Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Alex Mooney and the Ghost of Donations Past

Running the ball passed to them by Baltimore County GOP Chairman Steve Kolbe, Maryland’s Republican Party has called on a long list of state Democrats to return campaign donations received from convicted tax cheat Richard Stewart, appointed by Governor O’Malley to the Redistricting Advisory Committee and Maryland Stadium Authority.
As of this writing, Congressman Elijah Cummings is the first state Democrat to step up and indicate that he will return the $1500 he got from Stewart.
I am always pleased to see the state’s beleaguered but scrappy minority party go on  offense.  Still, in reading the state party’s release, one wonders why Executive Director David Ferguson is the one quoted, rather than State Chairman Alex Mooney.
Is it because Mooney is transitioning from being chairman to a mere congressional candidate? I doubt it. Mooney is no shrinking violet when it comes to publicity. And, Red Maryland even busted him trying to solicit funds for his federal campaign account while calling himself chairman.
No, I think it has something to do with the fact that Mooney once refused to practice what the state GOP is now preaching.
In 2006, Mooney refused to give back a $1000 donation he received from disgraced lobbyist “Casino Jack” Abramoff, despite the fact that other state Republicans – including Bob Ehrlich and Michael Steele – refunded Abramoff-tainted money.
The Gazette newspaper reported in 2006 that Mooney had received a total of $18,000 in Abramoff donations since 1998.  
Let’s hope that Mooney does run for Congress. The more I read, the more apparent it becomes that the state GOP needs a party building chairman who lacks Mooney's baggage and will take the job seriously.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

What the MD GOP Needs for Xmas: A Watchdog

By now, I think most anyone who follows Maryland politics has heard about the fact that Richard Stewart, a member of Governor O’Malley’s Redistricting Advisory Committee and the Maryland Stadium Authority, has been convicted in federal court of defrauding the IRS out of millions of dollars in taxes.

Stewart awaits sentencing in April. In addition to reimbursing the IRS for the unpaid taxes and penalties, Stewart is looking at up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Stewart’s presence on both important panels is an outrage, of course. But for me, the most interesting facet of this story is how it broke. According to the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore County GOP Chairman Steve Kolbe played a key role in spreading the word:

Kolbe put Stewart's name into Google's search engine, he said, and was shocked when the first result was a link to the Department of Justice's website, where a release had been posted Dec. 15 saying Stewart had pleaded guilty to charges of failing to pay millions in taxes through his company, which installs plumbing, heating and air conditioning in commercial buildings and has offices in Baltimore and Capital Heights.

The release said Stewart had failed to "collect, truthfully account for and pay over" almost $4 million in employment taxes between 2003 and 2008, owed restitution to the IRS in excess of $5 million, and faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. "I thought, 'This can't be the same guy,' " Kolbe said.
When he poked around the Internet a bit more and found it was the same guy, Kolbe said his first thought was, "Well, I'm not going to go down and testify before a crooked commission."

His second thought was to spread the word.

Kolbe is relatively new to his duties, and was elected by the Baltimore County Central Committee after Tony Campbell's brief and controversial tenure. So it amazes me that this soft-spoken businessman, husband, and dad was able to unearth on his own something that at least two other political actors should have uncovered long ago.

The first, of course, is the O’Malley Administration. Both the governor and his spokespeople have stated that they were unaware of the conviction because Stewart failed to disclose it to them. That’s certainly plausible, but Stewart’s nondisclosure does not absolve them from the fact that they should have found it on their own.

Presumably this dispute with the IRS has been meandering through the criminal justice process for a while – at least since 2008. Had the Governor’s Appointments Office conducted a Google search of Stewart’s name before he was named to the Redistricting Committee, it might have saved the O’Malley Administration some avoidable embarrassment.

The second player to have missed it was Maryland's Republican Party, led by Chairman Alex Mooney. Mooney is now campaigning and fundraising actively for a Sixth Congressional District bid, and has signaled his intention to relinquish his party duties possibly in January.

Given his paucity of accomplishments, he clearly won’t be missed.  

Case in point: I attended the excellent holiday fundraising event for the MD GOP, ably organized and hosted by my friend Nicolee Ambrose. A few days after I purchased my tickets online, I received a thank you letter from Chairman Mooney.

Wow, I figured, the party is finally get the small things right.

Well, notsomuch, it turns out.

The thank you letter was for the party’s annual "Red, White, and Blue" event, which I attended last summer and which raised a meager $9,000 for the party. That may seem like a small thing, but it makes me wonder whether a party that cannot successfully tackle the small things can possibly ever get the big ones right.  

In all fairness, the MD GOP just hired a new Executive Director, David Ferguson, who seems well credentialed and qualified for his duties. According to the article I linked above, he maintains he too was on top of the Stewart situation despite only being on the job for less than a month. But an engaged and on-top-of-it party chairman would have directed his staff to do months ago what Kolbe just did on his own initiative.

Anyway, the purpose of this blog entry is not to bash, but to point out the obvious: If Mooney does depart in January, the GOP will once again be looking for a new chairman.

