Thursday, February 28, 2013

Party Poopers

Finally I turn my attention to a topic I’ve addressed many times in the past, but am loathe to do again: The race for MDGOP chairman.

Haven’t we been here before? Um, yes, actually. Next month the Maryland Republican Party will choose its fifth chairman in seven years. Only the red shirted crewmen on Star Trek have a less impressive survival rate.

So what goes into being MDGOP chairman? My friend and fellow blogger Joe Steffen summarized it as follows in a recent blog:

"Qualifications:  You Must Not be Dead. Expectations: You Can Expect to Get Your Ass Handed to You on a Regular, if Not Daily, Basis by Various Party Malcontents; You Must Perform the Impossible in an Impossible Job. Pay: Commensurate to That of a Dog."

I can think of one recent chair who may not have actually met the “qualifications” specified above, but I digress.

The point Steffen makes is valid. The position of MDGOP chairman is a thankless job that comes with lots of road trips, endless chicken dinners, backbiting, never-ending blame, and – in the end – inevitable electoral failure.

Thomas Hobbes may just as well have been writing about the life of an MDGOP chairman when he coined the phrase, “solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short.”

The last chairman, Alex Mooney, decided to cut bait a little more than two years into his four year term. Can you blame him? And, can you blame the people who have been mentioned as possible successors who instead chose to (paraphrasing Hedley Lamar in Blazing Saddles) stay away in droves?

I’ve engaged in informal brainstorming sessions with some politically savvy people during the past few weeks regarding this whole chairman conundrum. Each of us is able to come up with our own wish lists. But inevitably, the people we would like to see run opt out of it.

To date, only Red Maryland’s Greg Kline has stepped up to challenge First Vice Chairman Diana Waterman for the position. I spoke with another individual recently who contemplated jumping into the  fray, but now seems to be leaning against it. So, unless Kline succeeds in penetrating the clannish, fractious world of the Maryland State Republican Central Committee, it seems to be Waterman’s for the taking.

Among party activists, I sense an air of inevitability about Waterman’s ascension, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s not that people don’t like Waterman personally. It’s that people don’t necessarily see her as the kind of change agent who can jump start the MDGOP’s moribund fortunes.

Perhaps one reason for that is the party’s own bylaws exclude an entire group of qualified, experienced partisans from seeking the position.

Article 5, section 5.5 of the party bylaws reads:

a.            Qualifications.
All officers of the Party must be registered Republican voters of Maryland, both at the time of their elections and throughout their terms of office.
No person may simultaneously serve as more than one officer of the Party.
(3)          No individual may either hold or seek elected public office while serving as an officer of the Party

What this means is that some of the party’s standout officeholders – people who have actually built grassroots organizations, understand policy, and raised money – couldn’t seek the position even if they wanted it.

I don’t know why this is the case, but I do know this prohibition has not always been in place. Then-Congresswoman Helen Bentley pursued and won the party’s National Committeewoman slot back in 1988.

I also know that there is no such prohibition at the national level. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the poodle-headed chair of the DNC, is also a sitting member of Congress. Among Republicans, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore and Senator Bob Dole both served as RNC chairman while they kept their elected day jobs.

I can think of a lot of smart, talented, ambitious people among the MDGOP’s elected ranks – including Delegates Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Kathy Szeliga, Kelly Schulz, Justin Ready, and Kathy Afzali; Senators Allan Kittleman, David Brinkley, J. B. Jennings and Nancy Jacobs; and local officials such as Baltimore County Councilman David Marks – who could make excellent MDGOP chairs under the right circumstances. Perhaps none of these people would actually want the job, but it would be nice to know they were not automatically disqualified from holding it should some of us want to try to change their minds.

The last several people who served as MDGOP chairman left the position bruised, buffeted, and perhaps a bit demoralized. I suspect the incoming chair will as well. Electing the right person to the chairman’s position will not be an antidote to solving the party’s problems. But it is a good starting point.

