Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vaya Con Dios, Vozzella

Laura Vozzella, the Baltimore Sun’s resident snarky columnist, is leaving the newspaper effective tomorrow.  She’s going to Richmond, VA, where she'll cover Virginia politics for the Washington Post.
The epicenter of this week’s surprise earthquake happened to be near Richmond, by the way. I hope this isn’t any sort of an omen for Laura. But I digress.
Anyway, I met Laura back when I worked for Bob Ehrlich in Annapolis. She mentioned Precious the Skateboard Dog in a column, and I responded with an email rant similar to this past blog posting.  Since then, I have really enjoyed getting to know her.  We have similar senses of humor, so there was a natural synergy between us – the kind found among contrarian wiseacres. 
Had we been elementary school classmates, I could see the two of us being frequent partners in trouble, taking many walks to the principal’s office together.  After all, some of her column reports and most of my blog entries strike me as being karmic spitballs. But again, I digress.
Anyway, in her final column for the Sun, she was nice enough to give me a shout out. (To her point, I have met people in government and political circles with what I consider a good sense of humor. But many more government types are better categorized as, well, "funny" - and usually in an unintentional way).

I’m very sad to see her go, but I am happy to see her take this next step in her career. And, I promise to do my best to fill in the snark deficiency which her departure will inevitably bring.
You know, a lot of people over the years have speculated if I have been leaking choice, sometimes embarrassing, bits of political intel to her, especially pertaining to some of my old political confederates. Others have outright accused me of doing it.
To them I say, “Who…me?”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Maryland, 2014, and the "New" Peter Franchot

One thing that has always fascinated me is the ability of some politicians to reinvent themselves. In today’s popular verbiage, some might call it rebranding.
Richard Nixon was a master of this phenomenon. After back to back losses at the presidential and gubernatorial level, he reemerged in 1968 as the “New Nixon” – a more statesmanlike version of the bare-knuckle politician who had been Dwight Eisenhower’s political hatchet man in the 1950s.
Bill Clinton demonstrated special deft for this skill as well. As a presidential candidate in 1992, he effortlessly glided towards the left when he needed to broaden his support during the Democratic primary campaign, and then back to the center just in time for the general election. As president, this same skill helped him successfully contend with a GOP Congress. And, each time, Clinton completed the transition with his credibility intact – a talent some Democratic politicians never quite master.
Some people condemned Nixon and Clinton for their chameleon-like skills. But for me, it has contributed to my open admiration for the former and grudging respect for the latter.
Here in Maryland, I noticed that one of our state’s leaders and aspiring gubernatorial wannabes is demonstrating a similar knack for skillful self-repositioning.
Throughout much of his career, Peter Franchot has been a “Takoma Park Democrat” – a reference to the Montgomery County community known for its unbending, unapologetic, grungy liberal ways.  This term defined his brand, in effect.  It established his identity and his role on the state’s political landscape. 
As far as I can tell, this has been an accurate description.
During his 20 years in the legislature, Franchot built a solid reputation for straightforward, outspoken, soapbox-loving, bomb-throwing liberalism. In 1988, when George Bush became the last Republican presidential candidate to carry Maryland, he unsuccessfully challenged liberal GOP Congresswoman Connie Morella from the left.
In 2006, Maryland Business for Responsive Government scored him at 36 percent – meaning that two-thirds of his colleagues in the House of Delegates were to the right of him on business issues according to MBRG’s calculations.
In 2003, Franchot happily settled into the role of resident progressive foil to the first GOP governor in 40 years. And, in 2006, when he challenged Ehrlich ally William Donald Schaefer for the Democratic nomination for comptroller, Franchot expressed a desire to expand the job’s purview into policy areas with special cache among liberals.
However, since his election and reelection as comptroller, a “New Franchot” has definitely emerged.
The old, fire-breathing liberal is gone. In his place stands a responsible executive with a heightened sense of fiscal restraint, as well as a willingness to chastise Democratic party leaders – including Governor Martin O’Malley – who do not live up to those principles.
Politicians adjust their positions and personas in accordance with changing political reality all the time. But it was this article by WBAL Radio’s Robert Lang which illustrated for me the seeming breadth and depth of Franchot’s transformation.
During an appearance on one of the station’s talk programs, Franchot summarized his policy priorities as:
1)      “No new taxes, especially in the special session.”
2)      Performing a “complete scrubbing” of state spending, and finding ways of improving healthcare and education “with less dollars.”
3)      Helping Maryland “restructure” its relationship with small business so that it serves “as a partner.”
Didn’t Bob Ehrlich’s campaign – albeit in a far more muddled fashion – attempt to articulate all three of these points during the gubernatorial election last year?
So where has Peter Franchot, the in-your-face liberal and gleeful Republican thorn, gone?
Franchot’s own Wikipedia entry retains only scant evidence of him. In discussing his voting record during his 20 years in the legislature, only two specific votes are mentioned: A 1998 vote against income tax reductions, and a 2005 vote against slots.  Neither of these votes is evidence of unwavering progressivism.