Though relatively new to the scene, Steve Kolbe may have the energy and the fresh approach to politics that the Maryland GOP needs.

Most importantly, he has shown a willingness to prioritize the traditional watchdog function which the minority party should always play.

Sometimes it takes hours of research to point out the other guy’s mistakes. Sometimes, it only takes one engaged citizen willing to perform a Google search.

Any credible list of successors to Mooney should have Kolbe’s name on it. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ron Smith Redux

On Wednesday I drove up to Pennsylvania and had a chance to celebrate Ron’s life with his family and colleagues. June even gave us a tour of Ron’s man cave in the basement. I even spied a small bust of Lenin on a bookshelf. I’m a sucker for irony, so that gave me a bit of a chuckle.
At the visitation, people were buzzing about comments made by a certain former boss of mine on WBAL radio.  The comments, it seemed, generated a bit of controversy. This prompted me to go online and listen for myself (you can do the same here…scroll down to the audio section on the right corner of the page, and the link in question is the second one from the bottom).
During his brief interview with Marta Mossberg, C4, and Dr. Richard Vatz, former Governor Bob Ehrlich remarked that Ron Smith was “too cynical” and that his “ego wasn’t small.” He also said that Smith “hated to admit he was wrong,” and was “entertained” by his wife June.  He also recounted how much he relished inviting Smith to a “crow-eating dinner” after he won the governorship, a feat Smith judged to be impossible.
With respect to Ron’s alleged cynicism, this comment from his final Sun column is evidence to the contrary:

What is a mere individual to do? Live as sane and decent a life as you can, love your family and friends and understand that everybody is in this together.”
Ehrlich is entitled to his own opinions, of course. While I disagree with Ehrlich's remarks, their validity perhaps concerns me less than does the inappropriateness of their timing.

The WBAL event to which he called in was, in essence, an on-air wake.  Ehrlich almost sounded like he was dialing into a Friars Club roast.  
However, this particular comment stands out from the rest:

Ron Smith “was insecure in his lack of formal education but incredibly secure in his intellect.”

The use of the term “insecure” by the Princeton-educated Ehrlich is what drew the ire of some of the people I spoke to, because it implied that Smith – an autodidact and a voracious reader – was somehow ashamed of not having gone to college.
I don’t get how you can credibly call someone “insecure” and egotistical in the space of 90 seconds, but I guess that’s beside the point.
In any event, few people who knew Ron would ever use the word "insecure” to describe him. Anyway, leave it to someone with Gump-like faith in a convicted aide’s “honesty” to see phantom insecurities in Ron Smith.
Anwyay, listen to the comments for yourself and make up your own mind as to their validity or appropriateness.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ron Smith: RIP

I have blogged about Ron Smith and his recent health struggles twice before. So I have pretty much expressed all my sentiments on that subject and have little to add in light of the news that he has passed.
But I did think of one more observation.
If you’re lucky in life, you meet a lot of people who play a role in educating you on how to live. But dying is something most of us have to figure out on our own.
Many people have taught me various aspects of living during my life. But Ron Smith is the person who showed me how someone should die – with honor, candor, and uncompromising honesty.
In other words, Ron died the way he lived.
My thoughts go out to June, the Smith family, and the extended WBAL family.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ehrlich's Book: My Take

While reading Bob Ehrlich’s book, Turn This Car Around: The Roadmap to Restoring America, I immediately noticed two things.

First, he definitely wrote it himself.

Having written (and ghostwritten) for him in the past, I am very familiar with his style. The book’s prose displays the lawyerly, wonkish, and dry qualities I remember. And, the serial use of the word “accordingly” is a dead giveaway.

Second, despite Ehrlich’s claims to the contrary, this book is very much a memoir of Ehrlich’s time in politics.

Turn This Car Around is an amalgam of Ehrlich’s observations about events and policy debates which populated his 24-year political career. He discusses them and then tries to extrapolate from each lesson implications reverberating beyond Maryland.   

Some of his observations – such as the business community’s willingness to accommodate rather than confront progressives – lend themselves comfortably to extrapolation. Others – such as his recounting past feuds with the Baltimore Sun – do not.

Overall, it reads like a series of disparate chapters strung together like popcorn, with particular emphasis given to incidents in which he felt he was either treated unfairly or did not receive proper credit at the time.

And though some of Ehrlich’s observations are valid, the book never articulates a programmatic vision. There is no roadmap here.

If there is any unifying theme in the book, it’s frustration – specifically, the frustration of a politician who confronted an entrenched, hostile establishment in a one-party state and was ultimately squashed by it.

This frustration causes him to spend much of the book re-litigating incidents from years ago – Britney Spears, the “multiculturalism is bunk” remark, the failed takeover of the Baltimore schools, medical marijuana, Democratic attempts to paint Michael Steele as an Uncle Tom – which have long since been forgotten by most readers.