Allowing the party’s elected officials to compete would ensure that every qualified candidate could be considered. Otherwise, the party will continue to recycle party regulars, or break into the party cemetery and resurrect leaders of the past, for a position that requires energy, innovation, new ideas, and a forward-looking vision.

In other words, maybe the best way for the MDGOP to start winning elections is for it to choose from among those who have recently and repeatedly done it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Checking in on the Comptroller

With the next gubernatorial election coming up next year, increased attention is falling on those who may vie to succeed Governor O’Malley, including Democrats Anthony Brown, Doug Gansler, Ken Ulman, and Heather Mizeur and Republicans David Craig, Larry Hogan, Dan Bongino, Blaine Young, and Charles Lollar.

Absent from this hubbub: Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who announced last year he would seek reelection to his current position rather than pursuing the governor's chair, as many had expected.

As a political personality, Franchot intrigues me. Originally an unapologetic, bomb-throwing progressive legislator from Takoma Park, as comptroller Franchot has emerged as a taxpayer watchdog and advocate for improving Maryland’s business climate.

Minimally Peter Franchot is a case study in effective political rebranding. But his repositioning could also be viewed as consistency coming from a politician who relishes playing a contrarian role tailored to whatever political landscape he happens to occupy.

In other words, the progressive happy warrior lobbing grenades at a Republican governor from the floor of the legislature isn’t all that different than the steward of fiscal responsibility criticizing the policies of an unapologetically liberal, ambitious governor from his seat on the Board of Public Works.

Even though Franchot is not part of the gubernatorial conversation, he has still been getting his fair share of attention – some of it unwanted – in Annapolis these days.

Last week, Senators Nancy King and David Brinkley sent a letter to the comptroller in which they expressed how “gravely troubled” they were by Franchot’s travels around the state to bestow four separate awards created by the comptroller’s office since 2010 onto Maryland citizens.

“No other members of the Board of Public Works or prior Comptrollers have engaged in this kind of behavior connected to their role as members of the Board or serving as Comptroller,” Senators King and Brinkley wrote. “We see no reason why any of your State duties or responsibilities justifies the taxpayer financed expense of paying for a driver, security, gas, car mileage, or the manufacture and purchase of questionably invented awards.”

In his response, Franchot noted that, “none of these ‘gravely’ troubling issues were referenced in the analysis of our budget by the Department of Legislative Services. Nor were they discussed in any meaningful detail by you or your colleagues during our budget hearing. It is glaringly obvious that this letter is motivated not by honest fiscal stewardship, but by lingering resentment over some of the positions that I have taken, and some of the statements that I have made, as an independently-elected Comptroller.”

This kind of epistolary back and forth is quite common during session time in Annapolis. Legislators who question how state leaders choose to allocate resources get to demonstrate to their constituents that they are “fiscally responsible” while perhaps grabbing a headline or two in the process.

That said, I have a few observations.

First, when I interned for Congresswoman Helen Bentley during college, occasionally I would travel with her on the weekends as she made appearances around her district. Frequently we would encounter other Maryland politicos making the rounds as well. The one we encountered the most: Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, who reliably showed up at most major gatherings. Later, Comptroller Schaefer did not exactly hide from the public in his office, either.

In other words, ample precedent exists for comptrollers traveling around the state and meeting their constituents. Even by adding a PR device like award presentations to the mix, I’m not sure that Franchot’s actions constitute an outrageous deviation from the past.

Second, everyone knows the Comptroller’s Office is largely a turnkey operation, and does not require daily micromanagement. So unless Franchot begins blowing off Board of Public Works meetings to hand out awards, I’m not sure anyone can accuse him of neglecting his duties.

Third, Senators King and Brinkley’s criticism would carry more weight if Franchot were, in fact, running for governor. Then the perception would be that Franchot was campaigning for governor on state time using state resources. But, he’s not, and no one seriously believes his reelection as comptroller is in jeopardy – award presentations or not.

