Monday, July 15, 2013

'Tis The Season for Political Hubris

Merriam Webster defines hubris as “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”  The ancient Greeks had a far more sinister definition for it, regarding it as a sin so terrible that it required swift and exacting vengeance by the gods.

Taken in the context of Maryland politics, however, I would suggest a third use for the term. For me, “hubris” can be observed when a local politico offers a fanciful explanation for events and - through their own charisma, bluster, or brazenness  - assumes they can get others to believe it, facts notwithstanding.

This summer, I observed two rather striking examples of political hubris in action.

The first was presented by Delegate and candidate for Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, who in June co-signed a letter to current Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman and Council Chairman Jerry Walker suggesting that they take aggressive steps to halt implementation of the so-called “rain tax” approved by the Maryland General Assembly.

According to the Baltimore Sun, “’The laws passed by the Council, which will result in higher bills sent to taxpayers on July 1, have several major flaws that must be addressed,’ Schuh and Kipke wrote. They suggested lowering the fees, increasing credits for environmentally friendly practices and decreasing the number of employees who will be hired for the county's stormwater program. ‘We need to stop this train and start over again,’ they wrote.”

So why does a GOP delegate from conservative Anne Arundel County standing up for taxpayers qualify as hubris? Because Delegate Schuh voted in favor of the original legislation authorizing the fees in 2012.

As you might expect, Delegate Schuh’s jeremiad against the rain tax received some sharp, immediate pushback. Councilman Jerry Walker dismissed it as, “nothing more than a political maneuver to cover his tracks after voting for HB 987 that mandated Anne Arundel to pass the rain tax."

County Executive Neuman called the letter “hilarious” in a tweet, then issued a brief statement calling upon Schuh to, “admit he voted for legislation that burdens the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County and convince Gov. O'Malley to call a special session of the General Assembly to fix this flawed legislation."

There are two things you should keep in mind in assessing what Schuh hoped to accomplish by cosigning the letter. 

First, memories are short and the primary for Anne Arundel County Executive is about a year away. Second, lawmaking in Maryland – especially as pertains to an issue requiring both state and local action – lends itself to confusion.

Clearly Delegate Schuh is concerned that fallout over the rain tax could harm his campaign, and is therefore trying to shape the story that will ultimately crystalize in voters’ mind. In other words, the political damage that may result from his support for the authorizing legislation is somewhat mitigated if people are distracted by finger pointing and debates about process.

Recently WBAL TV asked Governor O’Malley to speak to the hotel situation. The governor blamed the hotel’s insolvency on the fact that the state failed to provide funding at the project’s outset, stating, “You may recall, at the time, that we asked we were told no by the then governor.”

I think any fair reader of this blog would agree on two basic facts.

First, I have not shied away from offering criticism of former Governor Ehrlich (who also happens to be my former boss) when I felt that it was warranted.

Second, though I disagree with a lot of what he has done in office – especially after the destructive 2013 legislative session – I have tried not to make this an O’Malley-bashing blog. I think it is more constructive to focus on the continuing excesses and failings of the state’s decades-long one-party regime rather than the individual who currently personifies it.

That said, when I read Jayne Miller’s Facebook posting about the governor’s comment, I literally did a spit take.

For O’Malley to continue pointing his finger at his twice-defeated Republican rival evokes that scene in the best film version of A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come eerily directs Ebenezer Scrooge to a forgotten, overgrown headstone (skip to 1:12:10 to see what I mean). 

Exhuming Ehrlich, who has been out of office nearly seven years, from the political graveyard to blame him for an idea that was hatched, supported, and bankrolled by the City of Baltimore under then-Mayor O’Malley's leadership lacks credibility.

As for Governor Ehrlich, he reemerged to rebut O’Malley’s claim, and to accuse his successor once again of “whining.” I don’t blame Ehrlich for wanting to fire back. That said, I thought that O’Malley’s original statement was so fanciful that a rebuttal was almost unnecessary. 

Also, some of the words Ehrlich used to rebut it - "I have no specific recollection or document that they requested the state during my administration” – seemed better suited for a deposition than a public war of words.

From my own little perch in the Ehrlich Administration, I don’t remember hearing any talk that Baltimore City had approached the State of Maryland to help bankroll the project. In any event, it seems unlikely that this happened for three reasons.

First, Mayor O’Malley was then gearing up to run for governor, and it did not serve his interests to be perceived as beseeching favors of his rival. This is why he choose to cash out the city’s rainy day fund in order to replenish $58 million in missing City school funds, rather than accept the additional oversight and political embarrassment state funding would bring.

Second, there was a perception at the time that the hotel deal was a nod to the City’s building trade unions, who wanted it in exchange for backing O’Malley’s 2006 bid for governor. Indeed, support for the hotel deal was not universal, and then-City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell and others on the Council loudly opposed it. Under these circumstances, requesting state monies for an obviously politically-motivated project would have been a pointless ask.

Lastly, even if O’Malley had asked and Ehrlich turned him down, this decision would, retrospectively speaking, be a plus for Ehrlich’s legacy. Only in Maryland’s political echo chamber could a governor turning down the opportunity to waste state taxpayer dollars on a proven boondoggle be seen as a liability. In other words, had it happened, I would expect Ehrlich to be loudly bragging about his foresight, rather than fumbling through legalese.

In any event, I have been to the Baltimore Hilton. It is a great amenity and an asset to the City. If this gem of a hotel is not meeting expectations, the solutions needed to set things right will not be found in the details of how it was financed years ago, but in how it is utilized and being programmed now.

Anyway, the 2014 political season is still young, so I’m sure there will be many more examples of hubris to report. I hope you’re looking forward to them as much as I am.

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