What’s the matter with Maryland Democrats?

Has it been too easy for too many years?  Is it too hard to run against an incumbent Republican Governor who is personally popular?  Is it too difficult to support a political outsider who has stumbled at the start of his campaign?

Or is the real question whether Maryland really isn’t as much of a blue state as people have long asserted.

While lots of other states are talking about a blue wave that is coming in the November Election, Maryland Democrats seem to be in a daze about their prospects this fall.

In Pennsylvania for example, there’s an army of young, first time candidates, many of them women, running to unseat entrenched Republicans in suburban districts outside Philadelphia.  Grass roots organizations are sprouting all over the place.  Democrats are on track to reclaim four or five congressional seats.  The incumbent Democratic Governor and U.S. Senator have double digit leads over their Republican challengers in every poll.

Let me remind you that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in the 2016 Presidential election.  Rather that sulking or giving up, citizens, many of them new to politics, have become energized in a way not seen in mid-term elections in decades.  Starting with a small group of friends, my wife and I created a PAC and have raised nearly $200,00o to support candidates running for the state legislature.  What’s most significant about that accomplishment is that it is but one of many similar efforts.

Yet, most of the public statements about the Maryland gubernatorial race sound as if Democrats have thrown in the towel.  If you look beyond the superficial assessments of the campaign, there should be sufficient  grounds for working hard to defeat Larry Hogan for reelection rather than the defeatist attitude that so many are exhibiting.

Start with the polls.   Hogan is personally liked by voters, but they are not particularly supportive of the policies he backs.  By contrast, the campaign proposals offered by Democratic candidate Ben Jealous have much higher levels of popular approval.

Hogan has more money and has already gone on TV, but recent elections around the nation demonstrate that having the most money is not always decisive.  Jealous does need to get his message out, including critiquing Hogan’s record.  To do that, Democrats need to step up and give financial support to his campaign rather than acting as if Hogan’s re-election is inevitable.

Right now, Hogan is, somewhat perversely, benefitting from not being as awful as Donald Trump.  What an incredibly low bar.  He has selectively criticized some of this admintration’s actions while remaining silent on many others that have damaged the state that he governs.

Hogan, moreover, sometimes sheds the moderate skin that he has worked so hard to wear during the campaign.  For example, he has stumped in Pennsylvania for Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, who could well have garnered the endorsement of the Neanderthal Party as well. On the campaign trail recently, Wagner repeated an extremist trope comparing immigrants to raccoons that had invaded someone’s house.  He has consistently undercut efforts to adequately fund public education, has stage managed bills in the Republican-controlled state senate to reduce a woman’s right to make decisions about her personal health and is an avid supporter of the NRA.

And he is Larry Hogan’s pal.  Similarly, in case you missed it, Hogan recently told reporters that one of his closest friends in the Republican Governor’s Association was Mike Pence.  Draw your own conclusions.

While I realize that the Jealous campaign has committed some amateurish mistakes, Hogan is hardly invulnerable.  Moreover,if Democrats don’t get their act together and rally to the support of Jealous, a lot of down ballot candidates will be jeopardized as well.

To take two examples, if Calvin Ball in Howard County and Johnny Olszewski in Baltimore County are to win their races, they will need a strong turnout for the top of the ticket.  Similarly, holding onto enough Democrats seats in the General Assembly to be able to override vetoes if Hogan does get re-elected requires much more energy than Democrats have exhibited so far.

There will always be people who think the challenge is too hard or that the nominee is too far from perfect.  And of course there are a few members of the Opportunist Wing of the Democratic Party who see their future more closely aligned with Hogan’s.  But all of that is really beside the point.

As Jason Waskey pointed out in a recent essay for Maryland Matters, the numbers still favor a Democrat.  The challenge is to put in the work needed to elect Jealous rather than carp on the sidelines or paint Hogan as better than he is.  There’s plenty of time if that time is used effectively.  Democrats in the rest of the country see a huge opportunity this year.  What’s the matter with Maryland?

 

Elections have consequences

 

Maybe it’s the extreme weather we’ve had this summer.  Maybe it’s too early to expect voters to pay attention to an election three months in the future.  Maybe it’s a case of political amnesia.   Whatever the reason, some Maryland Democrats are acting as if they don’t realize or don’t even care that the gubernatorial election in November will have major repercussions for the party and the state.