The comptroller’s awards program, just like everything he does in his official capacity, is subject to scrutiny and criticism by the people's representatives and by members of the state’s minority party. The citizens of Maryland have a right to know these award presentations are happening. So, while it was fair game for Senators King and Brinkley to raise the issue, in the end I don’t think anyone is going to care.

A more serious challenge to Franchot’s authority comes in the form of House Bill 660, which would strip the Comptroller’s office of some of its traditional tax collecting functions. Specifically it would transfer administrative and regulatory responsibility for the state’s motor fuel, tobacco, and alcohol taxes to the State Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation (DLLR), and reassign the Field Enforcement Division from the Comptroller’s office to DLLR.

The consensus among Maryland politicos is that HB 660 is an attempt by the Democratic establishment to punish Franchot for his maverick ways, especially his opposition to last year’s gambling expansion referendum.

Not surprisingly, Franchot doesn’t think HB 660 is a good idea, calling it an attempt to, “effectively dismantle a highly performing division of government with a longstanding record of success (and) needlessly disrupt a regulatory system that has been defined over the course of time by its predictability, independence and responsiveness.”

Further, his office notes that the bill comes with a significant price tag for Maryland taxpayers: $17.6 million in FY 14, with an estimated total cost of $68.7 million during the next five years.

Being a Republican in deep-blue Maryland, I sometimes relish watching intramural squabbles among the members of the majority party (the 2002 cold war between Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Martin O’Malley being perhaps the most entertaining of all). But I would advise my fellow partisans to not regard these efforts to go after the comptroller as being a beneficial development.

The reality is, Comptroller Franchot has been the only statewide elected official to advocate for some of the issues important to Republicans. For example, given his liberal legislative background, it sure surprises me that Peter Franchot has been perhaps the loudest opponent of efforts to raise the gas tax.

But I’ll surely take it.

With Republicans having only a negligible chance of winning the governor’s mansion next year, Franchot may be our best opportunity to have an influential, somewhat sympathetic voice participating in the debate.

If you can’t elect the Republican governor you want, support the Democratic comptroller you’ve got. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Laura Who?

A few observations coming out of last night’s surprise appointment of Laura Neuman as Anne Arundel County Executive.

  • Sources in Anne Arundel County have been telling me that the Democratic members of the County Council were likely to be the driving factor in engineering the pick, and last night’s event proved it. Indeed, the math always favored such an outcome, assuming the three Democrats voted as a bloc and peeled off one of the GOP councilman eying the seat for himself in 2014. It looks like Councilman Jerry Walker forged an alliance with the Democrats.

  • Remember that the county charter specified that the new county executive had to come from the same party as the incumbent whose resignation caused the vacancy. The fact that Democrats were able to identify a compelling if little known candidate from within the Republicans’ own backyard speaks to the level of division and dysfunction existing in the Anne Arundel County GOP. While Republicans were plumbing the past for candidates or looking to help those wanting to run in the future, the Democrats stayed focused on the here and now, 

  • The big winner of the night: Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who now has a political ally at the helm of a neighboring county in advance of a possible gubernatorial run. True, Neuman is a Republican, but assuming her two year tenure as county executive is a success, and she is able to build a reputation as a reformer in the wake of the John Leopold mess, she could make a compelling running mate for Ulman if she switches parties.

  • The big loser of the night: former First Lady Kendel Ehrlich. Toothy and supremely self confident, Mrs. Ehrlich failed to receive a single vote from council members – including Councilman Derek Fink, who once served as her State House press flack. One wonders if last night’s outcome will convince the Ehrlichs – who have been on a chronic campaign to reclaim lost relevance since 2007 – to finally hang it up as far as politics is concerned. Perhaps Mrs. Ehrlich will write a book just like her husband did. Three possible titles: “We Miss The Chefs,” “Targeting Britney,” or my personal favorite, “Tow This Car Away.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kendel's Comeback

This past weekend, I attended the MDGOP’s “Reagan Ball” at Turf Valley Country Club in Howard County. Attendance was decent if not overwhelming, and while the signatures on the presidential mementos offered during the silent auction appeared to my honed collector’s eye to be reproductions (I’m a geek when it comes to presidential autographs), I thought the event was a marginal success.

