Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Redistricting Reform NOW

If you want to see an example of a corrupt redistricting process in action, look no further than Virginia and Maryland.

In Maryland, the redistricting cycle that followed the 2010 census was an unabashed display of muscle politics by the state’s ruling Democratic establishment.

They began the process with two bare-knuckle objectives. First, bump off GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett and replace him with a successor hand-picked by state Democratic leaders. Second, protect the state’s Democratic incumbents.

In the end, they will probably meet both these goals. In the process, they divided counties and communities, and sacrificed the principles of geographic integrity and compactness.

Indeed, one of the federal appellate judges who reviewed Maryland’s congressional redistricting map said of the new, sprawling Third Congressional District: “In form, the original Massachusetts Gerrymander looks tame by comparison, as this is more reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

Speaking of gerrymandering, the legislative redistricting plan enacted by state Democrats after the 2000 census was such an egregious example that it was tossed out and rewritten by Maryland’s highest court.

In Virginia, where two-party competition is more robust than in Maryland, the situation is a little different. Incumbent self-protection is a bipartisan concern.

Political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg noted that Virginia’s new congressional districts, “don’t dramatically alter the partisanship of many districts, but the lines do solidify incumbents from both parties.”

Regarding state legislative races, as the Washington Post recently editorialized, Virginia’s incumbent protection philosophy has resulted in 85 to 95 percent of legislative races being lopsided victories, if they are contested at all.

Legislation to create a bipartisan redistricting commission is stalled in the Virginia legislature. But based on Maryland’s own experience, such a panel is unlikely to be a catalyst for change.

Maryland has its own redistricting “advisory commission,” but it is dominated by gubernatorial appointees and the presiding officers of the legislature. Even if the bill passes, the Virginia legislature would still retail final authority.

Reform-minded Marylanders and Virginians should look to other states for solutions.

In Iowa, for example, electoral maps are drawn by the state’s Legislative Service Agency, using computer software which factors in population as its sole criteria. Other factors which typically dominate a legislature-driven process – including partisanship and incumbency – are disregarded. A bipartisan Temporary Redistricting Commission is empanelled to assist the process, but it only offers advice when asked to do so.

Since passing its program in 1980, Iowa has avoided the kind of high-profile redistricting drama witnessed in states like Texas and Colorado. Even as Iowa lost a congressional seat due to the 2010 census, the state’s new legislative and congressional maps overwhelmingly passed the state legislature and were quickly signed into law by Iowa’s governor.

California has also moved to a nonpartisan redistricting system. The state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission includes five Republicans, five Democrats, and four unaffiliated citizens. Though the state is a newcomer to nonpartisan redistricting, the impact of the new process is already being felt.

During the past 10 years, only one California congressional seat changed partisan hands during 255 elections. Since the new map was unveiled, six veteran California members of Congress have announced their retirements, and others are expected to follow.

If you like competitive elections, then you should love nonpartisan redistricting.

According to a report issued by the New York-based “No Labels” committee, nonpartisan redistricting translates into a 21 percent drop in the number of uncontested elections.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to bringing nonpartisan redistricting to Maryland, Virginia, or any state with a gubernatorial- or legislature-driven process is its own political leaders.

California’s redistricting change came about through a ballot initiative passed into law by the voters.  This is not an option in Maryland or Virginia.

Further, people are generally apathetic about arcane, theoretical matters involving the mechanics of the political process, especially those which arise only once every decade.

For nonpartisan redistricting to become a reality in Virginia and Maryland, it is going to take strong leadership from a reform-minded governor willing to elevate a good governance issue among other priorities, and to expend political capital forcing recalcitrant legislators to travel in a direction they simply don’t want to go.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Beware, Maryland Taxpayers"

My inaugural column for the Frederick News Post ran today. Here is the link. Enjoy...and, rest assured, I write all my own columns.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Spotted in Columbia

Check out the picture I snapped in Columbia this afternoon.

The Exxon in question is located on Guilford Road down the street from Hammond High School.

And, if you can't make out the last digit on the "Supreme" sigh, it's a "9." But it's the first digit that got my attention.

"Supreme" gas clocks in at $4.09 here. And "Regular" is "only" $3.75.

That's right...$4 a gallon gasoline has come to Maryland, folks. When will there be similar signs in your neighborhood?

And, if the state's six percent sales tax currently applied to gas sales, as Governor O'Malley and the state's ruling Democratic establishment have proposed, that would add another $.24 to that "Supreme" total.

