Our Journey Begins

By Josh Kurtz

Welcome to Maryland Matters!

Please know that what you are reading is an early, no-frills iteration of the ambitious news website that we hope to unveil in the months ahead, after we’re fully funded and are able to hire a staff.

But it seemed foolhardy to let the General Assembly session go by completely without doing a soft launch. And with the jockeying ahead of the 2018 elections well underway there is already plenty to talk about.

So here we are.

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For now, our plan is to post material here as frequently as we can, from a small, hardy band of contributors. Initially, we’ll have a combination of multi-item posts, like this one; news updates; features; profiles; commentaries, and more.

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So with that…

WHERE WE ARE SO FAR We just passed the halfway mark of the General Assembly session. The halls of the State House and the legislative buildings and the grounds of Lawyers Mall are still pulsing with democracy, the hearing rooms overstuffed with citizens determined to have their say. All 188 lawmakers – we are just this week at full strength for the first time this session – are making an impact.

But soon that will change.

As the session hurtles toward sine die on April 10, the most important decisions are usually made behind closed doors by a handful of key dealmakers.

One thing is clear at the halfway mark: The angst and uncertainty that pervaded at the beginning of session has yet to dissipate.

When the General Assembly opened, one of the legislature’s veteran presiding officers, Senate President Mike Miller (D), was walking around with a cane, while the other, House Speaker Mike Busch (D), was thin and wan and the inevitable object of rumors about his health.

It seemed like an apt metaphor for Maryland Democrats – bummed by Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat last November, still far from getting over the shock of Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) upset win two years earlier and in desperate need of a jolt of energy. Democrats entered the session antsy because they haven’t really been able to lay a glove on Hogan during his first two years in office – and painfully aware that time is running out.

The House had an internal kerfuffle just days into the session, when Busch replaced House Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila Hixson (D), who had held the gavel since 1993, with Majority Leader Anne Kaiser (D), 35 years Hixson’s junior. Hixson was given the title of “chairman emerita” – but she’ll apparently retain her office for this session and next, relegating Kaiser to a conference room in the Ways and Means suite. Awkward!

Why the switch – which included elevating Del. Bill Frick (D) to majority leader – didn’t take place months before the start of session is anybody’s guess.

And then there have been the ethics scandals: The Prince George’s County Liquor Board bribery probe, which ensnared two former legislators and could yet singe others; the indictment of Gary Brown, who came thisclose to being appointed to the House in January, for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D); and the revelation last week that a judge had called the late addition of Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Bobby Zirkin (D) to the defense team in a medical malpractice case “rather unethical.”

Then there was the hangover scandal from last year, when Del. Dan Morhaim (D), a physician, came under scrutiny for advocating certain medical marijuana policies before disclosing that he had agreed to run a dispensary.

None of these ethics flaps has receded – and the wonder is that Hogan, who rarely misses an opportunity to take shots at Democrats despite his self-professed devotion to bipartisanship, isn’t spotlighting them morning, noon and night. To be sure, a week into this year’s session, Hogan unveiled a package of good government measures, and personally delivered them to the presiding officers’ offices for good measure. But no one is betting that this legislation is going to get very far.

But somehow, improbably, Maryland Democrats are starting to feel bolder and a little less fatalistic.

Democrats and Republicans in Maryland are cranking up their 2018 campaign battle plans at a time when the nation’s political discourse has been completely – and probably permanently – scrambled by President Trump, the type of politics he practices, and the new and uncertain media landscape. Republicans may be ascendant nationally, Democrats may be outgunned and stumbling around in many places around the country – but the electorate seems more mercurial than ever, and everything could change quickly.

How all the tumult at the national level translates to Maryland is anybody’s guess. If a more conventional Republican had been elected president last November, Democrats could fairly expect to make gains nationally in 2018 – and in Maryland. But now, in the Trump era, where nothing is normal? Who knows?

Make no mistake: Trump represents potential peril for Hogan. The governor has been masterful about distancing himself from Trump, and for establishing his own brand separate and distinct from the national GOP. But he can’t ignore or escape the crazy – and he’ll increasingly be asked about it, much to his annoyance. Republicans now own the national political narrative – and even with Trump’s conventional and well-received speech to Congress Tuesday night, it could head south very fast.

Hogan’s line that he is focusing on Maryland problems and is leaving all national policy matters to the congressional delegation sounds like a bit of a cop-out and is only going to get him so far – after all, national problems could very quickly trickle down to the state. What does Hogan say and do when his fellow Republicans eliminate the Affordable Care Act and countless Marylanders are immediately impacted? How does he help soften the blow for the state’s vital medical institutions, like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland systems? What does he do when federal spending and the federal workforce, so integral to Maryland’s economic stability, are slashed?

On the other hand, Democrats in the legislature seem to want to make every Annapolis policy fight about Trump and are proceeding with the simple equation that Trump = Hogan in the voters’ minds. With Hogan still riding high in the polls, that’s a tough argument to make, and Democrats risk the possibility of overplaying their hand – as appealing as it may seem at first, second and even third glance.

