Josh Kurtz: The Sunny Side of MACo – and the Stormy Side

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By: Josh Kurtz 

The Maryland Association of Counties annual summer convention in Ocean City is the most irresistible of Maryland political rituals.

It’s like a big, rollicking high school reunion that rages for half a week or more – after all, many of the participants haven’t seen each other since the end of the General Assembly session four months earlier. Only now they’re healthier, less frazzled and far more casual, their spirits lifted by the sand and surf and sun and expense-account living – and the opportunity to lap up unlimited amounts of booze, provided by special interests and their lobbyists, doesn’t hurt, either.

For political Maryland, Ocean City is clearly like Vegas: What happens east of Assawoman Bay stays east of Assawoman Bay.

As sure as day follows night, Martin O’Malley will pop up somewhere with his band, and some high-ranking government official will be falling down drunk, and someone else will wish he could enlist the services of Tom Hagen in that scene from “Godfather 2” when Hagen assures the panicked U.S. senator that he can make the dead young woman go away.

There’s politics in the sea air, but even in an election year, with both candidates for governor present, it’s practiced pretty casually (like so many things in Maryland that are different this year, this may have something to do with the early primary). Heck, Peter Franchot, a politician who is never at a loss for a gimmick (because ya gotta have one, as the strippers sing in “Gypsy”), is working to extend that summer feeling (“Let summer be summer,” is his current mantra).

The good vibrations trumped any potential awkwardness at the news conference Friday when the leaders of the state’s three biggest jurisdictions – Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – finally got around to endorsing Anthony Brown for governor after refusing to do so in the primary for one reason or another. Brown joshed about it, and gamely called them “field captains in the Brown-Ulman brigade for a greater Maryland.” But you have to wonder whether Brown, though a Democrat, will have an elephant’s memory about this – especially when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not hesitate to back him before the primary.

“I didn’t want to point that out,” Brown said. But Baker already had, saying Rawlings-Blake “had the foresight to endorse early.”

Brown and Larry Hogan never met face to face last week, but they did take pokes at each other, foretelling a very negative fall campaign. Hogan seems determined to talk about nothing but taxes, spending and regulations, while Brown seems to be reading off a national Democratic playbook that suggests tarring your Republican opponent, early and often, as intolerant on social issues and in bed with the rich. Neither approach suggests a serious discussion about what ails Maryland and how to make things better.

And that’s too bad. Because if you forget the parties and the boardwalk and the crab feast and the delicious summer weather and the political wise guys holding forth at one bar or another, inside the very chilly convention center, where dozens of information sessions and workshops were being held, the forecast was anything but sunny. In fact, whether the discussion was about crime or education or transportation or the environment, the message of the county officials on hand was unmistakable: Send help – we need money!

The theme of this year’s conference, if anybody was paying attention, was “Ideas & Innovations” – because oh boy, do we need some now. Even in a relatively wealthy state like Maryland, there just aren’t sufficient funds to meet the myriad needs of the populace. Our infrastructure is crumbling, environmental regulations, necessary to rectify decades of pollution and neglect, make the cost of doing business more expensive, and a rapidly changing economy challenges even the most nimble of county governments.

So innovation is highly sought after and rewarded. But it also makes local government vulnerable to hucksters promising the Next Big Thing. It seemed as if a good many of the speakers throughout the week were so-called experts subtly selling their services to county leaders – the federal lobbyist suggesting that he could help them win U.S. Department of Transportation grant money, the Wall Street guy vowing to make public-private partnerships work, the software specialist promising to protect vital government data.

And the exhibition hall in the convention center is a veritable bazaar of companies, large and small, peddling their services to the counties.

“Events like this are great,” Adam Thompson, asset manager for Urban Grid Solar, a company based in Stevensville, told me, “because you hit everybody in one place and you see lots of decision makers.”

Perhaps the most depressing thing about the conference was the fact that the man who county officials might normally send a distress signal to essentially told them that no life preserver was available. Speaking to a packed room for 45 minutes, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) repeatedly cited the dysfunction in Congress.

“Things don’t move quickly in Washington,” he said, pronouncing it “Warshington” in that quaint if somewhat annoying Maryland way.

Speaking of transportation and infrastructure spending, Cardin again lamented the difficulties of getting anything done. “It’s not because we don’t have the capacity. The reason is that we don’t have the political will.”

So there you have it. With all due respect to Cardin, when one of the most powerful elected officials in the state, someone who has held public office for 48 straight years, is essentially reduced to shrugs, we should all worry a little. Cardin tried to put a brave face on things at the end, saying, “It gives me courage that we are committed to doing things together.”

And courage, after all, is what’s needed – to survive those raging MACo hangovers, and to govern in these very perilous, resource-depleted times.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at.

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.