At other points, Ehrlich will invoke some obscure policy initiative from his administration – I worked for him and had to remind myself of what exactly “Project RESTART” was – and begin to re-argue its merits.

Additionally, the book is full of pictures – portrait shots of himself and his photogenic family, clippings from the same newspaper he criticizes as a “second-tier daily,” gratuitous action shots taken by State House photographers – which give it a feel reminiscent of a doting grandmother’s scrapbook.

The book does have its moments. I thought his discussion of the subprime mortgage crisis was easily the best chapter.  Ehrlich’s experience and knowledge – he is a former member of what is now the House Financial Services Committee – helped him render a good, insightful analysis.

What’s missing from the book is perhaps more interesting than what is in it.

Ehrlich was elected to the first Republican Congress in 40 years. He interacted with some compelling personalities, and witnessed historic events such as the budget showdown with the White House and impeachment from the floor of the House. Still he devotes little attention to his four terms as a congressman.

Ehrlich also avoids what was perhaps the most interesting and consequential event of his governorship: The hiring and firing controversy involving Joe Steffen and others.

Certainly one could draw some global lessons as to the nature of scandal, crisis management and communications, and legislative investigations in a hyper-partisan environment from that episode. But Ehrlich never mentions it.

In an ironic moment, Ehrlich discusses the value of requiring voter identification at the polls, explaining that, “the lack of precautionary measures at the ballot box gives rise to easily accomplished voter fraud.”

Democrats across the nation are already trying to portray voter ID requirements as a GOP tactic intended to deter Democrats from voting. They will no doubt cite Paul Schurick’s conviction in the voter suppression scandal as evidence of what “Republicans” real agenda is.

Ehrlich states that the reason he wrote the book is because he “wants a voice in national politics.”  The best way to accomplish that is to write to make a point, not just to be heard.

If Ehrlich does publish a follow-up book, perhaps he should pick one of the policy initiatives he mentioned – aggressive use of pardons and commutations, for example – and develop the concept in a way which focuses less on the Maryland experience and more on its national applicability. That way he could achieve his goal of being a public policy influencer.

But opining about obscure, state-specific events from the past seems like a futile exercise.

It’s confusing to the people who were not there, and depressing for the people who were.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dr. Richard Vatz, Robocallers, and Speeding

Dr. Richard Vatz of Towson University is a great guy. His daughter Shaina is a good friend and one-time protégé of mine. Dr. Vatz is a consistent, reliable, articulate conservative voice, and I am always glad to read his thoughts.

That said, his December 11th piece in the Baltimore Sun, “Schurick’s behavior wrong, but not criminal,” left me scratching my head.

Dr. Vatz makes the case that Democrats who engage in dirty tricks get a free pass, but Republicans (and the Democrats who work on their behalf) are subject to retribution by the ruling liberal establishment.

For example, he writes: 

Political operative Julius Henson, author of those robocalls, has a long history of dirty campaigning — for Democrats.

He has, according to the Baltimore City Paper, promiscuously distributed materials in circumstances where it is illegal to do so; he has lied, claiming then-Representative Ehrlich was a Nazi; and he manufactured the falsehood that Ellen Sauerbrey was opposed to civil rights, among other mendacities. He has aided, with his contemptible tactics, Democrats Joan Pratt, Elijah Cummings (using robocalls as well), Albert Wynn and many others. (If Mr. Ehrlich is described as a "Nazi," wouldn't that suppress Republican votes? If inaccurate polling — remember the Clarence "Du" Burns-Kurt Schmoke push polls — is very one-sided, won't money dry up and voting by conservatives be discouraged?)

Soon, it will be Mr. Henson's turn to face trial. It would seem that the same person committing comparable acts in Maryland for Democrats and Republicans risks prosecution only when he attacks Democrats.
I have no quarrel with Vatz’s basic premise that a partisan double standard exists in Maryland elections with it comes to exposing and assigning blame for Election Day dirty tricks.

But it should be noted that the other misdeeds which he describes pre-date the law under which Schurick was convicted and Henson will soon be tried.

The law passed over Ehrlich’s veto in 2006 was a briar patch trap set by Democrats in which Schurick and Henson promptly became entangled. In that sense, they have no one else to blame but themselves.

But the thing that puzzles me about Vatz’s column is what he does not say.

He does a fine job articulating Henson’s past history of well-documented campaign misadventures. But he leaves unanswered the question as to why the Ehrlich campaign would choose to pay someone with such a sordid history $16,000 a month.

The Ehrlich campaign endorsed Henson’s history when it hired him. They knew who and what they were getting. They made his liabilities their liabilities.

So the whole “you let him get away with it when working for the other guys…why not us” argument rings a little hollow. What was wrong behavior then is wrong – and illegal – behavior now.

I’m less interested in what happened in the past than I am in what becomes of those who violate the law in the future. Will future Democratic campaigns employing fraudulent tactics to trick voters face similar prosecutorial wrath? That's when the real test will come. As always, I’m hopeful but rarely optimistic.

