Friday, May 27, 2011

A Few Tidbits Before I Hit The Road

So I am headed out of town for a few days of vacation, and wanted to get something up on the blog before I departed.
It’s been a while since I blogged anything, partially due to the fact that nothing has really inspired me to climb back aboard my soapbox.
Sure, the robocall mess is grinding on. I hear former Ehrlich campaign staffers and others have paraded before the state grand jury investigating the matter for much of the week. Various contacts have shared the names of some of the reported witnesses with me. It would not be fair to publish those names here, as this might create confusion as to who the witnesses in the investigation are as opposed to its targets.  I may revisit that topic at length when (or if) indictments come down.
Minimally, if indictments do happen and there is a trial involving two senior Ehrlich campaign aides, its political penumbras will be felt elsewhere. As Red Maryland’s Mark Newgent and others have observed during some of our Facebook interactions, such a trial would be a beneficial distraction for the state’s Democratic leaders as they focus on redistricting, raising taxes, and increasing tolls. Assuming the grand jury finishes its work soon, and indictments follow, any expected trial would probably begin this fall, just as the Maryland General Assembly convenes for its special session.  Indeed, the state's ruling Democratic monopoly knows how to play these kind of games exceptionally well.
Ultimately, before all is said and done, I hope those who shepherded this racist, destructive, possibly illegal and definitely bad idea to fruition answer at least one question: What exactly did you guys think it was going to accomplish?
As for the presidential race, frequently touted candidate Gov. Mitch Daniels decided to take a pass, as did Mike Huckabee. Sarah Palin, who seemed relatively absent from the presidential landscape for a while, has resurfaced, creating speculation that she might get in at some point. Inexplicably, Rudy Giuliani’s name has surfaced. I like hizzoner a lot – ideologically I am perhaps closer to him than any other candidate – but I don’t see how he can look at his performance during the 2008 primaries last time and see any opportunity there.
So, looking at the race from where things stand today, I am forced to draw two conclusions: 1) Mitt Romney will be the nominee; and 2) barring a seismic incident on the political landscape, President Obama will likely be reelected.
Lastly, speaking of bad ideas, I have been watching with interest the political fallout surrounding the whole issue of in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants.
Recently The Baltimore Sun exposed (perhaps unwittingly) the folly of the idea by juxtaposing coverage of O’Malley’s in-state tuition bill signing ceremony with news that 350 top high school scholars were about to lose their promised scholarships because of “budget cuts” seemingly needed to offset the cost of the tuition breaks. The O’Malley Administration quickly reversed course, restoring funding for the scholarships.
But the episode created a rallying point for people collecting signatures on petitions to put the law on the ballot. This incident certainly makes their job easier. If they succeed and the measure appears on the ballot, getting the voters to ratify an idea whose support is limited to the state’s boutique liberals – not to mention illegal immigrants themselves – may be a difficult sell, especially during tight budgetary times.
With respect to how to deal with illegal immigrants, I consider myself a moderate on the issue. The priorities should be to seal the borders, and to get individuals who are here naturalized – perhaps through an expedited process – and paying taxes. Congress and the president should work together to achieve these goals federally.  
It is premature for Maryland or any other state to grant illegal immigrants amenities traditionally reserved for its legal citizens before that happens. Initiatives like in-state tuition breaks can deter them from wanting to naturalize. It serves political ends – in this case, courting the Hispanic voter bloc whose influence is growing in politics – at the expense of the rule of law as well as traditional notions of citizenship.
Well, those are my pre-vacation thoughts. Have a great holiday weekend. And, if you see a process server bearing down on you with all the ferocity of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, run.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Robocalls, Subpoenas, and "Litigation"

The Baltimore Sun now reports that subpoenas are going out to former Ehrlich aides and associates from the state grand jury investigating the robocalls scandal.

In an interesting twist on events, one of the subpoenas was served in the presence of The Sun’s own Laura Vozzella.

As reported by the Washington Post last week, Julius Henson’s attorney referenced the existence of a  federal grand jury in court filings. To date, however, there have been no indications as to who they’ve spoken to, or what possible violation of federal criminal law they are investigating.

I know a lot of lawyers, and I informally polled them on what they thought was going on with the federal grand jury. All see it as bad news for Henson and possibly the Ehrlich campaign, although all acknowledge the federal grand jury’s political origins.

Senator Ben Cardin, Congressman Elijah Cummings, and other state Democrats have called upon the Obama Justice Department to investigate whether any federal laws were broken. Empanelling a federal grand jury certainly fulfills that request. Time will tell whether they actually find something, or if it is merely a political exercise.

Lastly, I was interested by Team Ehrlich’s response to news about the subpoenas:

"'Because it's under litigation and because [information about the subpoenas] is not supposed to come out, we're not going to comment,' (Greg) Massoni said."

So my question is: Is this a proper use of the term “under litigation”?

To me, “under litigation” usually refers to civil court action. In other words, you’re getting divorced and the case is in litigation. Or, you’re involved in litigation over a medical malpractice suit and cannot discuss it as a result.

