Josh Kurtz: If Only We Could Call in the Marriage Counselor

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By: Josh Kurtz

Well, that was a quick honeymoon.

The only shorter one on record was the honeymoon of Lenny and Lila in Elaine May’s 1972 comedy, “The Heartbreak Kid.” But the collapse of that marriage could at least be explained away by the presence of Cybill Shepard.

This one is a little more difficult to diagnose – and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s State of the State speech last week started off badly. Maybe he was trying to make a political argument. But was it really wise for the new Republican chief executive to spend the first quarter of his televised speech tearing the state down? You’ve already been hired, Governor – time to stop campaigning.

On the other hand, it’s fair to say the Democrats in Annapolis have overreacted to what they heard.

They were right to be angry with Hogan’s tone. Even after the “Maryland stinks right now” portion of his speech, when he delved into substance, Hogan on at least a few occasions seemed like he was purposely poking his finger in the eyes of perceived enemies, like environmentalists and the teachers’ union, who are the backbone of the Democratic coalition. It probably makes his patrons at the Republican Governors Association happy, but was it really advisable?

More puzzling, though, is the Democrats’ sudden ire over the substance in Hogan’s speech. Have they not been paying attention for the past few months? What, it was a surprise to them that he was touting tax cuts and charter schools and repeal of the “rain tax”?

Democrats are entitled to their policy differences with Hogan, of course. It’s admirable and encouraging that Senate President Mike Miller (D) and House Speaker Mike Busch (D) have vowed to restore the cuts that Hogan is calling for in school funding, and Busch seems committed to preserving the stormwater runoff fee. But in the wake of the State of the State speech, Democrats are behaving as if Hogan is rolling out his agenda for the first time – and that it’s anathema to the majority of Marylanders.

Hey Democrats – Hogan won. And plenty of members of your own party provided the margin of victory and are now waiting on him to deliver.

Whether Democrats blame Anthony Brown or Martin O’Malley or Barack Obama or Justin Schall or Ebola or Yahweh for their defeat in November, the harsh reality of it all is at last coming home to them. We’re still a blue state, Democrats have been reassuring themselves. We’ve still got big majorities in the legislature. Busch or Miller or Maggie McIntosh will save us.

But now it may finally be dawning on them that resistance won’t be so easy. Larry Hogan will be in office for at least another 1,441 days. The battles over education policy and transportation funding and how to clean up the Chesapeake Bay are just beginning – and Hogan has the coveted bully pulpit. Stymying five of his cabinet nominees may feel good inside the Senate chamber, but it doesn’t do much to help the Democrats’ greater cause.

Even when Democrats have the superior position on an issue – and they do, often enough – they lost the argument in November, and they’ve got to retrench and reframe the debate in a way that will reach the maximum number of voters, not to mention mobilize their stalwart supporters.

That’s not something they’re in the habit of doing. Maryland Democrats, after all, have been trotting out Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin and Steny Hoyer and Mike Miller as the face of their party not just for years, but literally for decades. Maybe it’s time to try something new?

Today Miller and other state Senate leaders are unveiling their list of priorities for the rest of the General Assembly session. That hasn’t been a regular occurrence in his 28 years as Senate president, so the fact that it’s happening is noteworthy.

What’s in Miller’s package? Will it contain liberal red meat, to engage the Democratic base? Will it attempt to undercut Hogan in significant ways? What kind of legislative action will the Augustine Commission, created by Miller and Busch to address the state’s business climate, produce? When the presiding officers say they’re going to restore education cuts and fight a rescission of the rain tax, is that a negotiating position or a line in the sand?

Questions abound for Hogan, too. Is the gas tax the right place to provide his promised tax relief for Marylanders, especially at a time when fuel prices are so low and after voters just approved a measure to create a lock box for transportation funding? Is this another signal that the Purple Line and Red Line transit projects are doomed – and if so, why not just say it?

Plenty of Marylanders are intrigued by the idea of expanding charter schools. But can the governor sell charter schools without employing the partisan national Republican playbook of using the concept to bludgeon teachers’ unions?

Did Hogan not see the irony of identifying runoff as a major polluter of the Chesapeake Bay – just days after halting a regulation that would have limited the use of chicken waste as fertilizer? Admirable as his push for political reform is, does he really think that Maryland Democrats, creators of some of the most grotesquely gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation, are going to disarm unless Republicans in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina agree to do the same?

And will the Hogan administration continue to feature quotes insisting that he’s committed to bipartisanship from a spokesman named Doug Mayer – whose last job was working for Gov. Nikki Haley (R) in South Carolina, where they haven’t had to pay attention to a Democrat since U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) retired in 2004?

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

So Hogan, we’re now told, is trying – meeting with Miller on Sunday night and trying to schedule a breakfast with Busch this week.

When marriages teeter on the brink of collapse, the two sides can call in a marriage counselor. That option isn’t available in Annapolis.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews
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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.