Josh Kurtz: The Biggest Political Mistakes of 2015

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Happy New Year! And welcome back!

Before we plunge into this important political year – the General Assembly session is just a week away, and the primaries are in less than four months – let’s take one last look back at 2015 and the biggest political mistakes in Maryland.

In our estimation, there was one whopper of a mistake – actually a series of mistakes over one protracted, painful period of days, which we’ll detail at the very end of the column.

But first, let’s look at some of the mistakes surrounding last year’s General Assembly session, which were inevitable considering there was a new Republican governor squaring off against a Democratic legislature. These included:

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) shortchanging several school districts – while boasting of record-setting education funding. School funding has become the third rail of Maryland politics – not something to be messed with. Yet Hogan has. And yet…

Democrats were unable to capitalize politically because they couldn’t articulate a snappy message or counterargument. Surely someone could have come up with a better mantra than simply chanting, “GCEI, GCEI, GCEI.”

Another mistake from the session had multiple layers:

Hogan refusing to declare victory on a compromise spending plan with just days to go and instead submitting another supplemental budget. This led to…

House Speaker Mike Busch (D) refusing to introduce and read across the desk Hogan’s second supplemental budget. Which led to this ham-handed move:

Hogan zapping $2 million in funding for the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – in Busch’s district.

But Democrats made other mistakes as Hogan’s popularity mounted. Among them:

State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D) name-checking Yumi Hogan as he tried to get the Governor to ban state-funded travel to Indiana. Comparing Mrs. Hogan’s status as a former divorcee to the discrimination faced by the LGBT community was a stretch – and it infuriated the Governor.

Though this represented something of a sideshow, Del. Jay Jalisi (D) always seemed to be in hot water throughout the session, and it remains to be seen whether the freshman Baltimore County lawmaker can ever recover.

Beyond the session, there were these classic mistakes in Maryland politics:

Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter. Frederick County councilman threatens to sue the Frederick News-Post for, uh, using his name. In a news story. And if that isn’t enough, he later made lewd comments about two fellow elected officials.

John Delaney’s puzzling votes. As he ponders a 2018 campaign for governor, the second-term Democratic congressman mystified liberals by voting with Republicans for school choice in Washington, D.C., for limits on the number of Syrian refugees that can enter the U.S., and for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that organized labor hates.

Rushern Baker and the giant tax hike. In the county with the highest real estate foreclosure rate, the Prince George’s County Executive proposed a 15 percent hike in county property taxes to fund public schools – without first consulting the County Council or selling the plan in the community. He did ultimately get some extra funding out of the Council, but not nearly the amount he was seeking. And while it was a noble effort, voters seem to be buying the Hogan tax cut recipe these days, so Baker’s proposed tax hike will no doubt be hung around his neck by political opponents.

Steve Schuh, off balance. In 2015, the new and highly-touted Anne Arundel County Executive bungled the issue of medical marijuana regulation in his county, insulted high school students, and warred frequently with fellow Republicans on the County Council, falling short of his goal - which seemed certain to pass - of enacting a big tax cut.

Banana Republic? Maryland brought back paper ballots. The Board of Public Works killed a contract to provide voters with information about the new voting system. And the same frequently-criticized management team has been running the State Board of Elections for two decades. Anyone truly confident that this year’s elections will go smoothly?

Getting hot over AC. Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) made a big political show of grilling Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) over installation of air conditioning in aging County schools. But The Baltimore Sun wrote an editorial that praised the County government’s efforts and took the Dynamic Duo to task for “myopically jumping on a hot issue (so to speak) and ignoring the broader and very real problems of Baltimore County's school building stock.” 

Barry Glassman’s U.S. Senate trial balloon. The news that the first-year Harford County Executive is pondering a run for the Republican Senate nomination was leaked clumsily, and if there has been any follow-up, there isn’t much evidence of it.

A 2014 mistake comes home to roost in 2015. Maryland Chamber of Commerce President Brien Poffenberger, who seemed out of his depth, resigned after just a year on the job.

Cathy on the spot. Baltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins (D) forced through a spot zoning change to allow a proposed outlet mall near White Marsh – which engendered so much opposition it is now being taken to referendum.

Martin O’Malley underestimating Bernie Sanders – and overestimating the national media’s ability to multitask. Once the Donald Trump Show sucked all the oxygen out of the room, it was inevitable that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination would be reduced, in the media’s eyes, to a two-person contest. And O’Malley wound up not being one of them.

New Republican majority on the Montgomery County Board of Elections tried to move early voting centers from Democratic-performing neighborhoods to more rural, conservative areas. Handed Democrats an issue coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and helped bring the national narrative to Maryland that Dems want – that Republicans can't be trusted with your voting rights...

Ken Holt. Speaking of Republicans handing Dems an issue, the Secretary of Housing and Community Development suggested that some inner city moms might deliberately be exposing their kids to lead paint, riling up the Dems’ political base (African-Americans) and donor base (trial lawyers). And Holt, never considered the brightest guy in state politics, further marginalized himself.

Valerie Ervin for Congress. Former Montgomery Councilwoman, a strong candidate on paper, started her bid for the open 8th district seat late, and the campaign never got off the ground.

$220,000 lighter. Former Prince George’s Councilwoman Ingrid Turner (D) dropped $220,000 on an ill-advised bid for Congress. No one expects her to finish higher than fifth in the 4th district Democratic primary.

Good Sschools, bad management. Montgomery County Board of Education botched the departure of Superintendent Joshua Starr, scared off preferred replacement. Toughest job in the state?

Democratic state senators hosted fundraisers for Republicans. The word went out in late 2015: Next week, Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D) will be the star attraction at a fundraiser for the three Republicans on his committee, while Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Bobby Zirkin (D) is headlining two separate fundraisers, one for Sen. Wayne Norman (R) and  one for two of the three other Republicans on his committee. Zirkin, of course, also endorsed Republican Allan Kittleman for Howard County Executive in 2014. Bipartisanship will only take you so far – especially when the partisan divisions in Annapolis are only going to get wider this year.

With friends like these…Hogan killed the Red Line, withheld Baltimore City school money, and then said he wants to help the city.

But the biggest mistake of all…

The Incredible Shrinking Mayor. Baltimore City’s problems have been festering for decades; they should not all be placed at Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s feet. And the unrest that gripped the city in the wake of the Freddie Gray killing could have happened under any mayor. But Rawlings-Blake’s performance during the crisis was so underwhelming, it obliterates the good she had done as mayor – and serves as a reminder that she has a tin ear politically and was never in sync with the streets. Last March she was considered a viable contender to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D); now she’s a lame duck. Politics is a cruel game.

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.