Even if the term is technically accurate, applying it here seems both absurdly euphemistic – like calling illegal immigrants “New Americans” - and (to borrow a term from Julius Henson) counterintuitive.

My guess is some lawyer advised the redoubtable Massoni to use "under litigation" because it sounds better than “criminal investigation.”

Massoni’s invoking the term reminded me of the first campaign debate between Governor O’Malley and former Governor Ehrlich. At one point, Ehrlich professed his campaign's desire to discuss Maryland’s future instead of “re-litigating the past.”

This time, however, they may not have a choice. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Robocalls: The Return

For those of you who might have missed it, John Wagner of the Washington Post had this item Wednesday about a topic which has not any media attention for a while:  The ongoing investigations into the so-called robocall scandal during Maryland’s 2010 gubernatorial elections.
As far as I can remember, the last ink this topic received was last December, when former Governor Ehrlich addressed it in comments he made to the online Patch newspaper.  This occurred shortly after state investigators raided the home of Julius Henson, the political consultant who acknowledged responsibility for fielding the calls. Since then, I have heard various rumbling as to who the investigators may have spoken to, and who they may or may not be targeting.  But those investigating this matter have remained eerily silent since their holiday visit to Henson’s home.
The most interesting facet of this latest development is the fact that Henson’s attorney refers to TWO grand juries – one state, one federal – looking into this matter.  As the media widely reported, Henson is facing federal civil penalties potentially totaling $56 million because the 112,000 robocalls lacked the required authority line. But this is the first indication that a federal criminal investigation is underway as well.
So how long will it take for the other shoe(s) to drop? Who knows? But it is clear that, recent silence notwithstanding, this crisis in search of a communicator is not going away anytime soon.
In the meantime, one has to wonder...who is paying all these legal bills? Presumably everyone who has been contacted by the FBI or the state investigators has lawyered up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The 2012 GOP Presidential Field: Where's The Beef?

Last week’s GOP presidential debate featured a defeated senator (Rick Santorum), a Wendell Willkie wannabe (Herman Cain), an obscure former governor (Gary Johnson), an understated former governor (Tim Pawlenty), and Ron Paul.
For me, the debate had an “Island of Misfit Toys” feel to it.  None of the candidates seemed to display the kind of gravitas or evoke the kind of excitement it takes to defeat an incumbent president at the polls – something that has happened only three times since 1932.
Watching it, I got the distinct sense I’d seen the same basic lightweights’ battle royale before.
Back in 1984, Democrats who vied to challenge Ronald Reagan included a defeated presidential nominee and senator (George McGovern), a future member of the Keating Five (Alan Cranston), a conservative (Fritz Hollings), an astronaut (John Glenn), an obscure former governor (Reuben Askew), and Gary Hart.
The Democratic field was so weak that the Democrats ultimately chose as their nominee Walter Mondale, the quintessential establishment choice. In the end, Jimmy Carter’s vice president lost to Reagan in a 49-state landslide.

The only drama that occurred in 1984 was when Gary Hart posed a momentary threat to Mondale's path to the nomination. Mondale deflated it when, deriding Hart for his lack of substance, famously asked, "Where's the beef?"

This year, as I look at the GOP candidates, I am tempted to ask the same question.
The candidate looming over the 2012 GOP field, Mitt Romney, is the nominal frontrunner primarily because of the party’s penchant for nominating the person who came in second last time, as well as his ties to the party’s establishment.  
Romney’s biggest asset is the sense of inevitability which surrounds him. This can get you nominated, but it won’t get you elected. Just ask Bob Dole, John McCain, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and other unsuccessful, establishment-sanctioned nominees. Beating an incumbent president requires getting people excited about your candidacy.  If there is a passionate groundswell among the GOP faithful for Romney’s candidacy, I have not yet witnessed it.
Three other current/possible GOP candidates worth discussing are Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Mitch Daniels.
With respect to Gingrich, he remains one of the GOP’s intellectual leaders. But the media will pound relentlessly on the ethical problems he experienced as speaker. That and his reputation for being a George Pattonesque figure in the party – great in battle, but a liability when the war is over – will doom his candidacy.
As for Sarah Palin, she has been effectively Quayled by the national media.  Polls consistently show President Obama beating her by a wider margin than any serious presidential contender. I doubt she will get in the race given those constraints.
As for Governor Mitch Daniels, I heard him speak during a trip to Indiana, and was fairly impressed.  He has amassed a solid record as governor of Indiana, and has a folksy style which would serve him well on the campaign trail. Of all the candidates, I like him the best. But, I suspect that has something to do with my disappointment with the other candidates, and my desire to project onto him strengths which offset the others’ failings. If he runs, time will tell if he earns his emerging “last best hope” reputation.
Going back to my 1984 analogy, I think I need to make something clear: In no sense do I regard Barack Obama as a Reagan-like figure. Their differences are profound.
Reagan served two terms as governor of California, and was therefore grounded in the kind of basic skills – shaping public policy, working with a legislature, and influencing public opinion – a chief executive needs.  By contrast, Obama possessed no executive experience, and often seems as if he is winging it in the Oval Office (as the muddled manner in which he approached the Libya situation reflects).
Additionally, Reagan came to office with a well-defined belief system, as well as some clearly communicated policy objectives. Obama used vague promises of “hope” and “change” to surf the anti-Bush wave into office.  His single biggest policy objective – healthcare reform – was enacted due to the Democrats’ legislative muscle, and not because a public consensus for it existed.
That said, Obama does enjoy two of the same advantages going into the 2012 election cycle that Reagan had.
The first is incumbency. From 1968 to 2004, four out of six elected presidents were reelected.  It is difficult to beat an incumbent president under any circumstances. When the president’s opponent is uninspiring, that task becomes impossible. You can't be somebody with a nobody. Nor do candidates win when voters are not voting for them but rather only against someone else.