In 2014 when Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor and in 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency, a major contributory factor was the number of Democrats who failed to vote because they had found flaws with the party’s nominee.  They somehow rationalized that it really didn’t matter all that much if  first Hogan and later Trump was elected.  While it is true that both Anthony Brown and Hillary Clinton ran deeply flawed campaigns, their electoral defeats had real consequences for Maryland and for the United States.

Yet we are already seeing signs of that malady peculiar to Democrats, that a  candidate has to be “perfect” to receive the backing of the purists in the party.  Some supporters of Bernie Sanders, among others, saw Clinton as too tainted to deserve their vote.  Is Ben Jealous running the risk of a similar defection from old line Democrats?

Is Jealous too liberal or too progressive for some Democrats?  While that is the inverse of the challenge Clinton encountered, it’s the same dynamic.  Jealous is still a relative outsider to Maryland politics despite his win in the May primary.  He has neither a geographical nor institutional base.  From that perspective, a major goal of his campaign has to be to “introduce” him to more Democratic voters than he was able to reach in the primary.

A more serious problem is that some Democrats in Blue Maryland are actually much more conservative than the stereotypes of the State might suggest.  Many of them live outside of Central Maryland.  Some are former office holders looking to gain a little attention.  Even if you take account of these more nominal Democrats, like the group that recently endorsed Hogan, there are more than enough others in the party to elect Jealous if only they show up in November.

Some of the early commentary has pointed to Hogan’s popularity as a barrier Jealous will be unlikely to surmount.  Yet, all of the polling has concluded Hogan’s personal favorability is significantly higher than support for his re-election.

Hogan has worked recently to put more distance between himself and Trump.  And it is certainly true that Hogan is very different than the president.  A campaign that tries to argue a close connection won’t be credible and will fail.  On the other hand, Democratic turnout in the fall is likely to increase merely because of Trump’s erratic behavior without Jealous having to make the connection explicit.

In a state that has consistently voted Democratic in national elections, Jealous should have at least a slight home field advantage.  As popular as Hogan is, his record of accomplishments is very thin.  He has made a few popular moves, such as cutting tolls.  For those living in Republican regions, his decision to eliminate the Red Line in Baltimore has helped secure his base, but it certainly doesn’t help him in other parts of the state.  Moreover, despite his claim that Maryland is “now open for business”, the State’s business climate ranking was recently downgraded.

Can Jealous mobilize a coalition of Democratic voters that would oppose Hogan on policy grounds?  The national trends seem to be heavily Democratic, with evidence of a significant energy and enthusiasm advantage.  Moreover, the gender gap fueled by Trump’s boorishness is also likely to benefit Jealous.

A major unknown is whether Marylanders are willing to get past race and elect an African-American to statewide office.  The historical record is not encouraging on that count, but, maybe, this will be the year that strong turnout, particularly among women, produces a historical outcome long overdue.  My conclusion, contrary to much of the current conventional wisdom, is that Jealous has a very good chance to win in November.

 

 

Stat of the Day

 

The question: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Trump handled his press conference with Putin? The results: Astonishing.

Political polarization in the United States has reached an extreme level, perhaps unprecedented in our history. Democrats and Republicans see everything differently, with little or no overlap. Even matters that in normal times would be considered facts rather than opinions evoke radically different responses.

Donald Trump, in his post-summit press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, astonished many observers by apparently siding with the Russian dictator over his own intelligence agencies. Yet, somehow Republicans took that surrealistic moment in stride, with 79% of them approving of his performance that day. The corresponding Democratic level of support was 7%.

How can there be that wide a gulf among Americans who share many qualities, though not party identification?   The answer might be that neither group paid much attention to what Trump did or said, but merely held to their pre-existing views about him.  If that interpretation is correct, it suggests that there is no prospect of dialogue, of political compromise, of healing the rift that is tearing the country apart.

Both parties can accuse each other of bad faith and retreat to their respective corners.  After all, we’re just talking about “opinions”, not about reality, right?

Isn’t it too bad that we can’t find some other way to evaluate the President’s actions in Helsinki?

Wait.  Maybe we can.  In that same survey, Independents by almost two to one disapproved of Trump’s press conference performance.

How about the substance of what he said in Helsinki?  Is it possible to look at his actions through something other than a purely political lens?  It turns out, in fact, that there are multiple organizations looking at the impact of Trump’s cozying up to Putin in terms of national security and defense.

The overwhelming response by America’s European allies was a combination of dismay and horror at Trump’s off-the-rails diatribe.  He has been badmouthing NATO, the G-7 and European countries, particularly Germany, for some time with no apparent strategic purpose. But the contrast of his love fest with Putin though not entirely surprising,  was most assuredly alarming.

