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.