In the meantime, I give Dr. Vatz credit for adding to the conversation, and for his loyalty to Bob Ehrlich. But his argument reminded me of the standard response police officers tell speeders who get pulled over while other cars whiz by: “I didn’t pull you over for what they did. I pulled you over for what you did.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

But Why Didn't He Call Her on the T-T-Telephone?

Wow, times really have changed in Annapolis.
Now, the policy seems to be one of constructive engagement.
I was amused to read that Governor O’Malley invited the talented and iconic Lady GaGa to dinner via Twitter in acknowledgement of her work against bullying. No word on whether The Lady has yet responded.
Anytime pop culture and politics – particularly Maryland politics – intersect, I’m there. Throw in my favorite performer (Felicite and I saw her in concert in 2010...in Oklahoma, of all places) and I’m all in.

Why did O’Malley reach out to GaGa? Perhaps he’s planning some legislative push on bullying and hopes to attract her support and star power to Maryland down the road. Perhaps he wants to make a powerful friend in advance of a future national campaign.
Or maybe members of his communications staff conceived it as a means of generating some buzz during the pre-holiday news slowdown.

I don't agree with Governor O'Malley on everything. But I do approve of his GaGa outreach policy and hope more elected officials will follow suit.
So, will we see GaGa in Maryland? Stranger things have happened, I suppose.
After all, she’s getting ready to embark on a tour in 2012, and has been known to wade into the policy arena from time to time on matters close to her heart.  And, gay marriage – her signature cause celebre – is likely to dominate the legislative agenda in Maryland next year.
When the Britney Spears episode happened, I offered myself up as a possible intermediary. Being a Spears fan (Katie and I saw her in concert at LA's Staples Center in 2002) and Ehrlich’s speechwriter, I figured I was uniquely positioned to promote healing between the two camps.
Should GaGa make it to Maryland, I again offer my services. If you guys need someone to give the event a bipartisan bent, keep me in mind.
I won’t tell Kendel Ehrlich if you don’t.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Newt Beginnings

When I heard Newt Gingrich speak at a fundraiser for Maryland’s GOP last summer, I was impressed. I'd heard Gingrich speak before - I worked on Capitol Hill when he was House Speaker - but never in as compelling a manner as when making the intellectual case for replacing President Obama.

The man really has a winning message, I thought. Too bad he’s the wrong messenger.

Now, this wrong messenger is the moment’s man to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.  

Polls show Gingrich leading the GOP field by a wide margin in critical states such as Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Recent national polling by Rasmussen shows him leading Mitt Romney by more than 20 points among Republicans, and running evenly against President Obama.

Gingrich’s improbable rise stems from several factors: indifference toward Romney, Herman Cain’s implosion, anemic alternatives, and a series of strong debate performances.

But does Newt actually have a shot of beating Obama?

Retiring Rep. Barney Frank called Gingrich’s rise, “the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater." But historical comparisons, though compelling, don’t always fit.

LBJ was unbeatable in 1964. And, for a time, the Carter campaign regarded Ronald Reagan as its preferred opponent in 1980. That’s not to say Newt is necessarily Reaganesque. Rather it means that a bad economy can diminish incumbents and elevate challengers in unimagined ways.

The best way to assess Gingrich’s viability is to inventory his well-publicized political baggage and the likely impact it will have.

First, in 1997 the House Ethics Committee ruled that Gingrich exhibited an "intentional or . . . reckless" disregard for House rules by using tax-exempt funds for political purposes. Gingrich was reprimanded by his colleagues and fined, though a subsequent IRS investigation found no tax laws were broken.

Clearly the Democrats would aggressively revisit this matter during the campaign, and Gingrich would have to account for it. Still, it is unlikely that reminders of a 15-year-old incident involving the complicated nexus of party politics, arcane ethics rules, and campaign finance will be enough to fell Gingrich.

Second, Gingrich has been married three times. He carried on an affair with his current wife, a House staffer 23 years his junior, while married and leading the effort to impeach President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.  He has since converted to Catholicism and expressed regret for his indiscretions.

Bill Clinton likely shattered the peccadilloes barrier for presidential candidates who handle such disclosures adroitly. Gingrich’s colorful romantic history, while likely to cost him some support especially among independent women, is not the deal-breaker it historically would have been absent more embarrassing revelations.

Third, Gingrich presides over a lucrative empire of business interests spanning a number of communications and advocacy activities. His $1.6 million consulting relationship with Freddie Mac and other clients have caused some to label him a wealthy Washington insider profiting from his service in government.

Still, Gingrich’s campaign should be able to paint Democratic attacks on his business dealings as an attempt to divert attention from Obama’s poor economic record.  

For me, Gingrich’s biggest liability is not his past, but his brand.

Gingrich has historically been viewed as a bomb-thrower, not a statesman. He is a deep thinker and an erratic manager, the man who balanced the budget and shut down the government.    

Brand-wise, Gingrich’s problem is that he is Patton, not Eisenhower.