Trump in Helsinki further damaged vital relationships with long-standing allies.  That’s not opinion.

But the reaction of NATO partners may not even have been the most significant indictment of Trump’s remarks.  Rather, the almost unanimous denial of his assertions and numerous efforts to correct the record came immediately from the heads of America’s intelligence agencies.  Despite the fact that Trump has been briefed on numerous occasions about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, he apparently continues to put more stock in Putin’s denials.

The biggest problem going forward is that all our national intelligence indicates that Putin is intent on even more meddling in the 2018 elections.  Even if Trump’s fragile ego prevents him from acknowledging the proven realities of what happened in 2016, his unwillingness to take the steps necessary to prevent a repetition in this year’s election is extremely ominous.

And yet Republicans members of Congress say very little and do absolutely nothing.  Some claim, under cover of anonymity, that they are concerned.  Unfortunately, the total absence of a spine prevents them from coming into the light of day to say anything.

And as the stunning fact that 79% of Republicans profess to be fine with his pro-Russia posture demonstrates, he is unlikely to pay a political price for behavior that, at very least, is an abdication of his responsibility to safeguard the national interest.

I have come to understand some of the explanations for why Trump’s base has continued to support him even though I find the reasons distressing.  The convoluted and contradictory efforts of Trump and his White House staff to rationalize the summit don’t seem to have affected either his base or Congressional Republicans.

All of these realities underscore what perilous times we live in.  As Trump keeps pushing back against the laws, norms and guideposts that are essential to a democratic system, it seems that for his supporters there is no action that goes too far.

Absent any hope that Republicans will ever put country before party, it’s more essential than ever that all citizens who are appalled by the threat that Trump presents to our political system come out to vote in November.  No excuses.  No rain delays.  No waiting for the perfect candidate.

There are, however, a couple of encouraging notes with respect to the fall 2018 election.  The first is that Democrats seem energized at the local level and have a lot of really good candidates, many of them women. The second is that, just as some Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, I’m convinced some Republicans, maybe not a lot, but perhaps enough to help on the margins, won’t be able to stomach pushing a lever for the Party of Trump in 2018.

Finally, I think Trump is planning to help this fall.  Inviting Vladimir Putin to the White House before the election may make Trump feel like a world leader, but the optics for domestic politics are likely to be counterproductive.  Similarly, his plan to have a massively expensive military parade to massage his ego–and I suspect he’ll think it’s a good idea to do the parade when Putin is in town–should help boost Democratic turnout.

For those of you who think I see only  the gloomy side, these latter observations are my effort to find hope in the midst of darkness.

 

Holding Back the Darkness

 

These are the times, Thomas Paine wrote in December 1776, that try men’s souls. The Revolutionary War was in its early stages, the outcome far from certain and the stakes incredibly high. Sound familiar?

A lot is going badly right now for people in the United States who care about the Constitution, who are concerned about the rights of others and who see a noble experiment in democracy at jeopardy. This is not the first stage of fascism unfolding in the United States; we are further down the road than that.

Much of the nation’s attention was focused for several days on the Trump Administration’s policy to separate children from their families when they come to the border seeking asylum.  The political outrage in response to that policy seemed to force the President to back down publicly, but, at this point, it’s not at all clear that any children and families are actually being reunited.  Rather, confusion is reigning even as Trump continues to spew forth vile rhetoric and outrageous lies about immigrants.

Protest demonstrations are scheduled all over the country this weekend, but events have yet again overtaken that story.  It’s not that the separation policy is any less bad than it was.  Rather, more horrors have rained down on our hopes for the future.  The Supreme Court in a series of highly partisan 5-4 decisions has done exactly what the Republican Party continues to do, defer to Trump’s madness and refuse to exert any independence.

The worst one may have been their decision to uphold his Muslim ban.  Don’t even try to sugarcoat it as something other than that.  Chief Justice John Roberts, at his most obsequious, decided that the Court didn’t need to take into account the words from Trump’s tweets in judging the intentions of the ban.  Rejecting what was staring them in the face, Roberts and four conservative colleagues decided that deference to executive authority was a higher value than individual rights or equality under the law.

The Court, again by 5-4, dealt a severe blow to labor unions by concluding that they could not collect dues from non-members even though those individuals benefitted from the union’s negotiations.  They also nullified a state law requiring anti-abortion clinics to share information about options available to the women in their clinics.

