Josh Kurtz: That’s Rich

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At Anthony Brown’s election night party a year ago, state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D) found himself surrounded by a group of reporters, attempting to explain what he saw as the flaws in Gov.-elect Larry Hogan’s (R) desire to eliminate the so-called Rain Tax. When Madaleno turned around, he noticed that he was the only elected official left in the bummed-out room.

In a way, it was a prelude to everything that has come since.

With Hogan riding high in the polls – a circumstance fueled partially by his commitment to cutting taxes, fees and tolls (regardless of the consequences to state government) – Madaleno has become a one-man truth squad. No one in the legislature has so consistently questioned the governor’s policies and the arguments behind them – especially on fiscal matters, where Madaleno, vice chairman of the Budget & Taxation Committee, has a particular expertise.

Madaleno says he’s not just criticizing for criticism’s sake. Part of what’s motivating him to speak out more is a desire to protect the legacy of the previous administration and legislature. What Hogan has attempted to characterize as reckless spending under former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Madaleno asserts, has had tangible benefits, resulting in a better school system, more affordable college tuition, more investments in the transportation network, and an improved workforce and business climate, which are threatened by the cuts Hogan is seeking.

It occurred to Madaleno early on that this was a role he could play in Annapolis’ new political order.

“It did strike me at the beginning of this term, Hogan ran on a budget and tax platform,” Madaleno says. “I became the vice chair of the Budget & Tax Committee. It just seemed that I was positioned to be able to make the counter-arguments to the governor’s, I think, flawed agenda. So I was happy to step up and push back on what I think are many misrepresentations of what we’ve done over the last eight years.”

Madaleno has been especially vocal about critiquing Hogan’s education spending priorities. When Hogan announced earlier this fall that he was cutting certain fees for state services, Madaleno was quick to try to point out what he saw as the consequences – and take issue with some of the governor’s accounting.

Madaleno is clearly operating with the blessing of Senate President Mike Miller (D) and B&T Chairman Ed Kasemeyer (D). Both men are more conservative than Madaleno and represent more conservative districts, so it can often be in their interests to see the Montgomery County liberal take point when it comes to criticizing Hogan. It’s no coincidence that it’s usually Madaleno and not Kasemeyer strolling through the basement of the State House talking to reporters when there are contentious budget matters to discuss.

“He’s incredibly sharp and articulate and a dedicated guy,” Kasemeyer says.

Madaleno says he’s grateful for the confidence Miller and Kasemeyer have shown in him and the advice they’ve offered. Kasemeyer, he says, “wants to hear everybody’s opinion and pulls people together.” The two leaders, he continues, “are not afraid of smart people. You’ve seen plenty of chairmen who are and therefore clamp down on people talking.”

Sometimes it is hard to get the voluble Madaleno to stop talking – as friends and foes will gently note. And sometimes Madaleno’s aggressiveness meets blowback, like the time this spring when he urged Hogan to restrict state-funded travel to Indiana after the Hoosier State enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In a well-publicized letter to Hogan, Madaleno, who is openly gay and was a key player in the fight to bring marriage equality to Maryland, argued that the Indiana law could enable a business or restaurant to refuse service to Madaleno’s family, because he is married to a man, or to first lady Yumi Hogan, because she previously had been divorced. Hogan’s camp angrily dismissed Madaleno’s move as a political stunt.

More recently, Madaleno was one of several dozen Democratic lawmakers urging Hogan to say publicly whether he would seek to defund Planned Parenthood, as Republicans in Congress are attempting to do. The governor did not take the bait.

Kasemeyer concedes that there occasionally are times he’d like to see Madaleno “pick and choose his battles [more] carefully” and keep the lines of communication with the Hogan administration open. But he also says there’s no denying Madaleno’s passion for his beliefs. And he expresses confidence that the B&T committee’s overall relationship with the administration is not affected by Madaleno’s aggressive criticisms of Hogan.

Hogan’s press office did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Pat Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, calls Madaleno “a rising star” who will help Democrats build the case against the governor.

“There are very few people who understand the state’s budgets and its impact on real people as he does and there are even fewer who can make those budget issues make sense to ordinary people,” Murray says. “He’s a great messenger for the party on the impact of the state’s budget on ordinary Marylanders.”

Madaleno has certainly been at it a long time. He was hired as a budget analyst for the House Appropriations Committee in the early 1990’s by then-Chairman Buzz Ryan (D) and continued to serve when Del. Pete Rawlings (D) took over. Madaleno says he learned how to explain complex fiscal issues in an understandable way “because that’s what I was paid to do.”

In the mid-1990’s, then-Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan (D) added Madaleno to his State House lobbying team. Montgomery was becoming aggressive about seeking state aid for the first time, and Madaleno was an integral part of that effort.

In 2002, Madaleno ran for the House of Delegates in District 18, which takes in Kensington, Wheaton and parts of Silver Spring. He had long dreamed about a political career, but never imagined an openly gay person could be accepted in politics.

But his father convinced him that if he was going to complain about what was broken in politics, he had no excuse not to run. Mentors like Duncan and Chris Van Hollen and Sharon Grosfeld cheered his decision. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate.

The legislature’s criticism of Hogan is likely to increase as the term progresses. Both Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch (D) have told their troops they plan to be more aggressive. In the House, a large and opinionated freshman class is starting to find its voice.

But Madaleno will continue to play a prominent – and unique – role. Where will it take him?

A dozen years ago, another Montgomery County lawmaker, then-Del. Peter Franchot (D), rose from relative obscurity to become the leading legislative critic of the new Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich. Franchot parlayed that effort into a successful run for comptroller in 2006 (where now, ironically, he is Hogan’s leading Democratic ally).

So could history repeat itself with Madaleno? He is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for higher office – and in fact, he thought briefly of running for Van Hollen’s congressional seat this year before deferring to his friend, state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D).

Madaleno just turned 50. He has a daughter in middle school and a son in elementary school, so he is reluctant to ponder an all-consuming campaign at this stage of life. His husband, Mark Hodge, a former pediatric nurse, works for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, and Madaleno has promised not to run for county executive as long as Hodge enjoys his job there.

“I love the Senate,” Madaleno says. “I see possibilities for growth within the Senate. So we’ll see what happens.”

But Madaleno confesses to being caught up occasionally in the political parlor games. “Keep yourself in a position so that when the ‘Great Mentioner’ mentions, she mentions you,” Madaleno says.

But rather than plot his next political move, Madaleno prefers to see his own career in the context of the great strides society has made in the past two decades.

“I never thought all of this would happen,” he says. “I have a husband. I have children. I’m a state senator. I’ve stood in the governor’s house, not as an outcast, but as part of the fabric of this state. These are dreams that I had that I never thought would happen.”

Additional reporting by Karina Shedrofsky.

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.