Laslo Boyd: A red card for Ken Holt

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Last week at MACO, Secretary Ken Holt committed a major foul.

Amazingly, Holt is still Secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.   Considering his world-class screw up last week, you actually have to wonder how he got the job in the first place.

What happened is clear and undisputed.  Holt, in prepared remarks to a panel at the Maryland Association of Counties’ annual meeting, asserted that a mother could just put a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth, then take the child in for testing and make a landlord liable for providing the child with housing until the age of 18.  The Housing Secretary used that hypothetical as part of his case for the need to reduce state regulations, including lessening the liability for landlords in lead paint cases.

However you look at his statement, it’s a stunning combination of irresponsibility, incompetence and stupidity.  How could a cabinet secretary so totally disregard decades of evidence about the dangers of lead paint poisoning, the mission of his own department, and the most minimal standards of common sense?

Let’s be clear about how we came to learn Holt’s view on this issue.  It did not come to us through a maliciously altered video.  It was not the result of some aggressive reporter blindsiding Holt with a question that he was not prepared to answer.  It was not a secret tape of a private conversation.  Holt skewered himself in prepared remarks at MACO with no help from anyone else.

What could he have been thinking?  His source for the assertion, according to Holt, was a developer telling him that such a scam was possible.  Were there any examples of it ever having happened?  No.  Was there any verification that the lead fishing weight deception would in fact register as proof of exposure to lead paint?  No.  Did Holt engage in any form of due diligence before revealing his “finding” to a public audience?  Again, the answer is no.

Apparently, if you are a “friend of Ken”, anything that you whisper in his ear is rock solid evidence.  I wonder if Holt would like to share the name of his expert witness with the public.

Could there be any other explanation for what Holt did?  One possibility is that he is so eager to lead the charge against “unnecessary” government regulations—certainly a major theme of the Hogan Administration—that he will latch onto any pretext regardless of how flimsy.   You would hope that Governor Hogan, after this appalling incident, might reexamine the atmosphere that he is creating in his administration to make sure he isn’t encouraging the kind of irresponsibility that Holt demonstrated.

It may also be the case that Holt is in over his head in the job.  Perhaps he really doesn’t have the necessary ability to make sound judgments and provide leadership to a major agency of government.   That’s certainly a plausible conclusion after watching him in action last week.

His remarks at MACO drew a quick and negative reaction from Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, who was attending in Governor Hogan’s place.  Rutherford made it clear the next day that Holt’s views did not represent those of the administration and that he had no idea what the Secretary was thinking.  The Lt. Governor or his boss is certainly in the position to ask that question directly of Holt.  The rest of us wait eagerly to hear the answer.

After issuing his own damage control statement, it’s quite clear that Rutherford also leaned on Holt to recant his remarks.  The next day, a spokesperson for the Secretary—not Holt himself—said that he regretted his comments and apologized to anyone he had offended.  That is the classic example of a non-apology apology.  This issue isn’t whether anyone was offended by Holt’s stupid comment, but that it reflects the way he thinks.

A second look at Holt’s statement reveals just how biased and hostile it is.  Holt is saying that a mother would risk the health of her child to take advantage of a law that is intended to protect children.  A Republican in the House of Delegates, while agreeing that the statement was ill advised, offered in defense of Holt that people do try to cheat the system.  Sadly, it’s another example of the tendency of too many conservative politicians to blame the poor for their problems.

It’s good to see that Hogan and Rutherford want nothing to do with that point of view.  But that doesn’t really close the matter.  On Monday, Hogan expressed his continued support for Holt even while distancing himself from the Secretary’s controversial remarks.   That may be a distinction that’s hard to maintain.

To return to the sports metaphor that kicked off this column, Holt committed a flagrant foul and needs to get off of the field.  If he doesn’t do that voluntarily, Hogan should escort him to the sidelines.

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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.