Republican voters would look to a political novice to try and salvage the party. It's rather easy to imagine the line of attack that would be used to undermine support for Lollar. Republicans often say government should be run more like a business, but no Board of Directors would hire a CEO with no relevant experience. So why would GOP voters nominate a candidate for governor with no experience governing? The governor's mansion is hardly the place for on the job training. If anything derails the Lollar campaign, I suspect it will be the issue of experience.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Reclaim the Governor's Mansion, MD GOP Should Look to McKeldin

In 1950, incumbent Democratic governor William Preston Lane was seeking reelection. Lane had won the office 4 years earlier by a wide margin. But by 1950, Lane was in trouble. He had committed his administration to taking on the numerous infrastructure improvements that had been delayed by WWII - including the Bay Bridge. Lane financed these improvements with an increased sales tax. Few could dispute the need for the improvements, yet the tax proved to be quite unpopular. In 1950, Lane was challenged for the Democratic nomination by George Mahoney. Mahoney was a conservative Democrat who appeared often on ballots during that era. Lane survived the primary challenge but emerged from the contest weakened.

In the general election he faced off against the former Republican Mayor of Baltimore City, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin. McKeldin trounced Lane 57% to 42% in the election. At the time, it was the widest victory margin for any gubernatorial candidate in the state and it remains the high watermark for GOP candidates for governor. McKeldin was an effective and successful chief executive. He was what many today would call a New England Republican or a Rockefeller Republican. He did not dismiss government as evil or even a necessary evil - rather it served an important purpose. For McKeldin, that purpose was largely infrastructure and Marylanders benefit from his legacy any time they travel I-695, I-495, or US Route 50. McKeldin was re-elected in 1954 and after leaving public life in 1959, was reelected Mayor of Baltimore City from 1963-1967. He was the last two term Republican governor in MD and the last Republican Mayor of Baltimore City.

So what does any of this have to do with 2014 and the MD Republican gubernatorial nominating contest? I argue there are several things to be learned from McKeldin and the 1950 election. One important lesson being unpopular policies can harm a candidate even if voters support the need for the policies. Lane was seriously harmed by the increased sales tax - even as voters recognized the good that was coming from the revenue. Over the past 7 years, Marylanders have been subject to numerous tax increases - sales, income, gas, fees - voters in this Blue state may support the programs being funded, but that doesn't mean they're not smarting from the lost income. The increased sales and gas taxes may be the most onerous. Voter anger weakened Lane and created an opening for McKeldin.

The 1950 contest tells us as well that divisive primaries can provide opportunities for Republicans. The battle between Mahoney and Lane left the party divided and Lane weakened. This kind of party division also helped Republican Spiro "Ted" Agnew win the governorship in 1966. There is tremendous potential for a very divisive Democratic primary contest in 2014. At present, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler have nowhere to go other than the governor's mansion. Each man will fight like hell to win the party's nomination. Such a pitched battle could leave the Democratic electorate divided - providing an opening for the GOP. Such divisions occurred in 1950, 1966, and even in 2002 - when many in the party were less than thrilled by the coronation of the lackluster Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Townsend furthered party divisions by tapping a white Republican to be her running mate. Republicans won the governor's mansion in each of those years.

Finally, McKeldin was the right kind of Republican for Maryland. Make no mistake, McKeldin was a partisan. He was a proud Republican. But McKeldin was also a realist. In 1950, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 2.6-1. McKeldin could not win without winning over Democrats. Ever the pragmatist, McKeldin worked hard to win over elements of the Democratic electorate left divided after their party's primary. McKeldin took elements of Mahoney's and Lane's agendas and made them part of his own. He downplayed partisanship, instead focusing on accountability. He argued Lane had presided over wasteful spending and unnecessarily high taxes. He argued that Lane was inaccessible and simply a part of the Democratic party machine. As governor, he focused on governmental reform and increased transparency in the state. He stood up to unions and other entrenched interests - rarely invoking party.