Instead, elsewhere the entry refers to him as an, "independent leader who is sometimes a thorn in the governor's side, but, commands respect from both Republicans and Democrats."
So, what’s going on here?
First, and most obviously, Franchot wants to be governor.
That’s why he continues to crisscross the state and has effectively set up semi-permanent residence in battleground areas like Baltimore County. Franchot senses that the political pendulum in Maryland may swing back to the right in 2014, perhaps as a result of O’Malley fatigue among voters, and is self-positioning to take advantage of it. With the state GOP in a state of dysfunction, Franchot is expanding his message so he can credibly run as an agent of change from within the Democratic Party.  
Second, Franchot is a more astute politico than a lot of us – including myself - ever gave him credit for.
Anyone who saw this guy as a one-note partisan from the leftward fringes of the Democratic Party underestimated him.  Franchot is a liberal’s liberal who has redefined himself as a centrist and a fiscal watchdog – and seems to have gotten away with it.  In effect, he stepped out of his old political persona and slid comfortably into another one without anyone noticing. This is a pretty impressive feat – one I cannot recall anyone else in Maryland’s recent political past achieving.
I do not think there was ever really a New Nixon or a New Clinton – just different facets of two complicated, multi-dimensional, calculating, sophisticated personalities. I think Franchot’s transformation can be explained in the same way.
One thing is certain: If Franchot is the Democratic nominee in 2014, Republicans who want to beat him better be prepared to run against the old Franchot and not the new one. And, they should probably start running now. Otherwise, by the time 2014 gets here, Franchot will have successfully inoculated himself from such attacks. That is, assuming he hasn’t done that already.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

GOP 2012: Perry, Romney, and The Hidden Hand

As expected, Texas Governor Rick Perry has jumped into the GOP presidential race, immediately usurping former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s frontrunner status if the most recent Rasmussen Poll is to be believed.
Perry’s entering the race has certainly shaken things up. At this point, the nomination certainly looks like his to lose. As the incumbent governor of one of the GOP’s most important states, Perry certainly towers over the other candidates in terms of his political stature, and enjoys a strong base of support among social conservatives and so-called Tea Party voters.
That said, even a man five feet tall would seem like the giant in a roomful of midgets.
As for Romney, I think he still has a few cards to play. For one thing, he hasn’t really stopped running since he lost the 2008 GOP nomination to John McCain, so he enjoys a head start in terms of name recognition, support among the party establishment, and fundraising.
I think this race still has a ways to go before it is settled. But I do think it will come down to a battle between the Texas conservative versus the Massachusetts chameleon. In addition to their own personal attributes as candidates, each benefits from different historical forces and precedents important in the GOP nominating process.
Since 1960, the GOP has taken a somewhat hierarchical approach to the nomination of presidential candidates who were not incumbents. In other words, the party has generally nominated the candidate who, as a result of events or circumstances, seemed to be the next person in line.
Think about it.
In 1960 Richard Nixon, who had served as Eisenhower’s vice president for two terms, lost narrowly to JFK. After the GOP’s shellacking in 1964, the party nominated Nixon again in 1968. Ronald Reagan, who had almost wrested the nomination away from Gerald Ford in 1976, won it easily in 1980. The party nominated George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and the second-place finisher to Reagan, in 1988. The GOP turned to Bob Dole, Bush’s runner up in 1988, as its standard bearer in 1996. In 2000, the party nominated George W. Bush, son of the last GOP president. And in 2008 Republicans nominated the man Bush beat for the 2000 GOP nomination, John McCain.
Assuming this dynamic reasserts itself in 2012, then Mitt Romney – who came in second to John McCain in terms of the number of delegates – stands to benefit.
However, the party’s nominating process has historically been influenced by another guiding force: geography.
Since 1928, every one of the party’s successful candidates for president have been born in, lived in, or held elective office in one of two states: Texas and California.
Though he was born in Iowa, Herbert Hoover attended Stanford University and settled in California. Known as the “Man from Abilene” (Kansas), Dwight Eisenhower was actually born in Texas, and carried the then-Democratic state in both 1952 and 1956. Richard Nixon was a native Californian who served as its U. S. Senator; Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1966. Both George Bushes lived in and won office in Texas.
Additionally, since 1928, the GOP has nominated two Arizonans, two Kansans, an Indianan, a New Yorker (twice), and a non-elected president from Michigan. All of them lost.
So skip ahead to 2012, and Rick Perry – a native Texas who is the state’s longest-serving governor – looks to be in pretty good shape. Not only are the candidates challenging him relatively uninspiring, all of them (with the exception of Ron Paul) hail from states other than California or Texas.
Is the California – Texas axis a decisive element in the GOP process, or is it merely a quirk of history? I honestly do not know. But it has manifested itself enough times that I think it would be a mistake to ignore it entirely.
In the end, I do not think any sort of hidden hand force will guide who wins the GOP nomination. The candidate who runs the strongest campaign, and succeeds in setting the campaign agenda, will prevail. Whether or not the successful candidate emerges strong enough to knock off an incumbent president remains an unanswerable question.
That said, watching for evidence of historical dynamics at work will certainly make the race fun to watch, especially for political junkies like me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