General George Patton was indispensable in combat but miscast in his post-war role as a military governor.  Eisenhower probably could not have liberated Europe without Patton, yet the volatile Patton could have never commanded D-Day – or been elected president.

Likewise, Republicans may never have won back the House in 1994 without Gingrich’s tactical brilliance. But less than three years after capturing Congress, Gingrich was almost deposed in a coup by his GOP colleagues.

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who served with Gingrich in the House, described him as “a guy of 1,000 ideas and the attention span of a one-year-old.” Some of Gingrich’s other former House colleagues, as Peggy Noonan recently wrote, had equally underwhelming things to say about him.

The fact that only six House members endorsed Gingrich for president – compared to 44 for Romney – before Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls speaks to his perceived weaknesses as a manager, as does the mass resignations his campaign experienced this summer.

Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both exhibited an impressive capacity to rebrand themselves during their careers by revealing different aspects of their complex personalities. The fate of Gingrich’s own political comeback hinges upon his ability to demonstrate similar political deftness and heretofore undemonstrated substance.  

Gingrich is intelligent, thoughtful, and tough. He led his party to a major political victory. Whether he can demonstrate the executive temperament the presidency requires remains an unanswered question.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What a Week, Folks....

Other than the ramp-up to Christmas, Decembers rarely are as consequential and interesting as this.

From one former boss making an outrageous and inappropriate comment to two widely-beloved friends of mine to another being convicted of crimes in a Baltimore courtroom, it rarely gets more exciting from the perspective of zeitgeist watchers like me.

Indeed, what a week it's been. That's why I decided to close it out with the song I just can't seem to get out of my head. It's dedicated to Paul "I don't know...help me, Henry" Schurick.

Enjoy...

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What's Next For Schurick?

When I learned of Paul Schurick’s conviction on all four counts related to the robocall scandal yesterday afternoon, two questions popped into my mind.

First, how will this affect Bob Ehrlich’s book sales?

Secondly, I wondered if the jury may have rendered a “counterintuitive verdict.” In other words, by convicting Schurick, was the jury really trying to speak to his innocence?

Seriously, I was surprised by Schurick’s across the board convictions. I gave up trying to handicap jury verdicts a long time ago. Most of the lawyers and media observers I spoke with told me they thought that Schurick would be acquitted or, in a worst case scenario, convicted on one of the more minor charges.

Clearly the jury just didn’t buy the “counterintuitive” argument which was at the heart of the defense’s case. Indeed, it was kind of hard to get past Bernie Marczyk’s astonishing email to Schurick, which confirmed that Henson’s goal was voter suppression, not increased turnout. 

Further, I don’t think Schurick’s decision to testify helped him very much. Neither did the parade of politicos who spoke on Schurick’s behalf.

I know Schurick has a lot of friends due to his three decades in Maryland political circles. But if I had been on that jury, I would have resented the fact that members of Maryland’s political class were trying to compel me to brush past the evidence and simply take their collective word, instead.

So, what does Schurick do now? Clearly a long and costly appellate process awaits him, not to mention possible incarceration if his appeals fail.

In the meantime, I think he needs to start apologizing.

First, he needs to apologize to the voters who got that offensive, ill-conceived call.

Next he should apologize to the state GOP. How ironic that the misdeeds of Democrats Schurick and Henson will now create further image problems for the state’s already beleaguered minority party, even though its partisans had no role in the decision-making chain.

Then, he should apologize to his fellow campaign aides, some of whom had to deal with depositions, lawyers, and court testimony as a result of Schurick’s misadventure.

Lastly, he should apologize to Bob Ehrlich, whose legacy has been tainted by this incident.

When Schurick’s friends spoke to the jury, they portrayed him as a model of truth, forbearance, and integrity – Maryland’s own Honest Abe.  When I first read that, I nearly lost a mouthful of Diet Pepsi.

Some might say the BS whizzing around that courtroom was "thick in the air like locusts."

Anyone who knows Schurick can tell you he has always been a bit of a rascal – a quality I came to both admire and dislike about him at different times.

These are the kinds of moments in which you really see what’s in a person’s character.

One of the jurors said of Schurick: “Even good guys can do bad things.”

This is Schurick’s opportunity to set the rascal aside.

If he steps up, apologizes, and accepts the consequences of his actions, he might validate the overwhelming faith his friends demonstrated for him.