Republicans do have an opportunity in 2014 to repeat 1950 (though repeating McKeldin's 15 point victory margin is beyond impossible- but winning by 1.5% or 0.15% is still winning). If Anthony Brown is nominated, he will carry with him the weight of Martin O'Malley's tenure in office. For all of the good - spending in check, funding for education, same sex marriage, etc... - he will also bear the burden of the bad - a declining tax base, mediocre job growth, higher gas, sales, and income taxes, and a government sorely lacking in transparency and electoral accountability. The GOP must look to the McKeldin model, it must run on an agenda that is economic and not social. It should make government a central issue, but not by portraying it as a force of evil. Rather, it must be presented as an essential partner. But a partner in need of reform and oversight. Brown must be portrayed as being part of the party machine, a candidate incapable of and unwilling to commit to needed reforms (his laundry list of endorsements by the establishment should make that an easy argument). The GOP needs to run a campaign based on reform and accountability. A campaign about anything else will just elect the democratic nominee.

In an upcoming post I'll look at the candidates for the GOP nomination, but at present, only one declared candidate appears ready to carry forward the McKeldin mantle and reclaim the governor's mansion in Maryland. And that's Harford County Executive David Craig.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Ganslergate" and the Manufacturing of News

As everyone who pays attention to Maryland politics knows, the Free State is in the midst of a scandal! Ganslergate, as one reporter laughingly described it to me. The Washington Post obtained a secretly recorded meeting between Attorney General Doug Gansler and a group of supporters. As reported by the Post, Gansler was rather dismissive of Lt. Governor Anthony Brown's campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“I mean, right now his campaign slogan is, ‘Vote for me, I want to be the first African American governor of Maryland. That’s a laudable goal, but you need a second sentence: ‘Because here’s what I’ve done, and here’s why I’ve done it.’”
The meaning of Gansler's comments seem clear - Anthony Brown doesn't have a record or a message to take to voters; rather his election would mark an historic first for Maryland.

I must admit, when I first read the story and the quotes I didn't get what the controversy was. Doug Gansler noted something that everyone knows - race still matters in American politics. It especially matters in Maryland where African Americans account for 30-35% of the  Democratic primary electorate and about a quarter of the general election voters. Despite the importance of African Americans as a voting bloc in Maryland, only two African Americans have ever been elected to statewide office - Michael Steele and Anthony Brown. And both were elected as Lt. Governors in a state where votes are cast for a Governor/LT. Governor ticket. So no African American has ever been elected to statewide office at the top of the ticket.

Everyone who covers, analyses, strategizes, and works on Maryland politics recognizes that race matters in our state elections. In 2002, it was widely regarded as a critical error when Democratic Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend picked a white Republican to be her running mate. That the choice risked alienating African American voters was openly discussed. When Republican nominee Bob Ehrlich picked Michael Steele to be his running mate, race was again openly discussed. In a particularly pointed editorial, the editors at the Baltimore Sun said of Steele he "brought nothing to the ticket but the color of his skin." Essentially, the editors were saying that lacking any record or accomplishments Ehrlich and Steele were relying on race to win votes.  There was no outcry over the Sun's comments - other than from Ehrlich and Steele.

In 2006, Steele decided to run for the U.S. Senate. The Democratic nominee was to be either Representative Ben Cardin or former Representative and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. The impact of race on that contest was openly discussed. Under the headline "Maryland Senate Race May Hinge On Ethnicity," Washington Post reporters wrote:
"As they stand, the racial divisions are stark: In the primary, Mfume, who is black, gets 72 percent of his support from black voters, the poll shows. Cardin, who is white, gets 82 percent of his backing from white voters."
It's hard to imagine a more clearly divided electorate. The Post's reporters noted that Cardin was the stronger candidate in a general election match-up with Steele, even though Steele's support among African American voters jumped significantly in a hypothetical match-up against Cardin.