And then there were the long-awaiting decisions on a series of gerrymandering cases.  The five-member majority may have sustained personal bodily injury in their efforts to duck from addressing the important issues raised in these cases.  Rather, they left standing state districting decisions that were clearly driven by partisan motivations and missed a chance to increase both confidence in and fairness of our electoral system.

All of that is incredibly bad news. But, as we have come to learn, it can always get worse.  On Wednesday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who sometimes has been the swing vote on the Court, announced his imminent retirement.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will be best remembered in history books for having stolen a Supreme Court nomination from Barack Obama, was quick to guarantee that a Trump appointee would be confirmed by the fall.

What’s at risk after a Neil Gorsuch-conservative is added to the current court?  The 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, is in grave danger.  This court’s majority cares nothing about precedent and has constantly demonstrated a willingness to impose its conservative ideology onto its decisions.  The Obergefell decision on gay marriage is likely to be threatened as well.  Count on more deference to presidential authority.  Count on less interest in protecting individual rights.

These are indeed the times that try men’s and women’s souls.  As awful as the first year and a half of the Trump presidency has been, the times ahead are almost certainly going to be worse.  If you aren’t truly worried about the risks to our democratic system as a result of having a president who is only interested in himself and perhaps his friends, you either haven’t been paying attention or you really  don’t care about American democracy.

For those of us who do care, what’s to be done?  Speaking out and offering encouragement to other like-minded citizens is important, but not nearly enough.

First, it is critical that Democrats regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall election.  There’s been a lot of chatter about a “blue wave”, but it won’t happen unless people vote, work for candidates running to replace Republicans and contribute money to their campaigns.

It would be great to win back the U.S. Senate as well, but the numbers there are more daunting.

Second, work to regain control of state governments from Republicans, in both the legislature and the governor’s office.  Winning the U.S. House of Representatives would enable Democrats to stop the worst actions of the Trump administration, but winning back state governments will allow democracy to flourish while the national fight goes on.

These are not abstract suggestions.  I know lots of people who are making more and larger political donations than they ever have before.  That’s what it is going to take.  Don’t be sorry after the election that you didn’t do enough.  In Pennsylvania, with a group of friends, we have raised nearly $100,000 to support Democrats running to retake State House seats currently held by Republicans.  In our efforts, we have discovered numerous other groups working for the same objective.

2018 has to be a year of urgency, not complacency.  It has to be a year of action, not just talk.  It has to be a year in which everyone who cares about the future of the country stretches, does more than they thought they could.    Don’t be a bystander in a year that will keep testing our resolve and commitment and our souls.

Zero Tolerance

 

If you are still a Trump supporter, go away.  Don’t write.  Don’t call.  And certainly don’t tweet.

I can understand, sort of, how you might have voted for him in 2016, but I can’t even vaguely comprehend after all that he has done since he became president how you can still back him.  I’m not even talking about policy decisions that I personally find abhorrent.  Americans disagree on the proper role for government and how best to deal with specific issues.  Those are legitimate differences of opinion.

What we are facing with President Trump is the gravest threat to our political system since the Civil War.  He has no respect for the U.S. Constitution, the institutions of government that have served us well since the earliest days of the Republic, or the norms that have kept politics within mostly reasonable boundaries.

How can you turn a blind eye to his attacks on democracy?  How can you be so indifferent to his constant lies?   How can you look the other way as he trashes the most basic notions of civility?

A recent poll cited by the New York Times suggests that Trump backers are sticking with him in part because they believe the criticisms of him are so extreme and over-the-top.  That might be a more credible claim if it weren’t for the fact that a majority of his supporters also believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese and other demonstrably false assertions made by the Liar King.

I watched on social media as his inhumane policy of separating children from their families at the U.S. border was defended by people who mouthed the oft-repeated but easily discredited claims of Administration representatives.  When Trump backpedaled under the backlash of indignation by a broad cross-section of Americans, those same voices were notably silent.

Some Republicans joined Democrats in pushing back against the outrageous actions perpetrated by this Administration.  A broad array of religious leaders joined the outcry as did the heads of many foreign governments.  However, a number of people and organizations continued to pretend nothing had happened.

That inaction gets me to the core point that I want to make.  There is no such thing as neutrality with this president.  The most striking evidence of this is the total capitulation of the Republican Party to a “leader” pursuing policies that are totally antithetical to everything the party believed in before Trump.  There isn’t a spine to be seen in what was once a serious political party.

