Monday, July 30, 2012

Bob Ehrlich and WMAR: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Yogi Berra famously called it, "déjà vu all over again."

Whatever it is, I had this strange “haven’t we been here before” sensation yesterday as I blogged about Bob Ehrlich’s new TV show – oh, sorry…infomercial – on WMAR.

Well, it turns out we have been “here” before – sort of.

I did a Google search last night, and found an article from the Baltimore Sun dated December 26, 2007.  The article, the header of which read, “Ehrlich takes on challenge of TV,” announced Ehrlich’s new “gig as a news analyst and commentator” on the ratings-impaired WMAR.

The article goes on to explain:

“Ehrlich, who will be paid for his appearances and will continue his Saturday-morning program on WBAL-AM Radio, promises that he and WMAR will be upfront about his party affiliation and loyalties. When discussion turns to the 2008 presidential race, as the former governor assumes it often will, viewers will be reminded that he is Mid-Atlantic chairman for former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's campaign.”

This paragraph reminded me of something The Sun’s David Zurawik reported in his blog piece about Ehrlich’s new program, Politics Unplugged:

Here's the disclaimer WMAR runs at the start of the Show: ‘This is a paid political program. The opinions presented in it do not represent WMAR or E.W. Scripps. Former Governor Bob Ehrlich is the Maryland Campaign Chair for Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney.’"

So, other than the fact that Ehrlich is now the payer rather than the payee as far as his appearances are concerned, what’s really changed here?

Perception-wise, not very much, I’d argue.

In his blog, Zurawik reports:

“Last week, Bill Hooper, general manager at WMAR, stressed in a phone interview with me that the station had nothing to do with producing the show -- that the Ehrlichs were buying time as an independent advertiser like anyone else might.”

That may be true, but Ehrlich’s revolving door relationship with WMAR complicates things a bit. I mean, are all of WMAR’s “independent advertisers” prior employees of the station?

As I wrote yesterday, WMAR’s logo appears on screen during broadcasts of Politics Unplugged, and the show is listed by name in WMAR’s online schedule rather than simply as “paid programming,” as is evident in other cases (if you search WMAR’s Sunday morning schedule, you will see what I mean).

Speaking of prior employees of WMAR, I noticed this item in the 2007 story:

“Former Ehrlich aide Greg Massoni, who now works alongside him at the law firm of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, helped broker the deal with WMAR. He says the former governor's hiring could give the perennially third-place station's news operation a leg up on the competition. ‘This will go a long way to helping them, by having a really credible source to talk politics,’ says Massoni, who worked at WMAR from 1980 to 1995.”

Massoni now works with Ehrlich at the Washington, D. C. law firm King and Spalding, and helped produce the Ehrlichs’ WBAL radio show.

In other words, it all boils down to the fact that it is the same guy, on the same station, appearing at a different airtime.

Look, if Ehrlich wants to pay out of pocket so he and his wife can have a weekly media soapbox again, that’s his prerogative. But WMAR needs to do a better job tackling the perception issue

Based simply on appearances, it could be interpreted that WMAR is extending a favor – again – to one if not two former employees.

That’s the last thing the struggling station needs. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

David Zurawik, Bob Ehrlich, and the Piñata...

So, I consider myself a piñata kind of guy. In other words, give me a stick and position me in the right place, and I can’t help but to take a swing – even when I probably shouldn’t.

For that reason, I feel compelled to weigh in on what David Zurawik reported inhis blog today.

It seems a certain ex-boss of mine and his wife are now hosting a Sunday morning political show – Politics Unplugged – on WMAR TV, the perennial cellar dweller among local TV stations.

Thing is, it’s not really a “show” in the traditional sense of the term. Zurawik reports that the Ehrlichs are “buying time” from the station, rather than being paid by the station to host a WMAR program. So, in essence, it’s more like an infomercial.

When it comes to Maryland politics, the Ehrlichs are largely a moribund subject. But Zurawik’s piece, and the seeming re-launch of the Ehrlichs’ media ambitions, invites a response.