After Cardin won the nomination he received the Washington Post's nomination. In an editorial written just prior to the election, the Post dismissed Steele as a man with little experience, few accomplishments, and nothing really to offer voters. In the final paragraph, the writers note:
"A victory for Mr. Steele, an African American, would add diversity to the Senate. That is a worthy goal, and it is one reason given by a number of high-profile black Democrats for breaking party ranks to endorse him. But it is worth noting that even those backers have not made the argument that Mr. Steele would be an especially effective lawmaker or a leader on any particular issue in the Senate. Maryland deserves all that, and only Mr. Cardin, with his deep experience, can deliver it."

In other words, the Post editors believed that the only reason Steele was receiving support from black Democrats was because he was African American. In 2006, it was commonly accepted that Steele was counting on the fact that he would be the state's first African American Senator to deliver significant support from African American voters. I have a hard time seeing how Gansler's comments cross a line when they don't even come close to being as blunt as an editorial in the very paper that broke the "Ganslergate" story.

Since initially publishing the original story on Gansler's comments, the Post has doubled down with stories on the "fallout" and "flak" that Gansler is receiving. Yet in these stories, the reader is treated to folks who already support Brown feigning outrage over Gansler's comments. I have to ask, can it really be called "fallout" when folks who never intended to vote for Gansler reiterate that they still aren't voting for Gansler?

I spoke with several reporters yesterday regarding this story, most agreed (off the record) that there was nothing particularly damning or offensive in what Gansler said. But these reporters were writing stories about the "scandal" because it was in the Washington Post...

This is a ridiculous story full of false indignation. Gansler is perhaps guilty of one thing, Brown himself has never made this contest about race - in fact he never speaks of the issue (though Gansler's comments appeared to be directed at the Brown campaign). That's the double standard of contemporary politics. We all know that race has an impact on elections, we know there are racial divisions in voting choices, we know that race has influenced election after election in Maryland. And the Cardin/Mfume contest in 2006 suggests there will be a significant racial divide among Democratic voters come election day. In a three person contest, the severity of that divide will likely determine the outcome. But the minute a candidate references race he/she is accused of exploiting the issue.

But the issue of race and the potential for an African American candidate for governor do play a role in this contest. Gansler was trying to make the point that Brown has offered few, if any, proposals for the future. Gansler was trying to say that Brown has "no achievement, no record." Whether or not that's true is debatable, but the claim is pretty tame and standard stuff in Maryland and certainly consistent with opinions offered by the very paper now pushing this story when writing about other candidates.

I realize that this is a particularly boring time in Maryland politics, but that doesn't mean we need to create scandals just to have something exciting to write about.

I'll reiterate what I've said before - I am not affiliated with the Gansler campaign and have no dog in the Gansler/Brown hunt. I had hoped that Comptroller Franchot would run, when he dropped out my attention shifted to Ken Ulman, the he opted to run for Lt. Governor. At present, I have no idea who I'll support in the general election and as an unaffiliated voter I can't even vote in the primary. So I'm not defending my candidate... I'm just annoyed by what is really a pointless story.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Maryland 2014: Part 1 - The Democrats Running for Governor

It's been awhile since I've written about the 2014 gubernatorial contest in Maryland. In a post last September, I profiled the four men most likely to seek the nomination - Attorney General Doug Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Howard County Exec. Ken Ulman. I mentioned Heather Mizeur as a "rumored to be thinking about it" candidate. I argued then, that Brown was the odds on favorite to win the nomination.
"If the 2014 primary were like a typical Democratic primary in recent years with only two credible candidates then certainly Gansler would be the favorite - but in a three man race his odds drop considerably and in a 4 man race a clear new favored candidate emerges from the pack - Lt. Governor Anthony Brown."
Much has changed since September... and yet very little has changed.