I hope he does.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Visit With The Smiths

Yesterday I was very proud and humbled to have been invited to spend an afternoon in the home of Ron and June Smith in Shrewsbury, PA.
It was my first-ever visit to the Smith home.  In light of the circumstances, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I trekked up I-83. What I found was a house full of family and friends supporting Ron with their presence.  The atmosphere was not gloomy or morose. In fact, it was very loving, low-key and positive.
There were a lot of WBAL people there, as you might expect, including General Manager Ed Kiernan, Amelia of “Mickey and Amelia,” and longtime 98 Rock personality Sarah Fleischer (had never met her before despite hearing her voice for years...not only very sweet, but kind of a looker…but I digress).
And, of course, in the midst of it were Ron and June, who shared with me some of the letters they received from Ron’s legion of fans, both the famous and non-famous alike. They gave me permission to quote some of the well wishes Ron has received.
Perhaps the most intriguing letter was one sent by Senator Barbara Mikulski - no ideological cohort of Smith. In addition to her warm note, the senator called Ron and shared war stories with him. He was very touched by the gesture.
Judge Richard D. Bennett praised Ron for setting a standard of “civility and intellectual honesty which few of your colleagues can match.”
Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh called Ron, “a man of great courage and selflessness.”
“You aren’t partisan,” one longtime listener wrote. “You see it as a battle between the Stupid Party and the Evil Party.”
Another wrote, “While we don’t always agree with your opinions, we have always respected them, and you.”
One letter, simply addressed to “Ron Smith, WBAL Guy, Shrewsbury, PA” found its way to him, anyway.


I could keep on quoting.
Before I left I had the chance to deliver my own tribute, face to face, to a man I have admired for so long.
“I hope you realize how much you mean to people,” I told him. “You’re very much a living presence in their minds right now.” He smiled and said he did.
“You know, Richard,” his wife said as she walked me to the door. “You’re a bad boy but a good man.”
Thanks, June. That may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. But don’t tell too many people. I have a reputation for misanthropy to protect.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Robocalls: What Did Schurick Know, and When Did He Know It?

In reviewing the news coverage of the Schurick robocall trial this past week, I noticed an interesting discrepancy in Paul Schurick’s account of how things played out:

On December 1, 2011 The Baltimore Sun reported:

"Special Agent John Poliks, an investigator for the state prosecutor's office, testified Wednesday that Schurick told him that he'd authorized the robocall but denied that he had heard its contents on Election Day. Poliks provided phone records to show that a copy of the robocall had been sent to the voice mail on Schurick's phone that day and that the campaign adviser had listened to his voice mail at 6:13 p.m. The robocalls began at 5:55 p.m. and ended at 8 p.m., phone records show.
"The robocall was 23 seconds long, and Schurick listened to his voice mail for 54 seconds, Poliks said."
OK, in light of Poliks’ testimony, the notion that Schurick did not listen to the phone call defies credibility. But even if it did not, The Baltimore Sun’s subsequent report of Schurick’s court testimony raised another issue:

"Schurick told the jury that he recalled saying: 'Julius, I am paying you $16,000 a month. Give me a plan.' Henson did, he said.
"He said that Henson pitched a robocall that Henson told him was 'counterintuitive.'
"'He read me a proposed script, and I approved it,' Schurick said. Asked by A. Dwight Pettit, his lead defense attorney, if anything in it was aimed at suppressing the vote, Schurick replied, 'Absolutely not.'"

In other words, Schurick testified that Henson “read” him the script of the robocall, and that he “approved” it. But, in an earlier conversation with the state investigator, he denied hearing its contents before it was actually fielded on Election Day.

In other words, it does not really matter if Schurick heard the same recorded version recipients did (though circumstantial evidence suggests he did). What matters is he listened to and approved the actual contents when Henson read it to him.

Schurick’s testimony to the investigator, even if technically accurate, could be interpreted  as misleading because it implies the call went out without him ever hearing the contents.

But his court testimony makes it clear that, rather than simply authorize the robocall in a conceptual sense, he heard and approved the substance as well.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Bookapalooza" By the Numbers

So I received multiple reports on how last night’s Ehrlich “Bookapalooza” event went.
Sources tell me that 120 tickets were sold – far less than the banquet room’s capacity, and far below the 1000 or so tickets which event organizers had hoped to sell. Organizers dropped the ticket price from $125 to $100 to spur interest.
Further, press was banned from the event. No doubt the anemic ticket sales had a lot to do with it. Otherwise, why would a fledgling author promoting his book pass up earned media coverage?
Nonetheless, the event reportedly raised about $20,000 for the state GOP, thanks to at least one angel sponsor stepping up at the very last minute. That’s no windfall, but it’s more than twice the amount the party’s “Red White and Blue” dinner raised last summer.
Delegate Bill Frank, who has been assisting the party with fundraising, was reportedly working the phones diligently. He deserves credit for getting the event into the black.
The problem here isn’t that folks didn’t work hard to plan this event. Rather, the problem was that the event itself was based on a flawed premise - namely, that applying the rules that usually work for planning a successful political fundraiser also pertain to a book launching. 
It may be possible to get people to pay $125 (or even more than that) for the chance to listen to and mingle with a presidential candidate or sitting governor.  But convincing people to shell out big bucks to get a copy of a book they can buy on Amazon.com for $16.30 and get signed for free is a tough sell, especially in a bad economy.
Forget about “Turning the Car Around.” It is time for the state GOP to turn the page.
No party should ever be relegated to becoming a tool to perpetuate the ambitions of only one politician - or, in this case, a former pol.
Rolling out celebrities from the party’s past won’t solve the party’s fundraising and leadership problems. Instead, the party needs to pick the right leaders and start articulating a compelling alternative to the state’s political status quo.
Alex Mooney's departure presents an opportunity here, one I will elaborate upon at length in future postings. But in the meantime, I'd like to see a young, energetic woman step up and put a new face on a staid old party. Hillary Foster Pennington, call your office.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Why The Robocall Scandal Matters"