The second is evidence of economic momentum. There are signs that the nation’s economic recovery is finally in full swing. Ronald Reagan began 1983 with a 34 percent approval rating, and went on to win one of the biggest electoral landslides in history less than two years later. If the economy continues to grow, then Obama will also be very tough to beat, regardless of who his opponent is.
Sixteen months is a lifetime in politics, and things can certainly change. But right now I’d have to bet on Obama being reelected. That has less to do with who he is than where he is – in the White House – and who his opponents are not.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Diversity Debate in Baltimore County

Baltimore County is ensconced in its decennial redistricting process, and citizens are offering their views to the county’s Redistricting Commission as to what the new County Council should look like.  The Patch’s Bryan Sears has been providing his usual excellent, comprehensive coverage to this process.

I was especially struck by one of Sears’ dispatches from April where he reports on Democratic Central Committee member Linda Dorsey-Walker’s testimony before the Commission. Walker argues passionately for the need to create a second majority minority councilmanic district, citing the county’s nearly 40 percent African American population as justification.

The county’s African American population – just 20.1 percent in 2000 – has grown exponentially in recent years. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s overwhelming support in the county’s black precincts cemented his victory over Republican Ken Holt, who still won 40 more precincts than Kamenetz did. 

It also fueled the most shocking news coming out of the 2010 election:  Republican Bob Ehrlich, despite clearly winning the political sign war in his native Baltimore County, losing it by 1,500 votes to Governor O’Malley.

Walker is correct when she says that the county’s black population is surging. But the numbers she cites are wrong.

According to 2010 census data which Sears included in his article, the black population in Baltimore County is now 26.1 percent. That’s an almost 30 percent increase compared to 2000 – impressive to be sure, but nowhere near the doubling which Walker claims.

When I saw this article, I planned to blog it as yet another example of a member of Maryland’s political establishment making up things to serve partisan objectives. Then Governor Schaefer passed away and I got distracted.

I’m glad I did, as Walker’s numerical confusion was only the first shoe to drop in the county’s diversity debate.

Baltimore County GOP Chairman Tony Campbell testified in front of the Commission last week, arguing in favor of expanding the county’s minority representation.  This is not the first time Campbell has waded into this side of the swimming pool.

Shortly after he became GOP chairman, he backed an effort to throw the County GOP’s support behind a plan to make Democratic Councilman Ken Oliver the Council’s new chairman.  He did so without the support of most members of the GOP Central Committee or either of the Council’s two Republican members. Based on the feedback I received last week, Campbell did the same thing again.

Both Walker and Campbell are letting their own agendas and attitudes affect their judgment. When it comes to the thorny nexus of race and redistricting, it is advisable to set passions aside and look at the facts.

Fact: The Baltimore County Charter does not say anything about creating minority districts when a certain population threshold is reached.  

Fact:  Race and political reality were still driving factors when the lines of District 4 were redrawn in 2001.

Fact:  Each councilman represents about 15 percent of Baltimore County, population-wise. The black population of Baltimore County will no doubt exceed 30 percent by the time of the 2020 census.

Fact: Regardless of what the charter presently says, it will be difficult for Baltimore County’s ruling Democrats to ignore cries to create a second minority district once that threshold is crossed.

Fact: Creating majority minority districts often requires taking black voters out of the districts of white incumbent Democrats, resulting in districts that are more politically competitive.

Fact: The Democrats dominate Baltimore County politics, and can be expected to do so for the foreseeable future.

If I were Walker, I would be preparing for the fact that the County’s Democratic incumbents will be reluctant to embrace greater diversity at the cost of giving Republicans more districts where they can run competitively.

If I were Campbell, I would be looking at ways to leverage minority redistricting math in a way which benefits Republicans.  And, I would be thinking of the many ways that the ruling Democrats can screw Republicans out of achieving electoral relevance, perhaps by expanding the number of council seats. 

One thing is certain: No second majority minority district is going to be created this year. But it is inevitable.  When it happens, it presents an intriguing opportunity for two minority groups: Republicans trying to increase their voice, and African Americans looking to leverage their power in the Democratic Party. It will be interesting to see if these minorities can work together to achieve their common ends.