Two of the expected candidates are now out of the race.  The Franchot folks always understood thy had a very narrow path to victory, it was a path that relied on moderate and conservative Democrats outside of the I-95 corridor. The Franchot team understood that if Gansler and Brown split the progressive vote, and Gansler, Brown, and Ulman divided the I-95 vote, and if Franchot could compete with Gansler in their shared home turf of Montgomery County, and if Franchot could win over Democrats from parts of the state that feel ignored by the Democratic party, then Franchot could build an electoral plurality in a multicandidate race. It was a path to victory that needed every "and if" to fall into place. In the end, Franchot decided that he enjoyed being Comptroller too much to risk everything on a series of and ifs. It was probably the correct call. I had written and spoken favorably of Franchot and make no secret of the fact that he would have been my preferred candidate. He openly and passionately challenged the Democratic party status quo in the state and would have been the candidate most likely to embrace the types of good government reforms so desperately needed in Annapolis.

As for Ken Ulman, there had been rumblings for some time that the Brown campaign was working feverishly behind the scenes to get Ulman on board as Brown's running mate. Those rumblings turned out to be true and the Brown/Ulman team have been traveling the state fundraising and securing nominations all summer long. At first blush, this was a smart move by Brown. Not only did he eliminate a dynamic and appealing opponent - someone with the only real claim to the Baltimore region, which can really matter in a primary contest - Brown also absorbed Ulman's campaign war chest, and Ulman had proven to be a damn good fundraiser. Going into this contest, Gansler enjoyed a tremendous cash advantage, but the merging of the Brown and Ulman coffers largely eradicated that advantage. I'm still not certain if taking Ulman out of the race was the best option for Brown - I argued in January of last year that Brown's chances of securing the nomination increased with each additional candidate in the race. By tapping Ulman, Brown may have created a simple two man contest between himself and Gansler. In that scenario, Gansler has an advantage.

But of course, it's not a simple two man race; rather it's shaping up to be a pretty exciting three person race. Heather Mizeur officially announced that she was joining the fray just one month ago this week, but her intentions were clear months beforehand. Mizeur is among the very few women to ever seek the nomination for Maryland governor, and if elected she would be the Free States's first female governor. Mizeur is also one of only 8 openly gay members of the Maryland General Assembly. If she were to win the nomination, she would become the first openly LGBT candidate to run for governor on a major party ticket. Given the recent swings in public opinion in favor of marriage equality, Maryland's legalization of same-sex marriage (uphold by the voters at referendum), and the election of Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, Mizeur must feel a little bit of the winds of change at her back.

There are still the occasional rumblings about another candidate hopping into the race (Dutch Ruppersberger anyone?), and there's certainly plenty of time for a new candidate to get in - but one is left with a strong sense that the Democratic field is set - Doug Gansler, Anthony Brown, and Heather Mizeur.

As everyone understands, Maryland is a heavily Democratic state. The party claims 56% of registered voters to the GOP's 27%. As a result, the Democratic nominee is the odds on favorite to become the states next governor). So who will win the Democratic primary?

Last year, many a political observer assumed Attorney General Doug Gansler was the favorite. He had an impressive campaign war chest and had twice run and won statewide. The GOP didn't even bother challenging him in 2010 (I'll more to say about the GOP in a follow-up post). Gansler enjoys high name recognition and his work on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay and his official opinion that the state would recognize same sex marriages performed out of state have endeared him to state progressives - crucial in a primary. And Gansler hails from Maryland's most populated county - Montgomery. After the disaster that was the 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly, Gansler's stock rose significantly. Governor O'Malley absorbed a tremendous amount of criticism (deservedly so) for the failure that was the 2012 session. Being part of the O'Malley team was no feather in Brown's cap that year.