They Say It's Your Birthday

A year ago, August 16, 2010, I started this blog. Today also happens to be the anniversary of Elvis dying, by the way...but that's completely coincidental, I can assure you.

Anyway, here it is a year later and some 220 or so postings later, I'm still kicking up the dirt when I have to. Thanks to all of you who have read it. It has been a fun little exercise. And, thanks to all of you who have given me fodder for keeping it relevant, and humorous (I'd call people in the latter category "funnis," but that is another story).

Anyway, thanks again for reading. With a presidential election looming on the horizon, I am looking forward to having a lot to bloviate about.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nonpartisans Elections in Baltimore City?

My Democratic friend and fellow City resident Tracy Gosson and I co-authored this op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun. In it, we argued that the means by which Baltimore chooses its leaders should be changed in order to allow for nonpartisan elections, as all but four Maryland municipalities have already done.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Baltimore's Grand Prix: Out of Gas?

So, like most city residents, I have been watching this unfolding Baltimore Grand Prix saga with a mixture of both curiosity and dread.
I mean, when I think of Baltimore, the phrase “Formula One” racing doesn’t instantly pop into my mind. And, as much as some of the race’s loudest proponents are ready to elevate Baltimore into “Long Beach of the East” status, I’ll withhold judgment until I see whether the City can successfully pull off one race, let alone the four additional races to which it is now contractually pledged.
The race’s organizers cite a number of rosy statistics – more than 100,000 visitors to the Inner Harbor, an estimated $70 million economic impact in 2011 alone – as evidence of the event’s impending success.
And, I hope they’re right.
Earlier in my career I worked at the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, an organization involved in planning events beneficial for the City. I know how much hard work went into past undertakings of similar scope and impact, such as the Waterfront Festival, the Fish out of Water project, and the annual Monument Lighting. And, I certainly do not want to be one of those people who sits on the sidelines and bashes those trying to do something good for the City.
Still, I’m beginning to wonder if those planning the race really have their eyes on the road.
In a July Baltimore Sun article, race organizers said they met “75 percent” of their goal in terms of ticket sales for the race, and that certainly sounds encouraging. But as far as my gut instinct is concerned, I simply do not yet feel the degree of enthusiasm for the race its organizers claim exists.  
Among the people I talk to, about half are dreading the disruption the race will bring, a quarter say they will be out of town, and the remainder are either oblivious or looking forward to it.  