So, why is that a good idea, again?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gay Marriage in Maryland

I originally published this blog posting a year ago regarding the gay marriage debate in Maryland. In contemplating another blog posting on the subject, I went back and reread my earlier effort, only to decide that – except for some minor updating – I had nothing additional to say.


As a blogger, I tend to avoid postings on public policy matters. Generally I respect the views of others – even those with opinions contrary to mine – if the view in question is rendered through reasoned deliberation or deeply held convictions. I feel no compulsion to change peoples’ minds. Nor do I think people want to read my droning on about philosophical matters.

However, I decided to break with my pattern and comment on the major issue driving debate in Maryland these days: Gay marriage.

A recent Washington Post poll found a 50 percent to 44 percent split in favor of gay marriage among Marylanders. But it identified a deep racial division on the issue. Among whites, 71 percent support same-sex marriage; 24 percent oppose it. Among blacks, 41 percent are supportive, while 53 percent are opposed.

My own thinking on the subject is rather complex – the result of contemplation and conversations with different people across the political spectrum.

The best way I can summarize my views is that, while I am not sure I personally believe a same sex marriage equates to a traditional one, I decided that this really doesn’t matter. Accordingly, I hope the Maryland General Assembly passes marriage equality legislation this session. And, if it does and it lands on the 2012 ballot, as I suspect it will, I am inclined to support it.   

Two separate forces drive my thinking.

First, being a libertarian, I am lacking the gene or chromosome which drives some people into worrying about how other law-abiding adults lead their personal lives. Maybe that comes from my generally secular outlook on things. In any event, I believe that the compulsion to police other consenting adults’ private business is a destructive, distractive force in society.

So, the bottom line is, if two gay people want to enter in a committed, legally-sanctioned relationship and consider themselves married, then I have no desire or inclination to interfere with them.  

Part of me supports their right to exercise personal freedom in their lives. The other part of me just doesn’t care what other people do.

If two people I personally knew found happiness through a same sex relationship and managed to build a life together, I would certainly feel happy for them. That’s a basic and a natural reaction when one’s friends are involved. And, I think they should have the legal benefits that committed heterosexual couples have.  I also do not think that the 2000-year-old institution of heterosexual marriage will be undermined, threatened, or delegitimized if gay marriage becomes legal.

To the extent I have qualms about gay marriage, it comes down to semantics.

Throw the word “marriage” at me, and I think of it in traditional terms - and likely always will. Throw the phrase “gay marriage” at me, and I think of something which is not an equivalent or extension of traditional marriage, but its own animal entirely. 

Not a bad thing…just a different thing.

Two of my friends from Ehrlich world – Shaina Vatz and Mariana Marques – are heterosexual, highly educated women in their twenties and early thirties. I have had deep philosophical conversations separately with them on this issue. Both are aggressive supporters of gay marriage. During our conversations about the issue, both seemed to regard my expressed doubts and qualms as being quaint.

Ultimately, I suppose I agree with their intellectual arguments, which centered on civil rights. But the difference is, while they started from the point of passionate advocacy, it has taken me a while to reach a point of intellectual acceptance.

Maybe the reason for this is generational bias. I was born in the mid-1960s, and my parents – both pre-baby boomers – would never have accepted the concept of legally-sanctioned gay couples.  Maybe generation Xers like me are the attitudinal bridge between the traditional past and the future when it comes to this issue.

Even if I am not sure same sex marriage equates to a traditional marriage, this does not impact my ability to support it. That’s because I recognize the fact that the most important definition of marriage stems not from what the law or the Bible says – but that imposed by the people in the marriage itself.

For this, I have to look no farther than my own parents.

My parents were divorced Catholics when they married in 1965. They had to get married at the Towson Courthouse because the church that dominated much of their earlier lives would not sanction their union. I always thought it ironic that the church which rejected them would still unquestioningly accept the two children which resulted from this renegade union, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway, they were married for 31 years. Society recognized their marriage. Their children recognized their marriage. Their friends recognized their marriage. And, most importantly, they recognized their marriage.

If gay marriage passes, gay couples will have a much tougher time than my parents did overcoming skepticism and doubts as to whether or not their marriage is really a marriage. But, in the final analysis, I would not want to deny them the opportunity to try.