As expected, two topics dominated the hallway conversations: Alex Mooney’s resignation as chairman, and the emerging free-for-all to replace disgraced Anne Arundel County Executive John “Ol’ Pissbags” Leopold.

I will have something to say about the former when it becomes clearer who Mooney’s possible replacements are. In the meantime, I’ll address the latter.

The Anne Arundel County Council is accepting applications from citizens interested in filling Leopold’s old job until February 15th. On the 21st, the Council will interview candidates, and then engage in a round robin selection process which could take multiple ballots, and rival the rite of succession for pope in terms of complexity and drama.

The successful candidate must be 25 years old, a county resident for at least four years, and of the same party as the person he/she will be succeeding (a Republican in this instance).

At the MDGOP event Saturday evening, Dan Bongino seemed to me a nominal preference among the people I talked to. However, most handicappers think that the universe of likely candidates will be limited to current elected officials, such as council members (Jerry Walker and John Grasso) or the state legislators (Delegates Steve Schuh and Cathy Vitale and Senator Ed Reilly) who had previously expressed interest in running or been mentioned as possible candidates in 2014.

Of course, divisions on the council stemming from rival ambitions may result in appointment of a compromise caretaker figure, one who will agree to serve only two years.

Kendel Ehrlich is chomping (sic) at the bit to be that caretaker. This past weekend, she told the Baltimore Sun that she is "uniquely qualified for a unique situation." Further, The Sun reports that Mrs. Ehrlich is whipping the Anne Arundel County Council’s GOP four members in a bid to secure votes (something which Councilman Jerry Walker also indicated she was doing during his appearance on Hillary Foster Pennington’s Purple Elephant Politics Internet radio broadcast last Thursday).

As I blogged last week, Kendel Ehrlich does have a few political assets as a candidate. However, her characterization as being “uniquely qualified” for the position is curious for two reasons.

First, she has little management experience, having overseen an office consisting of only three and a half positions occupied by six people at different times during her four year tenure as Maryland’s first lady.

Second, like John Leopold, Mrs. Ehrlich’s own use of government employees for personal benefit has been questioned in the past.

In December 2006, a month after Governor Bob Ehrlich’s defeat by Martin O’Malley, The Sun’s Laura Vozzella reported that Mrs. Ehrlich’s office had acknowledged that members of her State House staff babysat the Ehrlichs’ children during working hours. But with Christmas approaching, the election over, and the Ehrlich Administration winding down, no one paid the disclosure much attention.

My office adjoined the space occupied by Mrs. Ehrlich’s staff, so I got to know them, and their comings and goings, very well. I remember at least two of them telling me on numerous occasions that they were “running across the street” (to Government House, the governor’s residence) to babysit. Mrs. Ehrlich went through babysitters with the same frequency that Murphy Brown tore through receptionists, so the frequency of these trips usually depended upon whether there was a full-time babysitter on duty at the mansion.

As political transgressions go, I suppose there are worse things than asking your staff to pinch hit in a babysitting crunch. Still, it complicates Mrs. Ehrlich’s attempts to portray herself as a change agent in the aftermath of Leopold’s serial misdeeds and tawdry antics.

In other words, does replacing Mr. Change My Catheter with Mrs. Babysit My Kids constitute the kind of change most county residents want in the wake of the Leopold scandal?

Perhaps it does. But if she enters the process, it will be her responsibility to articulate how she’s different, and why she is the best person to lead Anne Arundel County.

When asked what she missed most about being first lady, Kendel Ehrlich didn’t couch her answer in terms of the opportunity to serve others. Instead, she said, “OK, I miss the chefs.”