In June, the Baltimore Sun ran this op-ed of mine analyzing the reasons why the robocall scandal is a teachable moment for Maryland politicos. In light of the trial now occurring in Baltimore, I thought it made sense to repost it here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ehrlich: Read the Book, Watch the Trial

This is a big week for the remaining inhabitants of Ehrlich world.
The former governor’s new book, Turn This Car Around, will be unveiled at a fundraising event at Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie tomorrow night. Sources tell me that ticket sales are moving at a glacial pace, with only about 150 sold as of this writing. (Update: I have since been informed that, in response to lagging ticket sales, the price per ticket for the main event has been lowered to $100 from $125).

Meanwhile, MD GOP Chairman Alex Mooney has been telling people he expects to sell 25,000 copies of the book.

Thousands of books...150 tickets sold. You do the math.
And, no, I’m not planning to attend. I already have an advance copy of the book thanks to the redoubtable Greg Massoni, who emailed it out to members of the press last week. Thanks, Greg. I knew I could count on you.
I have scanned the book but not yet read enough of it to offer a review. Unlike other local prognosticators, I believe you need to actually read a book before offering an opinion as to its substance. That said, my initial pass reminded me of the importance of proofreading.
In addition to the bookapalooza, the first of two trials stemming from the infamous robocalling incident from last year’s election started this week.
Paul Schurick and Julius Henson – the Leopold and Loeb of Maryland politics – are accused of violating state voter suppression laws. Henson’s trial was pushed back to February; Schurick’s courtroom odyssey is now underway.
I’m far more comfortable being a political handicapper than a jury watcher – Casey Anthony taught me that – so I’m not prepared to predict what Schurick’s fate will be. However, I found two items from this morning’s press coverage of the trial quite interesting.
From the Baltimore Sun: "’What does Julius need to make city turnout stay low?’ campaign political director Bernie Marczyk wrote in a 2:53 p.m. email to Schurick, proposing additional bonuses for Henson if he could keep residents from the polls.”
Ouch, Bernie. Really? “Make city turn out stay low?” "Additional bonuses” for suppressing the vote? Some might call it bad judgment. I regard it as further evidence of  Flintstonian folly by an in-over-his-head Schurick sycophant.
From the Washington Post: Schurick, whose trial began Monday, told an FBI agent that he approved the calls.”
In any event, the trial should take about two weeks before it goes to a jury comprised of seven blacks and five whites.
Some questions continue to nag at me.
Why would Ehrlich’s bookapalooza happen the same week that Schurick’s robocall trial was scheduled to begin? Is this purely coincidental, or is this a low voltage attempt to change the media’s focus from Schurick’s fall to Ehrlich’s rebirth as an author?  
If so, based on the initial coverage I have seen, it ain’t working. In addition to The Sun, The Post, and the other usual suspects, Reuters and NPR are among the national and international outlets who have reported from the trial.
Anyway, maybe these two events will converge, with Ehrlich signing books at the courthouse when he testifies in Schurick's trial. Who knows...maybe someone will show up wearing a rainbow wig and a "John 3:16" tee shirt in keeping with the absurdity of all this.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Howard County Executive Ulman: Yes, He Ken?

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is one of those guys in politics who seems to have accomplished a lot in a very short time.