First, I thought the tone of Zurawik’s piece was partisan and unnecessarily nasty in some places.

Yes, I agree that the Ehrlichs’ launching a pay-to-play TV show on Sunday mornings on the lowest-rated TV station is fraught with pathos, as well as numerous opportunities for head-shaking by viewers and unintentional comedy on the part of its hosts.

But Zurawik’s response reminds me of the guy who guffaws loudly when a model trips on the runway.  Accentuating it with laughter or mockery seems unnecessary, if not downright gratuitous.

Zurawik’s liberal sensitivities are clearly offended by what he describes as Ehrlich’s, “steady stream of criticism of President Obama 100 days out from an election.” By interjecting his own political leanings, Zurawik undercuts his ability to render a subjective judgment.

Sorry, Mr. Zurawik, but Ehrlich is entitled to his opinions, even in liberal Maryland.

Zurawik’s TV critic sensibilities are ruffled by the amateurish nature of the program. He delights in poking holes in the program’s poor production quality and the stilted TV presence of its hosts.

Yes, the Ehrlich program does make Wayne’s World seem sophisticated by comparison. But most locally-produced news-ish programs have a no-frills, bare-bones feel to them. Ever see Square Off or State Circle?

I don’t know what Zurawik expects of a program whose marquee sponsor, other than the Ehrlichs themselves, is Scott Donahoo.

All that said, I thought Zurawik’s quip that Ike “had a far better TV presence” than Ehrlich was kind of funny. But I digress.

Zurawik goes on to make the valid point that Politics Unplugged, though characterized as independent advertising, airs with the apparent imprimatur of WMAR. The station’s logo appears visible at the corner of the screen, and it is apparently shot at WMAR’s studios.

Further, I noticed that Comcast’s scrolling programming roster lists the program by name, as opposed to simply calling it “paid programming” as is often the case for infomercials. All of these elements may breed confusion for viewers as to the extent to which the Ehrlichs’ views are reflective of the station.

For me, confusion exists on a completely different level. Why are the Ehrlichs even bothering to do this?

They miss being on the public stage, I suppose. This latest media push reflects their ongoing desire to be heard, and to be regarded as influencers in a state in which they are ideologically out of step.

For Bob and Kendel Ehrlich, the game ended prior to plan. As was the case with the WBAL radio show and the book, they continue to pursue relevance, and an audience, using any means still available to them.

Still, I’m skeptical whether yet another media platform will help them achieve relevance, or if instead they will be subjecting themselves to the kind of mockery evident in Zurawik’s story and some of the subsequent comments it attracted on the Sun website.    

Some of the greatest boxers ever – including Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson – reached the awkward point in their careers in which they stayed in the ring past the point of logical retirement.

Similarly, Ehrlich is a proud, stubborn competitor, and a guy who still has something to say. But by speaking from such a contrived, artificial platform, he risks being viewed as the guy who didn’t know when to quit. 

If this were vaudeville, the hook would have come out from behind the stage a long time ago. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Monopoly Strikes Back

A few weeks back I met up with a fellow Maryland political analyst  for breakfast. During my freewheeling conversation with my thoughtful left-leaning companion, I made the point that my own partisan allegiance is less important to me than it once was, and that my desire to see the minority party function as a counterweight to the state’s majority Democrats has increased commensurately.

Regardless of where you stand ideologically, you should want state Republicans to be in a position to force the establishment to defend and account for its decisions. My breakfast companion agreed with the good governance benefits of two-party competition.

When that does not happen, and the minority party falters, some of the more ominous consequences of unchecked one-party rule may emerge.

For example, a majority party run amok may grow so brazen as to manipulate the political process in order to sharpen its already formidable advantage.

That’s exactly what the Maryland Democratic Party is attempting to do with respect to the state’s impending congressional redistricting referendum.