We as a nation are better off when there are two responsible parties disagreeing and competing over fundamental ideas.  While it hasn’t always been that way in our history, some of the most productive periods have come through the give-and-take of the two parties.  Now, we have descended into tribal warfare.  Say what you want about the challenges facing the Democratic Party, that struggle is still within the normal boundaries of politics.

You’ve heard the litany already.  Trump prefers brutal dictators to long-standing democratic allies.  He has no real policy beliefs other than a desire to destroy whatever came before him, especially if it had Obama’s name attached to it.  He is playing his working class supporters for suckers by further enriching the wealthiest 1%.  His administration is well on its way to being the most corrupt in our history.

We used to look up to the president, to hope that he (so far) would be a role model for our children.  That may have been a more innocent time, but the diminution of the image of the office under Trump has accelerated to a degree unimaginable two years ago.

And yet, and yet, nothing seem to shake the loyalty of Trump’s base.  What is wrong with you?  Don’t show for the Fourth of July Parade because you obviously don’t care about the fundamental values that have made this nation great.  You are willing to sell your souls, sometimes even cheaply.

A few of you have profited greatly by the decisions of this administration.  You are now free to pollute without being subjected to enforcement measures.  You may have benefited from the tax cuts that were passed with a bunch of promises that are predictably failing to come to fruition.

Some of you have settled for cheap symbolic wins.  You get to go to Trump political rallies and yell “Build the wall” or “Lock her up.”  You cheered as Trump dismantled much of the Affordable Care Act and still haven’t figured out that you may be the one losing your insurance or at least paying more.

You keep falling for the lie that every problem you face is because of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Muslims or Mexicans.  You keep playing the victim but won’t get any sympathy from the rest of us because you have shown no compassion for anyone else.

I’m done with Trump supporters.  I don’t want to talk to them.  I don’t even want to be in the same room with them.  I’m with the woman who kicked Sarah Sanders out of her restaurant. I don’t want to hear your biblical references to rationalize his horrible acts.  I don’t excuse your ignorance of the facts just because you have decided to limit yourself to Fox, Breitbart and Alex Jones

In not standing up to Trump, you have abandoned the ideals of this country.  It’s not good enough to remain silent.  If you’re not on the right side of history on this one, you’re on the wrong side.  Go stand somewhere else.

It Keeps Getting Worse

 

Admit it.  As horrible as the Trump Administration has been, you never really thought they would resort to separating children from their parents in a cynical ploy to …. Actually, what is it exactly that they are trying to accomplish?

There’s little to indicate that the new “zero tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Session has anything to do with either national security or immigration policy.  What I hear in the defense of the “policy” and the rationalizations and excuses is that Trump and his fellow America Firsters are primarily concerned with keeping his political base in a state of frenzy.  He hasn’t been able to build a wall.  He has no chance in the world of getting Mexico to pay for it.  His Muslim ban keeps getting shot down by the courts because of the small inconvenience of abridging constitutional safeguards.  Trump has to show he is still their champion.

Administration supporters are all over the place in trying to justify what they are doing at the southern border of the United States. In some cases, they are just denying anything is happening there.  As an old friend used to be fond of saying, “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Trump has blamed Democrats although it is his Administration interpreting an existing law differently than any previous administration has.  Numerous reports suggest he views the border arrests as a way to pressure members of Congress to fund his wall.  His Secretary of Homeland Security, Kristjen Nielsen, gave a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” press conference that may have been one of worst disasters since the sinking of the Titanic.

Back in the late 18th century, Samuel Johnson observed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  There are constant examples which Johnson would recognize from members of the Trump Administration.  NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem should “leave the country” according to Trump.  Democrats who refuse to support his idiotic wall are “jeopardizing national security”.

And now the Trump gang has updated Johnson.  The most recent refuge for heartless, cynical scoundrels is the Bible.  Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders used cherry-picked passages to support tearing children from their parents.  If they had read just a bit further, they might have found words that support keeping families together and treating others as you would hope they would treat you.  Just saying.

The right-wing media has done its best to support the president.  Tucker Carlson on Fox urged viewers not to trust any other news outlet, confident that his station would not show any footage that might make supporters uncomfortable with video of crying children.  Ann Coulter went even farther, dragging out what has become a conservative trope that the kids in the heartbreaking photos were really just “child actors.”

