Laslo Boyd: The Ten Top Political Stories of 2014

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Although we may disagree about some of the entries on this list, there can be no doubt what the top political story of 2014 was. Larry Hogan’s stunning and decisive victory in the gubernatorial election seemed a remote possibility early in the year. Even as Nov. 4 approached, few observers saw Hogan taking the lead much less winning by the margin that he did.

What makes this the most important political event of the past year, however, is its importance for the next four. Hogan will not only control the Executive Branch of state government but will also have an opportunity to reshape the political landscape of Maryland. Whether he is actually able to do that will depend on the choices he makes and the skill that he demonstrates, but there will also be other factors outside of his immediate control.

Will he be able to forge a constructive working relationship with the leadership of the General Assembly? Can he shake the state economy out of its doldrums? Will he be able to convince voters that he is a problem solver, not an ideologue or a captive of the extreme right wing of his party?

The next two stories on my list — and I’m not at all sure that I really want to rank order the rest — were both direct contributors to Hogan’s November success. In saying that, I don’t want to take anything away from the very effective campaign that Hogan ran, but he couldn’t have crossed the finish line first without some help. Anthony Brown’s incredibly inept campaign — snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — was hard to see coming in the days following his relatively easy win in the Democratic Primary in June. In reality, however, all the signs were already there: his deliberate isolation from voters as well as from the press; his wooden demeanor on his rare public appearances; a campaign staff whose operating style was arrogant rather than inclusive; and his failure to build effective relationships with other Democrats running for office across the state.

To that losing combination, for the General Election he added some of the worst campaign ads ever devised. Today, post election, Democratic office holders are eager to detail how awful Brown’s campaign was. Significantly, his failure to engage Democratic voters produced substantial collateral damage for down ballot candidates in competitive districts who ended up losing close races.

A third entry on this list is the failure of Maryland’s economy to recover from the national economic downturn. This issue limited Brown’s ability to appeal to voters and made Hogan’s argument for change at the top compelling. In the category of “Be careful what you wish for”, Hogan now has the problem of resolving state revenue shortfalls that keep getting worse.

Can Hogan lead a transformation of the Maryland economy? The federal advantage, long thought to make the state recession proof, now looks like a liability. As the European experience demonstrates, massive government budget cuts are no way to stimulate the economy.

Creating a more friendly business climate — never well-defined during the campaign — won’t be accomplished by a few tax rollbacks or changes in state regulations. Those may contribute on the margins, but the key to long-term recovery is to invest in education, infrastructure and human capital. Hogan will have his hands full trying to juggle all of these needs in a constructive way.

My next three political stories involve elected officials who positioned themselves for major impact in the future by their actions in 2014.

State Senator Brian Frosh won an easy General Election race for Attorney General after a decisive victory in a primary that many expected him to lose. In many respects, he had the most impressive credentials of anyone running for statewide office this year.

Frosh has, throughout his career, been an outspoken advocate for progressive causes, including environmental protection, sensible gun regulations, and civil rights. Now with a statewide platform, he is unlikely to modify those views even when they differ from those of the governor.

The Democratic Primary saw the rise of Delegate Heather Mizeur as a figure with a strong and enthusiastic base of supporters. Mizeur ran what many thought was the most creative and thoughtful campaign of any of the gubernatorial candidates.

Was last year merely a fleeting moment in the sun for Mizeur, or can she figure out a way to stay politically relevant in Maryland without holding any office? Her campaign tapped into a vein of frustration with mainstream politics in Maryland, but whether it’s actually more than the 23% she got in the primary remains to be seen.

Then there’s Martin O’Malley whose campaign for the presidency became more visible and more structured in 2014. Brown’s loss and the economic woes of the state damaged O’Malley’s reputation within Maryland, but it’s not at all certain that they will have much impact on his national efforts.

However Marylanders rate the outgoing governor, it’s important to recognize that he is on a very short list of Democrats considered serious contenders for the party’s presidential nomination. Hilary Clinton looks inevitable at this point but inevitable candidates don’t always succeed. O’Malley has done a good job of positioning himself if the Clinton juggernaut falters for any reason.

The very high turnover in the membership of the General Assembly arising from election losses, retirements, and campaigns for other offices certainly warrants a place on this list. There will be 58 new delegates — 41% of the total House — and 11 new senators — 23% of the upper chamber – when the new legislature takes office in January.

Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch are both back but are facing a significantly changed environment. A Republican governor is, of course, the biggest change, but all those new legislators will also provide challenges for the General Assembly’s leaders. The conventional wisdom is that the new Democrats are, on the whole, more liberal.  That assumes that those newcomers haven’t paid any attention to the 2014 election results and the apparent unrest among Maryland voters.

The 2014 election could be interpreted as a sign of the emergence of the Republican Party as a viable and competitive opposition to the long dominant Democrats. Hogan’s win and small gains in both the House and Senate are positive indicators.  Hogan carried 20 out of 24 jurisdictions. That kind of split has happened before and is not necessarily a real shift.

Allan Kittleman’s victory in the Howard County Executive race, coupled with Republican wins in Anne Arundel and Harford County, was a significant one coming as it did in Ken Ulman’s home jurisdiction. Kittleman will have the same challenge that Hogan does, proving that he can govern as he campaigned, as a moderate.

The election results have provided Republicans with an opportunity to establish themselves as a viable political entity in Maryland. Making further progress will depend on how they use that opportunity.

The next item might seem to some not to be a political development, but that would reflect a lack of understanding of public higher education in Maryland. Brit Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, announced earlier this year that he would be retiring once a successor was in place.

Kirwan may well be the most skilled politician in the state. His role involves keeping peace and harmony among a group of strong-willed university presidents while at the same time persuading state elected officials to treat higher education as a top priority worthy of state funding even in difficult financial times.

His recently announced successor, Bob Caret, president of the University of Massachusetts system and former head of Towson University, comes with an impressive set of credentials and strong political skills as well, albeit with a very different style than that of Kirwan.

Last but not least, and this may be a disturbing finale, 2014 also marked the beginning of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Maryland.  There’s no point in listing all of the potential Democratic candidates, but they’re definitely out there.

2014 has certainly provided a lot of political grist for 2015.  Meet you back here in January.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.