Earlier this year, Democrats drew a new redistricting map intended to achieve a single, transparent partisan objective: Bump off Congressman Roscoe Bartlett in order to reduce the GOP’s presence in the state’s congressional delegation to a single member.

The map was drawn by a sham “redistricting commission” – one of whose members is now doing time for federal income tax fraud – and quickly passed by an overwhelming Democratic legislature.

The map was faulted not just by Republicans, but by members of the state’s black community who felt that majority minority areas were being divvied up to serve state Democratic leaders’ grand design.

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.”

Using the state’s referendum process, opponents of the map quickly organized and began collecting signatures in order to get the new congressional map onto the 2012 ballot, taking it out of the partisan swamplands of Annapolis and empowering voters to decide its fate for themselves. 

The referendum process has successfully been used to get two additional controversial measures – marriage equality and in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants – on the ballot as well. Still, many political observers – including this one – doubted that enough voters could be motivated to take a stand on such a dry, process-oriented issue like redistricting.

But opponents of the Democratic congressional map succeeded. The State Board of Elections validated 59,201 of the signatures submitted, putting it past the 55,736 signature threshold needed to get it on the ballot.

Simply put, opponents of the map used the only tool available to them to challenge it – and they won.

So, that victory has inspired the state’s political establishment to do what unaccountable monopolies often do: Change the rules on their opponents.

Five partisan Democratic activists filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court challenging the veracity of about 5,000 of the signatures collected through the online tool. Conveniently, disqualifying that number of signatures would be enough to push the referendum below the eligibility threshold, thereby knocking it off the ballot.

In a statement dripping with both revisionist arrogance and self-serving partisan rhetoric, the Maryland Democratic Party’s Executive Director states:

“The Maryland GOP’s partisan effort to overturn this plan is simply a desperate ploy by a declining party who has abandoned all hopes of winning elections and has turned instead to constantly churning out questionable petition signatures.
“Maryland voters will undoubtedly see this effort as a transparent attempt by Republicans to subvert legislative procedure and impose a radical tea party agenda. We are confident of victory, up and down the ballot, in November.”

You’ve got to love the obligatory reference to the tea party – the partisan bogeyman du jour – thrown in here for good measure, but I digress.

The real “transparent attempt” here is the attempt by the state’s Democratic establishment, which did not get the desired result from its own State Board of Elections, to simply change the venue in search of a more favorable outcome.

MDDems are trying to substitute the Maryland State Board of Elections' own rigorous signature review process – something they have never questioned before – with a chaotic, subjective process similar to that depicted in the HBO film Recount. But instead of fighting over ballots with dimpled chads, partisan lawyers will be squabbling over signatures.

And, once the desired number has been excised, they will seek to bring the process to an abrupt end. In essence, the bigwigs at the State Democratic Party, who were among those of us who did not think the redistricting map would survive the referendum process, were caught flat-footed, and now they are scrambling to win by any means necessary.

But this isn’t the first time the establishment has tried to shut down the state’s referendum process in response to the minority’s success in using it.

As Blair Lee reported in his Gazette column last March, Montgomery County Delegate Eric Leudtke introduced legislation which would have effectively neutered the process by disallowing the use of Internet petitions. Given MontCo’s reputation for tech friendliness, transparency, and good governance, I find that a bit ironic.

Mercifully, that bill went nowhere. But now it seems the more hyper-partisan elements of the establishment want to manipulate the judiciary to achieve similar ends. Simply put, once again members of the state’s ruling political establishment are trying to stick it to the minority, while cloaking their bare-knuckle intentions in high-minded, paternalistic rhetoric. To me, the most offensive thing about it is their collective ability to keep a straight face.

Now, let me be clear here. I see this as less of a partisan phenomenon, and more what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the “Tyranny of the Majority” in action. I think that, were you to observe states run by perennial Republican establishments – such as Texas, Utah, and Idaho – you would witness similar oppressive tactics at work there.

But this eleventh hour, desperation lawsuit is yet another example of muscle politics by a majority that regards its claim to power as a permanent entitlement.