Judging by the facts, it looks like the race’s organizers have started too late in planning the race or promoting the benefits the race will bring the City.
As far as sponsorships are concerned, the Baltimore Grand Prix’s own website lists 16 sponsors, far less than the 35 – 40 they expected. To date, the race is without a $1 million “title sponsor.” True, the race added eight new sponsors – including M&T Bank – in July and August. But is this evidence of success or last-minute scrambling? You be the judge.
In terms of logistics, the controversy surrounding the evisceration of trees along Pratt Street to accommodate the race has proven an unwelcomed distraction for organizers just as they are trying to generate enthusiasm for the event.
In all fairness, the tree clearing was first reported last December. But when the trees actually started falling, this produced a backlash on the part of people already fed up with a year’s worth of road closures, millions of dollars in Grand Prix expenditures by the City and State, and other race-related annoyances.
One gets the sense that race proponents have not succeeded in educating the community to the extent needed during the run-up to the event. Race proponents like City Councilman William Cole have certainly worked hard and tried their best. But the most logical advocate and spokesperson, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, has been largely absent. She was involved in the kickoff, but she has largely eschewed any sort of public educator role.
I suspect timing and City politics have played a big role in this. The City mayoral primary is September 13th – about 10 days after the race ends. If the Grand Prix turns out to be a logistical disaster, or if incidents similar to the one at the Inner Harbor on the Fourth of July occur, then what looks to be a status quo election could experience some last minute drama.
Of course, none of this may matter in the end. The event could go off without a hitch, and all the naysayers may become me-tooists. Like I said, I certainly hope so.
At the start of this entry I mentioned feeling a sense of dread regarding the impending race. It’s kind of like how I used to feel when I lived in the Timonium and the Maryland State Fair returned: Too much traffic, too many crowds, too much disruption.
So, while I want the race to succeed, I plan on being far away if it does.  The only way I’d ever go is it I got to drive in it myself.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Of Robocalls and Rebuttals...

My friend and fellow blogger Joe Steffen recently published a blog entry responding to my own assertion that Bob Ehrlich likely had no role in planning or executing the infamous race-based robocalls which have since landed two of his confederates in hot water.
In my own blog entry, I made the case as to why Ehrlich likely was not a part of planning this specific activity. In Steffen’s blog, he makes a strong case that Ehrlich has a long history of implicitly – and, in some instances, not so implicitly – indulging the kinds of dark campaign shenanigans the robocalls represent.
Both make valid, mutually non-exclusive arguments.
In the past, Ehrlich tended to dismiss the kinds of Election Day hijinks that Steffen references in a casual, chortling, “everybody does it” kind of way.
In fact, in 1998 the campaign handed out a trophy as an award to individuals it believed engaged in such activities on behalf of a candidate for the Maryland State Senate.
Years later, when the Washington Post asked Ehrlich about his campaign’s alleged tolerance for such salacious monkeyshines, he dismissed them as “silly stuff.”
But reckless indulgence is one thing. Breaking the law is quite another.  
To date, the robocall matter is the only Ehrlich campaign activity to result in a criminal prosecution.  That is why I think reaffirming Ehrlich’s likely non-involvement is significant.
In my blog posting on this subject, I made the point that Ehrlich’s being a lawyer made his participation in this episode less likely. Steffen questioned the relevance of this fact. I feel it is relevant because it speaks to Ehrlich’s understanding of the legal process and awareness of the consequences of violating the law.
Add to this the fact that he is an inveterate worrier – in 1996 he made multiple staffers call the Board of Elections to confirm that there were no problems with the reelection paperwork he already filed – and I just cannot see how an intelligent guy like Bob Ehrlich could be part of this high risk, no gain misadventure. As campaign strategy goes, the robocalls demonstrated the same degree of strategic wisdom as a soldier tapping his foot on the ground in lieu of a mine detector.
Still, Steffen’s larger point is valid. Indulging these kinds of activities over time does not leave you entirely blameless for an episode in which you were not directly involved.
After the embarrassing incident in 2006 in which homeless men were bused in from Philadelphia to hand out deceptive literature at the polls, Ehrlich had a chance to implement a zero tolerance policy for such mischief.
Instead, in 2010, he countenanced Paul Schurick’s decision to engage Julius Henson, a man notorious for racially-charged politics. It’s like hiring Casey Anthony to be your nanny, and being surprised when something actually goes wrong.
I hope everyone – especially those left to pick up the pieces in the state GOP – can move beyond this unfortunate episode.  That includes Bob Ehrlich, whose legacy is better and stronger than his 2010 defeat and the ensuring robocall scandal.
As for Schurick and Henson, I don’t want to see them go to jail. I’d settle for watching the perma-smirk disappear from Schurick’s face. But that’s another story.