Still, Democrats know that their chances of ousting Hogan next year are easier with Trump as president than they would have been if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Many now see the task as being as simple as “bringing Democrats home again” in 2018.

But it’s not so simple. The Goucher Poll, released this week, showed Hogan with a 63 percent favorable rating – enviable for any politician. That’s down from the 70 percent in Goucher’s poll last fall and is the first time Hogan’s numbers have slipped in any public poll.

Still, Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, doesn’t think the decline has much to do with Trump. Then again, Trump hasn’t even been in office for seven weeks. And the majority of Marylanders polled told Goucher that their views of Trump would affect their vote in 2018.

The Democrats, beyond their ethics problems, have many other challenges, however.

Democratic leaders are looking for a new state chairman, again. And there is no obvious white knight waiting to save them in the 2018 gubernatorial race, the way there was the last time a Republican lived in Government House.

That Prince George’s liquor scandal does not reflect well on one of the Democrats’ leading potential candidates for governor, County Executive Rushern Baker. There is zero evidence or suggestion that Baker was in any way personally involved – but the scandal pokes holes in the narrative that Baker came in and cleaned up the way the county does business.

Tom Perez’s election this week as chairman of the Democratic National Committee is a mixed blessing for Maryland Democrats: He could have been one of the Democrats’ strongest candidates against Hogan next fall, a potent and energetic messenger, and he’ll now obviously stay out of the gubernatorial race. On the other hand, his new position ensures that Maryland will get plenty of attention from the national party this election cycle.

THE LEGISLATIVE NARRATIVE… Traditionally, the third General Assembly session is the most productive of the four-year term. But Hogan doesn’t have a particularly expansive agenda, and Democrats and the governor haven’t found much common ground anyway.

Democratic legislative leaders have made a public show of being unified, but that could fall apart at a moment’s notice. While progressives in the House are continually trying to flex their muscles, Miller in the Senate remains fixed on protecting his vulnerable centrist incumbents, who are reluctant to support some of the agenda their more liberal colleagues are pushing.

Nine Democratic senators represent districts that Hogan won in 2014: John Astle of Anne Arundel County, Jim Brochin of Baltimore County, Ed DeGrange of Anne Arundel County, Ed Kasemeyer, who represents Baltimore and Howard counties, Kathy Klausmeier of Baltimore County, Jim Mathias of the Lower Eastern Shore, Ron Young, who represents Frederick County, Zirkin – and Miller himself. At this early stage, the districts of Astle, Brochin, Klausmeier, Mathias and Young seem to be in the greatest danger of flipping.

Regardless of the tensions between the two chambers, they seem closer this time on the issue of paid family sick leave than they were in the 2016 session. The House is expected to pass its version of the bill on Thursday, and Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D) told Maryland Matters last week that the Senate bill, scheduled for a committee vote Friday, is substantially similar.

What Hogan does then is anyone’s guess.

It was lost on no one that state Labor Secretary Kelly Schulz was the only person to testify on Hogan’s paid family sick leave legislation, pro or con, when it was heard in the House Economic Matters Committee last month. Hogan laid down his marker when it came to the type of family leave bill he’d like to see – one far less comprehensive and expensive than what the Democrats are proposing. But he knows there is no way he’s going to get it passed.

Republicans unanimously opposed the bill in the House. Will Hogan try to negotiate with the Democrats at that point?

If he does, he may turn to House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D) for help. The two very publicly had lunch together in Annapolis last week. Davis is close to lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who fashions himself a top adviser to Hogan. And Davis’ pre-emption bill, preventing local governments from mandating higher wages or better benefits than those mandated by the state, may have been a gesture to Hogan – though by Davis’ own admission, that bill is going nowhere this year.

What’s more, three people involved in promoting Hogan’s legislative agenda are alumni of Davis’ committee: Schulz, former Del. Keiffer Mitchell (D), who works in Hogan’s legislative affairs office, and Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Hogan’s deputy chief of staff.

POLITICAL RUMOR Add Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D) to the list of Annapolis lawmakers who are eyeing a race for Montgomery County Council in 2018. Gutierrez told Maryland Matters last week that she is thinking of running for the open 1st district seat, which is being vacated by term-limited Councilmember Roger Berliner (D).

Former Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman (D) has already declared his intention to run. Dels. Jeff Waldstreicher (D) and Al Carr (D) are taking a look, while Del. Ariana Kelly (D) has suggested she’s thinking about it. Andrew Friedson, a special adviser to state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) (and a member of the Maryland Matters steering committee) is also contemplating the race.

Gutierrez reported $27,000 in her campaign account in January. Her legislative committee took in just $9,600 in the previous year after she spent 2015 and the first part of 2016 running for Congress – and $6,000 of it was transferred from her congressional fund.

Del. Charles Barkley (D) has already said that he plans to run for Montgomery County Council – either an at-large seat or in the 2nd district if Councilmember Craig Rice (D) moves on.

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Thank you for reading! And cue The Carpenters: We’ve only just begun…

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