Martin O'Malley, Peter Franchot, and the "Chronic Campaigner"

By 1966, former Vice President Richard Nixon, defeated for the presidency in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962, had embarked on his political comeback.  That fall he was campaigning for GOP congressional candidates, and also emerging as a sharp critic of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy.
A few days before the election, Nixon issued an especially critical statement on Vietnam. The next day, President Johnson angrily retaliated at a press conference by calling Nixon a "chronic campaigner ... [who] find [s] fault with his country and his government during a period of October every two years."
But LBJ’s personal attack on Nixon elevated rather than diminished him. It proved Nixon’s continuing relevance on the national stage, and helped position him as the logical frontrunner for 1968.
I immediately thought about this incident when I heard about Governor O’Malley’s quip that Comptroller Peter Franchot was “our version of Mitt Romney” in light of Franchot’s opposition to O’Malley’s plan to impose the six percent sales tax onto gasoline sales.
By comparing Franchot to the chameleon-like Romney, O’Malley was trying to remind people that the comptroller, a crusader against the gas tax increase and other unpopular aspects of the governor’s agenda, had amassed a solidly progressive voting record as a member of the House of Delegates.
Among that voting record: Past votes in support of increasing the gas tax.
So, I get what the governor was trying to accomplish. I just don’t think it worked.
First, as I argued in a previous blog, Comptroller Franchot has astutely positioned himself as a fiscally responsible executive. Five years in the high profile position of comptroller has probably done more to shape Franchot’s image in the eyes of Marylanders than twenty years as a progressive legislator from Takoma Park. 
While his voting record will be relevant if he runs for governor in 2014, my sense is that perceived inconsistencies between the “old” and the “new” Franchot will not be the silver bullets some expect them to be.
Some past votes can be explained in the context of the time in which they were made. In the case of the gas tax increase, for example, Franchot can argue that supporting a gas tax increase as a legislator and opposing an extension of the sales tax to gasoline sales as comptroller during a time of already soaring gas prices, higher tolls, and general economic uncertainty were equally correct decisions.
Past votes can also be cited as expressions of one’s core political principles. In solidly blue Maryland, Franchot’s liberal voting record may help reassure progressive voters in his home base of Montgomery County just as his perceived fiscally responsibility helps him in places like Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Second, by criticizing Franchot in such a sharp, public manner, O’Malley confirmed the comptroller’s standing as the governor’s resident political foil.
If history is any guide, 2014 will be a change election cycle in Maryland. Franchot’s rebranding strategy has inoculated him from criticism that he is part of the pro-tax, pro-spend Annapolis crowd.  By hitting the comptroller on his opposition to the politically noxious sales tax on gas plan, O’Malley has, in effect, helped bring that process to completion.
With the Maryland Republican Party not presently in a position to field viable candidates for statewide office, Franchot presently stands alone as The Alternative to all things Martin O’Malley. That may cause problems for him among some progressives, but my sense is that – under these particular circumstances – this strategy will ultimately win more friends than it loses.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

RNC Race Developments

Today there have been many developments regarding Maryland’s future representation on the Republican National Committee.

First, Louis Pope, Maryland’s somnolent Republican National Committeeman, has his first challenger in Anne Arundel County Central Committee Member Scott Shaffer. Shaffer sent out a press release today to the State Central Committee in which he states: “Like the movie Groundhog Day, the Maryland Republican Party keeps repeating itself over and over:  same strategies, same tactics, same candidates, same results,” said Shaffer.  “If we want a different outcome, then we need new ideas and new blood.” 

I think Shaffer’s entrance into the race is a welcome development. I reached out to him, and hope to interview him for a future blog segment over the next week or so.

Second, fellow GOP blogger Brian Griffiths, who’s also Northeastern Vice Chairman of the Young Republican National Federation (YRNF), blogged this item on Red Maryland in which he takes RNC National Committeewoman candidate Nicolee Ambrose to task for using YRNF letterhead in announcing her candidacy to the State Central Committee.

I don’t know Griffiths well, but I think he’s a good writer and a potential future leader for the party.

In this instance, however, it seems he is playing a contrived, catty game of gotcha with longtime foe Ambrose, whom he once dismissed as “Nasty Nicolee” in a blog entry.

Ambrose served as YRNF national chairman from 2005 – 2007. When she left office, Griffiths reports that she was granted the title “Chairman Emeritus” by a vote of the 800 attendees of the YRNF national convention “held in New Orleans.” (BTW, I checked with Ambrose on this point. She stated that the convention actually occurred in Hollywood, Florida. What’s more, as the event predated Griffiths' own involvement with the YRNF, he wasn’t there.)

Anyway, using the title she was fairly awarded – Ambrose is entitled to until she turns 40 – on the organization’s stationery seems like a no-brainer to me. I suspect most of the 99.99999+ percent of the population not privy to these kind of intramural, obscure, YR backroom squabbles would agree.

