Josh Kurtz: Take the Local

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Well, the gubernatorial election has devolved into the very mindless name-calling we’ve come to expect whenever a campaign is waged almost entirely over the airwaves.

For now, Anthony Brown’s pitch to voters seems to be: Larry Hogan is going to put guns back on the streets and take away your abortion rights. Hogan’s seems to be: Brown is going to steal your wallet.

Perhaps October’s debates will be more illuminating, but that’s doubtful. It’s hard to imagine Brown diverging from his consultant-driven script, though why abortion and guns are the centerpiece of any campaign in this day and age and people’s economic jitters aren’t is anybody’s guess.

Yet it’s equally hard to imagine Hogan laying out a coherent case for how his proposed tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks will do anything but take the state backward and put the budget into a deeper hole.

It’s too bad; these are both decent guys. But the voters have few opportunities, if any, to see that, because their best chance to learn anything about the candidates is through the others’ attack ads.

At least if we avert our eyes from the looming metaphorical train wreck of the gubernatorial election we can find some other interesting political stuff going on around the state.

Take Anne Arundel County.

There, in one of the most competitive and volatile jurisdictions in the state, we can anticipate political changes in the short term, and more over the horizon.

The main event, of course, is the race for county executive, between Del. Steve Schuh (R) and former Sheriff George Johnson (D). Schuh is favored, as just about any Republican would be in a conservative-leaning county in a national political environment that is shaping up to be bad for Democrats.

But his victory is by no means a slam dunk. The grandfatherly Johnson has built up plenty of good will during his long career of public service. And on the Republican side, there’s the hangover of Schuh’s bitter primary victory over interim County Executive Laura Neuman (R). Some of Neuman’s supporters are sitting on their hands for the general election or quietly aiding Johnson. Schuh clearly doesn’t appeal to non-affiliated voters in a general election the way Neuman would have.

Yet Johnson probably is not a dynamic enough campaigner to take advantage of any Republican discord or overcome the general political drift. After all, he couldn’t knock off John Leopold (R) – admittedly, a one-of-a-kind political animal – in 2006, a very good year for Democrats.

So Schuh will probably take over as county executive in December – and will, at age 54, and with ample personal financial resources, immediately vault himself onto the very short list of rising Maryland Republican stars. With his call for deep tax cuts, Schuh is sure to be more of a partisan county executive than his two most recent predecessors. Given the county’s growing pains and enormous needs – more schools, a sophisticated transit system, affordable housing, and economic development projects distributed equitably throughout the large and economically diverse county – it will be an interesting test of modern Republican orthodoxy at the local level.

The irony is, Schuh may face a Democratic majority on the County Council – and could even be forced to work with a council that has five Democrats and only two Republicans.

Councilman John Grasso (R), a Republican renegade who represents the Glen Burnie area, is never truly safe, despite the conservative lean of his district. The Democrat, Andy Werner, has the right kind of profile to win in that district, even if he had only half as much cash-on-hand as Grasso did in last month’s campaign finance statements.

And Democrats caught a break in the Severna Park-based 5th district when Michael Anthony Peroutka, who isn’t just an arch conservative but whose views are way outside the political mainstream, won the Republican primary. The Democratic nominee, Patrick Armstrong, isn’t especially ready for prime time and his victory is by no means assured. But more seasoned Democrats in the county and elsewhere in the state seem committed to dragging him across the finish line; a super PAC put together by politically plugged-in lawyer Dan Clements and Councilman Jamie Benoit (D) is preparing to spend liberally there.

Speaking of Benoit, he’s termed out. Board of Education member Andrew Pruski (D) is favored to replace him representing Crownsville, Odenton and Gambrills. And in the 1st district, Pete Smith (D), who served as interim councilman until Darryl Jones (D) was reinstated, stands ready to resume his council career.

If that isn’t enough turnover in Anne Arundel’s political class, the county’s legislative delegation will have five new members even if no incumbents lose.

But even greater change is just around the corner, particularly on the Democratic side. Come 2018, Sens. John Astle (D) and Ed DeGrange (D) will be 75 and 69, respectively, and presumably be moving on. House Speaker Mike Busch (D) will be 71, and he may choose to hang up his spikes. Del. Ted Sophocleus (D), whose annual fundraiser, fittingly, is called “Stuck in the ’50s,” will be 79. Del. Pam Beidle (D), though some Democrats continue to believe she could be a formidable candidate for county executive, will be 67.

So a county whose Democratic leadership has been defined for years by Astle and DeGrange and Busch and Johnson (who is now 61) will undergo a dramatic generational shift.

In their place will be people like Benoit, who at age 43 is surely not done, despite his coming hiatus from government service. Benoit is moving to Annapolis sometime after the election – and that could have a big impact on his political trajectory, and the county’s. He’ll have options, as they say.

Also poised to take more of a leadership role are Smith, a 33-year-old Marine reservist who could compete for the seat of Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D) some day; Councilman Chris Trumbauer (D), 39, who looks more like an REI salesman than a politician but has proven to be a focused policy wonk and savvy political operator; Mark Chang, who is on the road to winning a House seat in District 32; Sarah Elfreth, a lobbyist for the National Aquarium in Baltimore; Anne Klase, deputy chief of staff to Comptroller Peter Franchot, a member of the Anne Arundel Democratic Central Committee; Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of Common Cause/Maryland who seems likely to become more of a partisan player in the years ahead, and Spencer Dove, who lost a Democratic primary for a House seat this year, among others.

What’s noteworthy about all these leaders is that they are considerably more progressive than the veteran lawmakers who will soon be departing. Can they leave their imprint on a genuinely purple county? We may not know for another half dozen years or more. But the political evolution of Anne Arundel County will be a fascinating storyline for the foreseeable future.

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Shameless plug: Last week, some colleagues at Environment & Energy Publishing and I published an eBook about the political changes taking place in North Carolina, and their impact on environmental policy. It’s titled, “Turning Carolina Red: Reports from the Front of an Energy Culture War.”

North Carolina’s lurch to the right over the past two election cycles and the brutal force employed by the Republicans to remake the state – funded in large measure by home-grown allies of the Koch brothers – has been well-documented in the national media. But ours is the first comprehensive look at how Republicans in Raleigh and their allies across the state have been looking to promote fossil fuels, strip away environmental regulations, and stymie the development of renewable energy and mass transit programs.

It’s a quick read, with a little bit of everything: Political struggles, policy debates, memorable characters, and colorful scenes. It costs a mere 99 cents on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NWQ8YTS) if you want to download it to your Kindle; better still you can download a PDF version of it here (http://www.eenews.net/eep/documents/Turning_Carolina_Red.pdf), absolutely free.

See what’s going on not too far south of here – there may be lessons to be learned. And see some of what I do when I’m not obsessing over Maryland politics.

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.