A former Glendening Administration aide, Ulman, now 37, was elected to the Howard County Council in 2002, springboarding to the County Executive’s office just four years later. Convincingly reelected in 2010, Ulman has, by all accounts, been the popular and successful leader of a diverse and affluent jurisdiction. So, it’s no surprise that people would start speculating as to his future plans.
And, recently, the transparency of some of Ulman’s own actions have inflamed such speculation.
The newly installed head of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), Ulman has been traveling around the state meeting local officials. One day he’s in Montgomery County discussing education, the next he is in southern Maryland discussing BRAC, budget and land use issues.
No doubt Ulman’s MACo responsibilities require such interactions with local officials. But slapping the word “tour” on it and scheduling sit down interviews with local press gives the entire effort a “nudge wink, wink nudge” feel.
And, when the inevitable question about Ulman’s future plans comes up, he handles it with the kind of coy, modest, "It's very flattering to be asked that question” answer you would expect from an upwardly mobile, ambitious politico.
Now that Ulman has signaled if not outright declared his intentions, one has to wonder which tract of the political landscape Ulman’s campaign will occupy.
Comptroller Peter Franchot is cleverly positioning himself as the alternative to the Martin O’Malley establishment. Attorney General Doug Gansler embraces issues which have historically resonated with liberal primary voters such as the environment.  Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown is relying on his connection to the O’Malley political establishment, his Prince George’s County base, and his ties to black voters.
So where would that leave Ulman? I see two potential options.
First, Ulman could run as a good government manager far removed from business as usual in Annapolis. Because he will not be a direct player in some of the painful taxing and spending decisions the governor and legislature will have to make, he can focus on quietly building his own record and raising the funds needed to market it around the state.
Second, Ulman could openly position himself as the second coming of Martin O’Malley. Two things lead me to believe that he may embrace this option.
When Martin O’Malley became mayor of Baltimore, he quickly worked to define himself as a young innovator willing to embrace new strategies of governance such as CitiStat.
Look at Ulman’s recent press clips and news releases and you will observe a similar emphasis on innovations outside the daily purview of local government, including support for electric vehicle charging stations, solar power, and new email- and text-reliant communications tools.
None of these initiatives is significant by itself. But taken together they point to a politico trying to build a brand.
The timing is revelatory, too.
During a time of budgetary restraint, why would an elected official emphasize such worthwhile but ultimately deferrable initiatives unless he was trying to make a larger point?
Second, I have been hearing that some of O’Malley’s stalwarts in the lobbying community have, in terms of their early fundraising, started to coalesce around Ulman.
Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to prove the existence of this trend until the next fundraising reports come out. The most recent reports (as cited in this article) are a year old. They speak to what each potential candidate had in the bank as of the end of the last election cycle, and not where their money is coming from now.
If Ulman plans to run as O’Malley redux, the strategy carries with it some risk.
The last three two-term governors suffered from voter fatigue by the time they left office. Governor Hughes lost the Democratic primary for U. S. Senate in 1986. Governor Schaefer’s approval ratings suffered during his often tumultuous tenure. And Governor Glendening’s unpopularity contributed to the election of Maryland’s first GOP governor in 36 years.
If history is any guide, Governor O’Malley (whose approval ratings remain 52 percent according to the latest Gonzales poll) may not be immune to similar forces. Consequently, gubernatorial aspirant Ulman’s image may suffer should he claim the O’Malley’s heir mantle.
Aligning with O’Malley certainly helps Ulman in terms of fundraising and organizational support. But it negates his ability to run credibly as an outsider during what is shaping up to be a change election cycle.
In any event, Ulman is certainly an appealing candidate, so it will be interesting for political handicappers like me to watch how he positions himself. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Knives Come Out at the State GOP Convention - Literally

Well, it looks like there was a bit of drama at the Maryland GOP convention in Annapolis.

Traditionally the convention’s opening night features partisans schmoozing and touring the hospitality suite circuit. But last night’s normally sociable affair was witness to some decidedly anti-social behavior.

And, no, I’m not talking about more bizarre antics on the part of Carmen Amedori.

According to a presser put out by the Bongino for U. S. Senate campaign, two campaign workers filed a report with the Anne Arundel County police after their tires were slashed. The release states that the tires had to be replaced, “costing the campaign seven hundred dollars.”

Now, I always hate to hear stories of strife within Maryland’s always-beleaguered state GOP. This fall, a corn roast fundraiser in Baltimore County turned into a tug-of-war affair between the county’s GOP central committee and remnants of the Ehrlich organization. The latter refused to surrender control of the event, causing the members of the former to boycott en masse.

But intramural strife is one thing. Destruction of private property is a different animal entirely.

What’s more, if early polling data and fundraising numbers are any indication, Senator Ben Cardin begins his reelection campaign in a pretty strong position. So, the notion of people engaging in destructive behavior over a prize – the 2012 GOP nomination for Senate – that ultimately won’t mean very much just seems silly.

There is a long history of luminaries from the D. C. political world who happen to live in Maryland deciding to jump into the state’s Senate races. Typically they possess few ties to state politics. Typically, they get slaughtered come Election Day.

Linda Chavez, Alan Keyes, and former Tennessee Senator, RNC Chairman, and Reagan Administration Labor Secretary Bill Brock all took their chances, and promptly vanished from the state’s political landscape when they failed.

Of the current crop of senatorial aspirants, former Secret Service agent and businessman Daniel Bongino seems to be the candidate who has created the early buzz.  Maryland’s GOP-unfriendly climate notwithstanding, he seems like a great candidate. If he wins the nomination yet is not successful in defeating Cardin, I hope he will choose to remain on the landscape and leverage his newfound name recognition to run for something else.

Of course, there is one potential candidate people are still waiting to hear from: Delegate Pat McDonough, who has been very coy about his plans.

McDonough first ran against the man he once dubbed “Tax and Spend Ben” in 1996. Cardin was an incumbent member of Congress, and McDonough had not yet been elected to the legislature. Cardin beat him by a 2-1 margin, so I’m not sure if McDonough’s prior experience running against Cardin is a strategic selling point which will resonate with primary voters.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonough, with the support of his wife, gambles on a rematch.

But even if McDonough does run and fails to beat Cardin, another opportunity awaits him.

Since the passing of Montgomery County GOP activist Daniel Vovak in May, Maryland politics has been without its “Wig Man.”  This is a title which McDonough is exceptionally qualified to hold.