Lastly, I spoke with one-time Delegate and Baltimore County GOP Chairman and current Brinkley for Congress spokesman Don Murphy about National Committeewoman candidate Audrey Scott’s role with the Brinkley campaign.

In an earlier blog posting, I pointed out that Mrs. Scott – roundly criticized for waiving the party’s Rule 11 requirement preventing the party from offering candidates pre-primary support – is now working to defeat the state’s senior GOP Congressman, Roscoe Bartlett, while she campaigns for high party office.

"David Brinkley represents our best shot at retaining the 6th District. He is the only Republican who can keep the seat," Mrs. Scott stated in a comment posted on Senator Brinkley’s website.

This is not the first time Mrs. Scott has awkwardly meandered into a competitive primary battle recently.

Mrs. Scott’s son Lawrence, a political consultant known for his rough and tumble tactics, was working for Mr. Douglas then, and he’s working for Senator Brinkley now.

When I first inquired about Mrs. Scott’s status with the Brinkley campaign via a Facebook exchange with Murphy on January 9th, he responded definitively: “Audrey will be helping with fundraising on a contractual basis.”

To me, the term “contractual” means she’s getting paid – something which would violates the spirit if not the letter of the MD GOP’s own bylaws.

Article 5, Section 5, Subsection a(4) states:

“No officer of the Party shall receive remuneration for campaign-related services from any candidate in a contested primary election for public office within the State of Maryland.”
Now, it is true that Mrs. Scott has not been elected National Committeewoman, so the party’s bylaws do not technically apply to her. However, that does not mean that, as a candidate, she shouldn’t be living up to the standards she would have to adhere to as an incumbent, anyway.

When I talked to Murphy today, he said that Mrs. Scott was not a salaried employee, but that she was working with Lawrence and earning a “percentage” of what she raised.

When I asked Murphy what Mrs. Scott’s title was – I’ve heard her informally called “Brinkley’s Finance Director” before – he responded cryptically: “Not sure she has one…Actually, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t. I have seen her at one mtg.”

Translation: She is around, doing something.

“We are thrilled to have her support,” he continued. “And it doesn’t disqualify her from running for National Committeewoman.”

Five hours after we hung up the phone, and just as I was about to sit down and begin writing this blog entry, Murphy backpedaled.

“Just got off the phone with LScott,” he wrote via text. “There is NO Contract with AScott to raise $ for DB. She is NOT being paid as per our previous conversation…There were others who offered to do the same for a percentage and I assumed a similar arrangement was made. Sorry for the false impression.”

Well, it wasn’t an impression inasmuch as it was a clear-cut, definitive statement, twice repeated.

What’s more, Murphy’s not the only person to tell me that Mrs. Scott is being paid in her quest to beat the state’s senior congressman.

(UPDATE: Since I originally posted this, I have heard from a total of two Bartlett loyalists from two Western Maryland counties, each reporting that Mrs. Scott's on-payroll status with the Brinkley campaign is widely regarded to be true.)  

So, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here. I presume that, minimally, Lawrence is being compensated for his work, but I guess we'll know when the next campaign finance reports come out in March.

Ironically, while this aspiring RNC member is working to defeat a twenty-year Republican congressman, another DC-based GOP organization, the National Republican Congressional Committee, is working to save him.

Now, I understand that many activists believe that the party’s best shot of keeping the seat rests with a candidate other than an 85-year-old incumbent. While that may be true, it is perhaps irrelevant. With so many challengers competing in the battle royale that is the Sixth District GOP congressional primary, Bartlett is an odds-on favorite to be renominated.

I just believe that while you’re working to beat the state’s senior Republican congressman, you forfeit your right to run for party office.

Doing both smacks of smash and grab opportunism, especially on the part of someone who was against Rule 11 before she was for it.

Minimally, Mrs. Scott should explain her rationale to the members of the State Central Committee who will be determining the fate of her candidacy. She attempts to do so in this letter to The Gazette newspaper, although it is appropriate to note that her letter contains two factual errors: Bartlett is not 86 (his birthday is in June) and he never publicly "indicated" that he was stepping down.

Still, I don’t understand why Mrs. Scott just did not disclose her role in the Brinkley campaign at the outset, in her announcement of candidacy. In light of her 40 years of party activism, she had to know that working to beat Bartlett and running for National Committeewoman simultaneously would ruffle some feathers.

Then again, I’m not sure why she didn’t disclose her business relationship with cement manufacturer Chaney Enterprises in her message justifying her participation in the gas tax rally.

But, again, I digress.

Anyway, let’s hope she shares her vision of the party’s future, rather than reminding us of her accomplishments. That’s the disclosure which matters the most.