Laslo Boyd: In Other News…

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The big political story this week is tonight’s Democratic Gubernatorial Debate between Anthony Brown, Doug Gansler, and Heather Mizeur.

For those closely following the race for governor, a live, televised debate among all the candidates is a big deal. However, I’m just not sure how many people are paying attention to the election. So, as you read through the commentary tomorrow about the debate, check to see how many viewers tuned in.

And, off past experience, viewership for the first debate will surely exceed that for the second.  At this point, despite earlier promises, it doesn’t look like there will be a third televised event.  Anthony Brown has been widely criticized for apparently ducking a third televised debate, but that approach has characterized his entire campaign.

Debates have become something of a staple of American politics, but they are not often decisive. Candidates have gotten really skilled at avoiding the “Big Mistake” that turns around an election. What you tend to get are short campaign speeches regardless of the questions. On the other hand, candidates who are behind in a race may decide to take risks in the hope of provoking a “Big Mistake.”

I assume Anthony Brown will play it safe tonight and Doug Gansler will take some risks. Heather Mizeur has to figure out how to get attention in front of the largest audience she will have in the campaign without getting muddied in the process. Unless there is a surprise that becomes tomorrow’s lead story, the election will have been relatively unaffected by tonight’s debate.

Here’s the other point that has the potential to be significant tonight. The moderator, David Gregory, brings a high national profile but not a lot of direct experience with Maryland politics. The three panelists, two from News4 television and one from the Washington Post, come from media outlets that, frankly, often don’t do a great job of covering Maryland because of limited resources. As always with debates like these, many will be looking to see how probing their questions will be.

Meanwhile, for people planning to tune in to other channels tonight, there are other developments, in both political and ordinary life. Brian Frosh, the State Senator from Montgomery County running for Attorney General, is still trying to get voters to understand that his opponent is not U.S. Senator Ben Cardin.

Significantly, Frosh picked up the endorsement of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker last week.  He has put together a formidable array of supporters who recognize the enormous “qualifications gap” that exists in this race. Frosh’s main opponent, Delegate Jon Cardin, continues to rely heavily on his last name.

There are several interesting contested races for the General Assembly as well. For challengers, the twin problems are the likelihood of low turnout and of negligible media coverage of the races. The Post and Sun may endorse in those contested races, but are unlikely to provide any substantial coverage. Those realities tend to favor incumbents.

And in Baltimore, last week, torrential rains washed away a street that residents had been warning was at risk.  Will that become a “Jane Byrne” movement for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake? Byrne’s tenure as Mayor of Chicago was ended by her failure to get the streets plowed after a big snowstorm. The specific issue, of course, was a metaphor for the larger issue of perceived non-responsiveness.

Rawlings-Blake is probably safe unless a well-financed and skilled opponent is able to make the street collapse part of a larger narrative of failed leadership.  Being mayor of a large, older city is one of the toughest jobs around.  Rawlings-Blake has certainly done many things well. But she seems to lose focus at times and doesn’t always give pressing issues the attention they deserve. She has few of the skills of mayors who made their reputations by a hands-on approach to leading a city.

We are also nearing the end of the school year. For universities, that means that graduates will soon have to enter what is still a difficult job market.

For two city institutions, it signals the end of successful tenures for their presidents. Fred Lazarus has headed the Maryland Institute College of Art for an astonishing 35 years, has transformed MICA into an arts school with a national reputation, and has helped revitalized the Mid-Town/Mount Royal section of the City.

The University of Baltimore’s Bob Bogomolny has a similar track record after 12 years at the helm of his university. His accomplishments are particularly impressive in that he followed H. Mebane Turner, who had been UB’s President for 33 years and was clearly a tough act to follow.

These three individuals had the rare qualities to be leaders of educational institutions who also had a flare for real estate development.  The corridor that encompasses MICA and UB has a dramatically different look than it did before Lazarus, Turner, and Bogomolny came on the scene.  And as others in that area have testified, they all knew how to work with and create partnerships that benefitted a broader community.

The development of the Mid-Town/Mount Royal area has some important lessons for urban centers.  Having major institutional anchors is a key ingredient of success.  If you look at West Philadelphia and the impact of the University of Pennsylvania and of Drexel Institute, you seem an even larger scale example.  What the University of Maryland Baltimore is doing in its neighborhood may well be more important than the efforts of the City and various foundations to build up the West Side.  At very least, major institutions such as universities have to be counted as critical partners in any effort.

Additionally, the impact of strong decisive leadership is clear in all of these examples.   None of the advances I have described came quickly or easily. They resulted from a combination of factors, of which strong leadership was an essential ingredient.

This point gets me back to the race for governor.  The ability and vision of the Chief Executive of Maryland matter enormously to what happens in the state.  While the formal powers are considerable, they provide no guarantee of success.  Elections are about giving voters the opportunity to assess the qualities of various candidates.  The more exposure of those candidates, the more information that is available, the greater the likelihood that voters will be able to make informed judgments.

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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.