Will the state’s political establishment get away with shutting down the redistricting referendum? The majority has a tendency to get what it wants in Maryland, so another win is certainly possible. 

But, in  curtailing the freedoms of Maryland citizens, their win will translate into a  permanent loss for everyone else. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

As Long As They're Changing Street Names in HowCo...

I was intrigued by this news item about the recent decision to change the name of a street in Howard County because of its questionable name.

The street in question: “Coon Hunt Court.”

I guess there are two schools of thought when it comes to this kind of thing.

First, there is no indication that the street was named with any deliberate racist intentions. Indeed, as the article makes clear, the community where the street is located derived its street names from the paintings of artist Andrew Wyeth. Among the artist’s works are paintings entitled “Raccoon” (there is already a “Raccoon Court” in that neighborhood) and “The Coot Hunter.” So, it sounds like whoever did the name exercised a bit of poetic license.

Second, intentionally or not, the name is offensive and should be changed.

I concur with the second conclusion. Words are important, and using them in an imprecise and confusing way breeds unnecessary controversy. So, as long as all six of the households living on that street concurred in the name changing – which they did – I think the county acted properly.

Indeed, while the county is amenable to changing street names, I’d like to suggest another one ripe for reconsideration: “Minstrel Way,” located not far from where Snowden River Parkway intersects with Broken Land Parkway.

I have worked in Columbia since February 2011. Every time I pass that street, I feel pangs of irony: A planned, fully integrated community with a street evoking memories of Amos n’ Andy, Al Jolson, or gaudy antebellum burlesque performers prancing around in blackface.

Now, as in the case of Coon Hunt Court, I don’t think the name was intentionally chosen because of its more controversial meaning.

I discussed this with a well-placed friend of mine, and he correctly pointed out to me that the word “minstrel” actually has two meanings – the original one being “one of a class of medieval musical entertainers; especially: a singer of verses to the accompaniment of a harp” according to Merriam Webster.

There is a community in Columbia named “Kings Contrivance” located not far from Minstrel Way. Keeping the word’s original definition in mind, Minstrel Way would seem to be a riff off of the Game of Thrones-era theme the founders of Columbia seemed to have had in mind.

Also, all the street names in Columbia were inspired by specific literary or artistic references. So there must be a medieval-themed book or painting out there from which “minstrel” was benignly harvested.

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the meanings and origins of words. Still, upon first seeing that street sign, my mind went not to images of itinerant medieval musicians, but to the more modern definition.

I suspect most people would react the same way. I also think that, were you to approach a musical performer outside of a Renaissance Festival environment and asked them if they were a minstrel, the person would be confused if not outright offended.

So, Howard County government … before you close the book on the street name changes, care to give Minstrel Way some attention? It seems to me that redubbing it “Troubadour Way” would be an easy fix.

The street is in a business rather than a residential area, so presumably the businesses there would incur some cost resulting from the change, especially in terms of revising signage. Fortunately, the street isn’t that long, and I didn’t see too many commercial signs. Minimally the county should explore the cost of making such a change, as well as whether it can find the money to help businesses offset the cost.

I know that times are hard and every county in Maryland is struggling with budgetary pressures. But just because an issue is small does not make it unimportant. If the change can be achieved affordably and with minimal disruption, then Howard County should move accordingly.

Words have the power to either bring people together or rip them apart. With society as ideologically polarized as it is, it is important to avoid miscommunications or distractions with the potential to exacerbate tensions.

Generally, I’m a sucker for a good, heaping dose of over-the-top irony, as this unfortunately named street represents.

But not this time. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What Might Have Been...

Recently Center Maryland columnist Josh Kurtz wrote a column looking back at the epic 2002 primary battle between then-legislators Mark Shriver and Chris Van Hollen, who competed for the Democratic nomination to challenge Eighth District GOP Congresswoman Connie Morella.