But O'Malley quickly realized that the bad press from the failed session was harming his own presidential ambitions. Over the summer of 2012 he called two special sessions, one to settle the state budget and the other to address the issue of casino gambling in the state. O'Malley took control of the casino issue and worked hard at crafting a proposal acceptable to the House and Senate. Then, in November of 2012 O'Malley found himself symbolically on the ballot in Maryland not once, but four times. The casino measured passed by the Assembly was subject to voter approval, and three laws - marriage equality, the MD DREAM Act, and the new Congressional district map - were successfully petitioned to referendum. Would the voters rebuke O'Malley? The answer was a resounding "No." O'Malley carried the day on all 4 issues.

Then, the 2013 legislative session came and went with nary a hitch. The Assembly tackled several high profile issues - including a gas tax increase, a ban on the death penalty, off-shore wind development, and comprehensive gun control. It was an incredible string of progressive victories. Things were clearly breaking in favor of Brown.  He received O'Malley's endorsement early and since naming Ulman as his running mate Brown has collected an impressive portfolio of endorsements. In addition to O'Malley, he's been endorsed by Senate President Mike Miller, U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Laborers International Union of North America, VoteVets.Org... the list goes on. In fact, almost daily I receive a press release from the Brown campaign announcing a new endorsement.

Meanwhile, Gansler has not formally announce a candidacy and has offered no hints regarding a running mate. Gansler, and his people, argue that no one other than political insiders are paying any attention to the 2014 race at this point. As such, there is little to be gained from making an announcement, picking a running mate, or collecting endorsements. There is some truth to Gansler's argument. Most Marylanders are not paying any attention to the 2014 race, but Gansler's audience is not most Marylanders. In 2010, only 25% of registered Democrats turned out for the primary. Primary voters tend to be the most dedicated and attentive voters - and these folks are likely paying some attention to the 2014 contest.

But for Gansler, waiting may well be the best course of action. To the extent that voters are tuning out the campaign, Brown is making headlines and receiving largely positive press during the time of year when folks are more concerned with their kid's summer camp and weekend traffic on the Bay bridge. By the time they snap back into reality in September (when Gansler makes his campaign official), Brown will have burned through most of his high profile endorsements and his naming of Ulman will be a memory. When Gansler announces his candidacy, how will Brown/Ulman counter program? When Gansler announces his running mate, how will Brown/Ulman counter program? When Gansler receives endorsement, how will Brown/Ulman counter program? The Brown campaigns needs to worry about peaking too soon and about burning through their positive press stories too early in the cycle. If Brown comes to be seen as the obvious frontrunner, the press will inevitably start looking for his weaknesses and any sign of weakness will be exaggerated.

There is another silver lining for Gansler. Brown is running as the consummate political insider, he is collecting endorsement after endorsement from the Democratic party establishment. He cannot claim to be anything but the candidate of the status quo. Maybe that's not so damaging in Democrat-friendly Maryland, but public confidence in government is at an all time low and Maryland has been criticized for it's lack of transparency and accountability in government. Being seen as the establishment's candidate may not be a winning strategy in 2014.  Brown has created an opportunity for Gansler to run as the only candidate who can shake up the system and claim some level of independence. The Attorney General is free from gubernatorial influence and with all of the high profile endorsements flowing to Brown - who in the establishment would Gansler feel beholden too?

The establishment is circling the wagons around "their guy" Anthony Brown, the guy who won't rock boat. But then there's Doug Gansler - as Attorney General he was more than happy to rock things. He was making progress protecting the Chesapeake while the General Assembly was waffling on the permeable surface tax, he was fighting for consumer protection long before the White House decided we needed a federal consumer protection agency. And same-sex marriage? Gansler was ahead of everyone else in Maryland on that issue. At a time when Team O'Malley and the General Assembly would rather have ignored the issue, Gansler stated that Maryland would recognize marriages from other states. It would be reasonable to argue that he forced the rest of MD's Democratic establishment to get on board.

