Josh Kurtz: Prince George’s Agonistes

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Maryland may be getting national attention now that the legislature has, at long last, passed a same-sex marriage bill.

But the storylines leading up to the House and Senate votes, and the political fallout to come, are uniquely local.

There are so many things to contemplate, beyond the obvious question of how the vote may affect Gov. Martin O‘Malley‘s (D) national ambitions:

• Del. John Bohannon’s (D) public agonizing over the bill, leading to his last-minute text message to House Speaker Mike Busch (D) that he would in fact support it -- even as his brother-in-law, state Sen. Roy Dyson (D), once again opposed it. Bohannon will have to campaign extra hard in 2014.

• The very public, almost theatrical opposition of lawmakers running for, or preparing to run for, higher office, like state Sens. Anthony Muse (D) and David Brinkley (R ) and Bryan Simonaire (R ).

• Indicted Del. Tiffany Alston’s (D) search for redemption.

• The surprising support from Republican Dels. Wade Kach and Robert Costa (prompting a rumor that Costa, known for the “We Speak Martini Here” neon sign in his legislative office, might switch parties).

• State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), ever the constitutional scholar, brilliantly defending the bill on the Senate floor.

• Senate President Mike Miller’s (D) desire to just get it over with.

• The eye-raising fact that all the African-American senators from Prince George’s County voted against it, while all the black senators from Baltimore voted for it (could it be because most of the city senators’ districts contain significant chunks of white population?).

• The pure and poignant emotion of the legislature’s openly gay members following the House and Senate votes.

On that last point, you have to wonder whether interpersonal relationships in Annapolis have been irrevocably altered following these two razor-thin votes. For gay lawmakers, half of their colleagues have just publicly declared their willingness to consign them to second-class status. That’s pretty heavy -- a lot more visceral than just voting against someone’s bill.

But for all the subplots, one of the most significant things about the passage of gay marriage -- besides the new law itself and the possible referendum fight to follow -- was it provided a reminder of just how difficult this legislative session and the next few months are going to be for Prince George’s County, in both a political sense and a karmic sense.

It may not be obvious, it may sound illogical, but you read it here first. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that an array of Prince George’s powerbrokers and provocateurs -- including some politicians, ministers and business leaders -- will soon begin re-airing the familiar grievance that the state’s Democratic establishment isn’t doing enough to help the county and is taking African-American voters for granted.

At the same time that O’Malley was making the same-sex marriage bill one of his top priorities of the legislative session, riling up Prince George’s ministers and putting the fear of God into many county lawmakers as a consequence, so to speak, Mike Miller was trying to hijack funding for a new Prince George’s hospital to ensure that slots come to the county.

Meanwhile, County Executive Rushern Baker (D) is bravely trying to stop O’Malley’s plan to shift significant teacher pension costs back to the counties. But his late bid to put a high-end casino at National Harbor is producing agita in a variety of corners. And if that’s not enough, Muse’s long-shot U.S. Senate bid, which will get substantial support in Prince George’s and probably no place else, is largely being ignored by the political establishment.

All these developments, interrelated in a not altogether obvious way, are a recipe for fear and resentment in the county.

On gay marriage, it wasn’t just that there was widespread opposition in Prince George’s.
It was that O’Malley pushed it so hard, putting ministers and their parishioners and political allies on the defensive, and in the uncomfortable position of opposing a measure that gay rights advocates see as the latest civil rights crusade.

It’s one thing for politicians to be for gay marriage, in the critics’ view; it’s another to make it such a priority that, at a time when the state is facing so many problems, it becomes the first major piece of legislation to emerge from Annapolis this year. Ministers are already on the warpath, and one minister -- Muse -- is particularly aggrieved because his Senate candidacy is getting so little traction.

It took a lot of courage for Baker and the other black supporters from Prince George’s to get behind the marriage equality bill. But Baker has his hands full: Other counties are, of course, mobilizing to defeat or mitigate O’Malley’s pension plan. But there’s little denying that it would devastate the exchequer in Prince George’s more than it would in most other jurisdictions.

At the same time, Baker and the Prince George’s legislators must deal with the prospect of Miller trying to tie up hospital money in exchange for their support for slots in the county. Miller’s close ally -- top-earning lobbyist Gerry Evans -- is representing the owners of the struggling Rosecroft race track, and Miller seems to favor putting slots at Rosecroft.

Baker is being resolute about fighting the hospital-slots link, and this will be a test of his leadership in a battle against the wiliest legislative practitioner of them all. Which is why his very recent proposal to put slots at the gleaming National Harbor development, rather than at Rosecroft, which looks like it hasn’t had a paint job since 1958, is so fascinating -- and a potential game changer.

Here is a guy who has opposed slots in Maryland for most of his political career -- a position that put him in sync with many other Prince George’s pols. But slots revenue seems like a magic elixir to so many policymakers these days, and Baker realizes that much of his ambitious agenda is in jeopardy if he doesn’t find more money -- and fast.

In the “Truman Show” spiffy-ness of National Harbor, which already looks a lot like Las Vegas, Baker at least has an attractive site to promote full-scale gaming operations -- maybe the most attractive and logical site in the state.

But Baker floated his proposal late in the game, relative to the legislative session. While he’s appealing to Prince George’s voters’ aspirations to bring the best of the best to the county, he doesn’t have a lot of time to build public support, or support in Annapolis, for the project.

It’s safe to assume that many Prince George’s voters still oppose gambling in the county. Mike Miller’s agenda with respect to the National Harbor scenario is still largely unknown. House members don’t have a huge appetite to expand gambling anywhere, no matter how much they admire Baker. The Washington Post editorial board, usually one of Baker’s biggest cheerleaders, is dead set against his proposal.

It isn’t in Baker’s nature to rail against the political forces arrayed against Prince George’s. But it’s easy to see others -- Muse and Wayne Curry, Baker’s predecessor and mentor, come to mind -- picking up the mantle.

African-American leaders, and Prince Georgians specifically, complain that they’re taken for granted by the state Democratic establishment often enough -- and then threaten to withhold support for Democratic candidates. It may sound a little like the boy who cried wolf, but it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be consequences for the party eventually (in fact, it would be very interesting to hear what Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown has to say on the matter).

Right now, however, you can’t really argue that Prince George’s is being ignored. In fact, it’s in the crucible. It isn’t hyperbole to say how its leaders handle the crises of the next few weeks -- and how state leaders treat them -- may say a lot about Maryland’s political future.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Editor’s Note: Some founders of Center Maryland are involved in the National Harbor project.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Annapolis Bits

A Grown-up David in a World of Juvenile Goliaths

Rich Man, Poor Campaign?

The Brawl We Won’t Be Seeing Here (Plus: Women Emerge in Maryland)

Free Shot

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?

O’Malley and the Mod Squad
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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.