Van Hollen won that contest, of course, and went onto defeat Morella in November. Shriver left politics, joined the nonprofit “Save the Children,” and published a book about his father, Sargent Shriver.

I found the “what might have been” angle taken by Kurtz, who had some kind words to say about me in another previous column, intriguing. It invites all sorts of alternate history ponderings.  

So I decided to apply the same perspective to someone from my own political past.

What would have happened had Bob Ehrlich not run for governor in 2010, and instead opted to run in 2014 instead?

I suppose one could answer that question in two ways.

Under the optimistic scenario, Ehrlich would have run more competitively than he did in 2010. Eight years of O’Malley fatigue, and the fact that no incumbent will be running in 2014 (no incumbent Democratic governor of Maryland has lost since 1950) would have worked in Ehrlich’s favor, as well as the fact that the possibly four-way Democratic gubernatorial primary has the potential to be a fractious, divisive affair.

Under the pessimistic scenario, Ehrlich would suffer the same fate he did in 2010, even if by a less dramatic margin. Maryland is far more Democratic than it was in 2002, and the Democrats have new resources – including early voting – which they effectively deployed to deliver their voters to the polls even in an unfavorable year such as 2010. What’s more, Ehrlich would again be running on the same record which the Democrats used against him twice.

I’m torn between these scenarios, I suppose. But I can envision a specific set of circumstances in which an Ehrlich political comeback could have been plausible.

To do that, I look to the career of the politician who waged the greatest comeback in recent history: Governor Jerry Brown of California.

Think about it. Brown left the California governor’s office in 1982, and waged a quixotic campaign for president in 1992. But people regarded “Governor Moonbeam” as a relic of the 1970s, and opted for Bill Clinton instead. Brown's career seemed effectively over. 

Brown’s comeback did not begin until he went back to the bottom of the ladder and started his climb all over again.

Brown ran for mayor of Oakland – a city with a lot of poor people and entrenched problems – and won. Earning a reputation as an innovator, he then successfully ran for Attorney General of California. By 2010, he had skillfully positioned himself to glide back into his old job, something that seemed impossible just a decade before.

Brown’s improbable climb makes me wonder what would have happened had Ehrlich ran not for governor, but for Congress in 2010 – specifically the First District seat now held by Andy Harris.

If Ehrlich had announced a congressional bid, I believe Harris would have either deferred to Ehrlich or been easily defeated by him in the primary. Ehrlich would have easily won in November, and his victory would have earned him “comeback kid” status in both Maryland and Washington.  

Additionally, he would have returned to a Congress with a fresh Republican majority.  No doubt Ehrlich could have negotiated with House leaders to reclaim his seniority and his seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he likely would have chaired a subcommittee.

Ehrlich would have been reelected to Congress in 2012, in a district drawn to be the state’s token GOP congressional district.

Had Ehrlich done these things, a politically reinvigorated Ehrlich would be well-positioned to run for the open gubernatorial seat in 2014 or for U. S. Senate - his original aspiration - when one of the incumbents retires. 

But a comeback’s success hinges upon two factors: The right timing, and the right opportunity.

Ellen Sauerbrey battled Parris Glendening to a virtual draw in 1994. But when she ran against incumbent Glendening in 1998, he beat her handily – despite the fact that Sauerbrey actually out-fundraised Glendening.

This outcome was strong evidence that a gubernatorial comeback by Ehrlich in 2010 was the wrong opportunity at the wrong time.  

Consequently, even though 2014 promises to be a change election cycle, the Maryland GOP’s predominant figure in a generation must now watch it from the bleachers.

Had Ehrlich waited, I have no doubt he could have defeated any of the frequently mentioned GOP candidates for governor in 2014.

By taking the strategic long view, Ehrlich could have been the GOP’s Cal Ripken, Jr., the “Iron Man” of Maryland politics.