If I'm a member of the Gansler team (and I'm not), I'm making the case that on issue after issue, Gansler was doing what he believed to be right for all Marylanders and not just what was best for the party establishment. I'd ask the question, do Marylanders want a tested and proven agent of positive change or a foot soldier for the status quo?

It remains to be seen whether Gansler will choose that strategy, but, while Brown has been travelling the state collecting endorsements Gansler has been traveling the state talking policy specifics as part of a “Building Our Best Maryland” tour. And Gansler has not chosen to narrow his focus to just feel-good policy issues. In a recent forum he tackled the weighty issue of prisoner recidivism in Maryland. It's a sad fact that our prisons are good at only one thing - creating repeat offenders. Once someone has served their sentence it is extremely difficult for them to return to society as productive members and many get caught in a prison revolving door. Gansler has proposed a number of significant changes for Maryland - including transitional housing assistance, hiding criminal convictions from potential employers if someone has been "clean" for 5 years, and better training and rehabilitation while in prison. It's never popular to talk about investing in those convicted of crimes, but it's the only way we're going to tackle our prison crowding problem where over 40% of released prisoners return to prison. Reducing recidivism would mean reducing crime.

Gansler has also proposed changes that would make Maryland government more transparent. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity released its “Corruption Risk Report Card” on which Maryland received an overall grade of D- and ranked 40th among states. As reported in the Washington Post, Maryland received an F on public access to information and legislative accountability. Among other reforms, Gansler envisions the creation of an inspector general who would facilitate access to public information. A proven agent of positive change or a foot soldier for the status quo?

And then there is Heather Mizeur. Mizeur was largely ignored by the Maryland political press until she shocked everyone by coming in second in a straw poll of Western Maryland Democrats. Mizeur has decided to run a rather unorthodox campaign. But Mizeur's decision to focus her campaign events around the themes of community and service may well resonate with the folks who get out and vote in primaries. So far her campaign events have collected supplies for a women's shelter, restored a playground, and cleaned a marshland. Though some Democratic party insiders have grumbled that she is too young and has jumped the queue by getting into this race only to serve some future political ambitions, Mizeur has countered that if she loses the primary she's done with politics. Mizeur is from Montgomery county - a crucial and vote rich county and she has strong connections to the Eastern Shore as she and her spouse operate an organic farm there.

Though Mizeur makes headlines as an LGBT candidate, her record on issues hits the mark for many a party activist. Mizeur was central in the effort to allow college age kids in MD  to remain on their parents insurance - well before this became the law nationally. She is a passionate defender of the environment and leading voice in the effort to prevent natural gas extraction via fracking in Western Maryland. In addition to her policy positions, Mizeur offers Maryland women a chance to finally crack the Annapolis glass ceiling AND she offers Maryland progressives a chance to say that we have turned the page on the issue of LGBT equality. Despite the challenges she'll face, I consider her to be the most exciting candidate in the race - and in a primary, excitement matters.

So who has the upper hand? I still argue the odds favor Brown. Having the party establishment behind you is a big deal in a low turn-out election where getting people to the polls is all that matters. Gansler and Mizeur will divide the Montgomery county electorate while Brown will be uncontested in his home turf of PG county. Though running mates rarely impact an election, Ulman certainly can help Brown in Howard county and Brown's connection to O'Malley will help in Baltimore City. In a three way race it can take as little as 33.4% of the vote to win - Brown is the candidate most likely to cross that mark in a multi-candidate race.

If Maryland voters feel O'Malley fatigue in 2014, then Brown could suffer the consequences. And Gansler will need to run against the O'Malley record on several key issues if he's going to damage Brown.

For Mizeur, her best hope is an all out negative battle between Brown and Gansler (that's also the GOP's best hope). In the midst of such a battle, her focus on community and service may offer the perfect alternative.

So, much has changed since I last looked at the 2014 race... and yet, nothing much has changed.

Next, I'll look at the MD GOP and the candidates for governor (announced and unannounced), a recent Red Maryland poll offers some interesting results.