Hopefully, this nascent bid for office is about serving people and not the latest uncomfortable chapter of a desperate, interminable comeback story. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

County Executive Kendel?

While I’m not the biggest football fan, I was certainly happy to see the Baltimore Ravens prevail on Sunday. Their success reminded me of how important, and compelling, a good comeback story can be.

For me, the make or break moment for the Ravens came in their game against Denver. Trailing with less than a minute left to go, Joe Flacco threw a seemingly impossible touchdown pass which tied the game. After that, the Ravens seemed more or less unstoppable throughout the remainder of the post-season.

The citizens of Anne Arundel County may soon be privy to another dramatic comeback story, this time in the political arena.

Last week I wrote about the downfall of Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold. Today, Center Maryland’s Josh Kurtz ably reported on the emerging donnybrook among those looking to succeed him.

Among those said to be interested in the job: Kendel Ehrlich.

The Ehrlichs have struggled to find their niche on Maryland’s ideologically hostile political landscape since Governor Bob Ehrlich left office in 2007. He wrote and exhaustively  promoted a book summarizing his experiences in politics, and both Ehrlichs hosted a short-lived TV show, Politics Unplugged, which ran on WMAR Sunday mornings in 2012.

As for Kendel Ehrlich, over the years numerous scenarios have been floated whereby Mrs. Ehrlich would herself seek elective office in Anne Arundel County. First, I heard she would run for judge, then the rumor that she was seeking appointment to an open state senate seat. I even heard that she might challenge John Leopold for the GOP nomination for county executive.

None of these scenarios ever materialized, of course. At the time I dismissed them as attempts by loyalists stuck in a permanent 2003 worldview to keep the buzz alive about all things Ehrlich in advance of the 2010 election.

Well, John Leopold is gone, the Anne Arundel county executive’s job is open, and Mrs. Ehrlich’s name has again resurfaced as a possible replacement.

When I first heard the Kendel rumor again this week, I again dismissed it. Then, I heard it again, several times, from people I regard as plugged into the political know.

Further, I heard there have even been some concrete steps taken in the furtherance of Mrs. Ehrlich’s candidacy.  Specifically, I was told that Team Ehrlich has already reached out to the four GOP members of the Anne Arundel County Council, as well as others interested in the job, in order to solicit their support. Under this scenario, Mrs. Ehrlich would be appointed to serve out the two years remaining in Leopold’s term, and not seek election in her own right in 2014.

The Republicans on the council are already divided. At least one wants the job himself, and others have allegiances to other possible candidates.  By taking 2014 off the table, Mrs. Ehrlich and her handlers would effectively, and cleverly, sidestep these divisions.  

From a credibility standpoint, Mrs. Ehrlich has a few factors working in her advantage.

Her husband, who carried the county in all three of his gubernatorial campaigns, remains a popular figure in the county. As a wife, mother, and professional woman, Mrs. Ehrlich contrasts nicely with the legacy of the misogynistic, predatory Leopold. Plus, as a former first lady as well as someone who clearly enjoys the spotlight, Mrs. Ehrlich would be comfortable filling such a high profile position.

But Mrs. Ehrlich possesses scant management experience. As Maryland’s first lady, she managed a small staff of 5.5 employees who worked for her at different times during the course of her four year tenure. My State House office adjoined the space reserved for her staff, so I got to know most of them fairly well.  More than half left her office under abrupt circumstances.

She might also be called upon to explain some of her decisions as first lady. Things that went unnoticed by the State House press corps yet were common knowledge to those of us on the governor’s staff – such as Mrs. Ehrlich’s lavish redecoration of Government House, and her occasionally asking state employees to assist with personal chores such as babysitting during working hours – may draw new scrutiny.

Like a pair of restless racehorses, the Ehrlichs are clearly eager to reclaim a place of prominence on the political track.  Is this particular comeback scenario more plausible than some of the others floated during the past few years? Perhaps. Regardless, it will be fun to watch.