But by jumping into an unwinnable election, Ehrlich looks more like Shoeless Joe Jackson – a decent guy who, because of a bad decision compounded by unfavorable circumstances, exhausted his opportunities to play even though his heart is clearly still in the game.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Somebody Got Somebody's Attention

The Democratic monopoly in Annapolis regards the state’s outgunned Republican Party and its ideological allies as little more than irritants and convenient scapegoats.

In the rare instance in which Democrats choose to respond to a volley from the other side, it tends to be of the dismissive variety, like a hand lazily swatting at a pesky insect.  

So, when the Democratic establishment actually chooses to engage its ideological foes in a substantive manner, it is a noteworthy development.

That’s what happened recently when the O’Malley Administration returned fire on an organization headed by a frequently mentioned possible 2014 candidate for governor.

ChangeMaryland, which bills itself as “the grassroots movement fighting to bring fiscal responsibility and common sense to Annapolis,” was founded and is chaired by Larry Hogan, a fellow veteran of the Ehrlich Administration.

The organization, which has over 14,000 followers on Facebook, is a burr in the saddle of the O’Malley Administration, frequently criticizing its policies in the areas of taxation, the budget, and the state’s job growth and retention efforts.

Recently, ChangeMaryland released a study in which it maintains that 31,000 high income citizens disaffected by Governor O’Malley’s tax and spend policies fled the state between 2007 and 2010, taking $1.7 billion in lost tax revenue with them.

Largely ignored by the Maryland press, the ChangeMaryland study did receive coverage in the Washington Times and by CNBC, whose story drew a coveted link on the Drudge Report.

That boomlet of national press attention resulted in this rebuttal, bylined by Governor O’Malley’s Director of Public Affairs Rick Abbruzzese and installed on the governor’s official state blog site.

Abbruzzese’s cites statistics contradicting the IRS data in the ChangeMaryland report. That’s fair game in politics, of course. If one side rolls out statistics, the other side typically responds by producing its own, more favorable numbers. It’s the phenomenon Bismarck was complaining about when he railed against, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

But while the reliance on statistics was not surprising, the personal, partisan, and sometimes defensive tone of Abbruzzese’s rebuttal certainly was.

Abbruzzese dismisses Hogan as a “former Ehrlich appointee, failed congressional candidate and failed would-be candidate for Governor,” and ChangeMaryland as a “GOP-led, partisan organization.”

He then explains that the tax hikes passed in 2007 would have solved the state’s budgetary problem as promised, were it not for bogeymen Bob Ehrlich and George W. Bush and the latter's  alleged, "reckless spending and tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the wealthy.”

While I don’t always agree with the things Governor O’Malley does, I think he has some talented political operatives in his orbit – including Abbruzzese. However, statements like these belong more appropriately in a campaign press release than on a state web site.

Meanwhile, Larry Hogan pounced on the gubernatorial slam, writing on Facebook: “Many people are concerned that the Governor used a state website to make highly political, partisan and personal attacks against me and against Maryland's largest non-partisan, grass roots citizen organization. Apparently his rage at an NBC network story got him to act inappropriately. It is unfortunate.”

So, what’s going on here?

With Governor O’Malley’s focus turning to the national stage, his team probably felt that the attention the story had received from CNBC and Drudge obligated them to respond, lest the story of Maryland’s fleeing millionaires become a permanent part of O’Malley’s future campaign narrative.

But, the tone of the piece only blunted its effectiveness. People confronted with two contrary sets of facts will be unsure of which ones to believe. But ladling in the usual attacks only alienates people tired of the shrill, increasingly hostile nature of partisan politics. In effect, O’Malley stepped on his own desired message.

Further, attacks like these only serve to elevate the person being attacked, especially when the attacker is a senior officeholder. This episode reminds me of the incident in which President Lyndon Johnson criticized candidate Richard Nixon as a, “chronic campaigner,” to Nixon’s elation.

Larry Hogan is the only possible GOP candidate for governor in 2014 to have been attacked, indirectly, by the man whose presently has the job. If I were him, I’d be feeling a certain degree of elation, too.