All  those responses were disgusting but predictable.  This really is the “Stepford Presidency.”  While some Republicans have at last criticized the President’s approach to dealing with immigrants seeking asylum–which, it’s worth noting, is not illegal–most of them have remained silent.

If you spend time on the pages of Facebook and other outposts of the Internet, you’ll also find Trump sycophants offering vigorous, unqualified support for the new border policy.  That their comments are often filled with factual inaccuracies doesn’t diminish the intensity of their views.  I assume many of them would assert a belief in “Christian values” or some equivalent, but how is it “Christian” to turn away the poor, the suffering?

There is, at the core of this disgusting episode, a second factor that explains much of the reaction.  The first, as I noted above, is a pure political calculation designed to appeal to a nativist political constituency.  In addition, and even more disturbing, the President and his supporters are able to duck any reference to family values or humanitarian concerns because those individuals seeking asylum in the United States are the wrong color.   Call it nativism if you wish, but it’s really more accurately described as racism.

We are at a low point in this country’s history.  There are so many other actions of the Trump presidency that deeply disturb me and are doing great damage to both public welfare and national security, but the decision to use young children as political pawns is beneath contempt.  If we really are better than that–a refrain you hear fairly often–we need to stop this abomination now.

 

 

After two devastating floods, questions that need answers

 

Whatever else happens during his tenure as Howard County Executive, Allan Kittleman may be most remembered for holding office when large portions of Historic Ellicott City were twice destroyed by raging flood waters.  Although he was Chief Executive at the time of the two floods, the blame certainly does not fall on him alone. There are many factors that contributed to the horrific damage and lots of responsibility to share over many years.

Kittleman does, however, face a particularly disturbing question that is his alone to answer: After the 2016 flood, did he do everything possible to prevent a repetition of the disaster?  He has been quoted as saying that the County had completed about one-third of the storm water remediation work from 2016 at the time that the latest downpour hit the system.  Kittleman also noted that two years is not a very long time in terms of major projects of this magnitude.

In political terms, which is the way we hold elected officials accountable for their actions and inactions, these judgments are not his to make.  I don’t know the answer to the question that I just posed, but I do know that it’s critical that it be asked and answered.  Absent a thorough and objective assessment, it’s going to be impossible to persuade people to invest their time, energy and money to rebuild Ellicott City.  And more broadly, trust in local government is going to be at jeopardy until there are answers.

Even before anyone looks closely at the response to the 2016 flood, Kittleman has to deal with a major issue of political optics.  As a candidate and as County Executive, he was one of many Republicans, including Governor Larry Hogan, who led the charge against a state-mandated storm water remediation fee.  Kittleman and Hogan ginned up opposition by referring to the fee as a “rain tax”, a bit of gleeful demagoguery that is going to be hard to explain away in the contemporary environment.

An honest look at the flooding would get rid of phrases like “natural disaster” or “1000 year flood.”  While it is true that Ellicott City has long been flood prone, it was always the result of waters  rising from the bottom of Main Street.  The 2016 and 2018 disasters all saw waters racing down Main Street and overwhelming the existing storm water infrastructure.

What was different these two times?  Republicans refuse to acknowledge climate change so let’s give them a temporary pass on that issue and focus on other factors.  It is clear, for example, that years of development that failed to take adequate account of the dramatic increase in impervious surface–that is, covering water absorbing ground with paved and built areas–contributed to the two floods.  Responsibility for decades of those decisions  certainly should be widely shared.

When the 2016 epic flood hit, it should have been clear that it would be less than 1000 years till the next big one.  One piece of the response should have been to prohibit any new development that would worsen the problem.  Was greater attention paid to development approvals after 2016?  Another question that needs to be answered.

Beyond that, however, the harder question is what was done to remediate a clearly continuing risk.   Smarter people than I can articulate options, whether a much larger storm drain coming down Main Street or storm water ponds to reduce the rush of water to the pipes or something else.   Would this flood have been prevented if the County had already finished the other two-thirds of the projects that Kittleman referenced?  And was there an adequate sense of urgency about the timetable for the work?

Some have questioned whether it even makes sense to rebuild where Historic Ellicott City sits today.  Given that  a significant portion of the root causes of the flooding seem to be man-made, we have to ask what can be done to make it an environment that is not so much at risk to flooding.

The response to the 2018 flood is going to require real leadership, not photo ops or press conferences.  Some have contended it’s too early to talk about such issues, but it’s hard to imagine a better time to talk about them.  A plan that creates long-term stability in Ellicott City may take longer to develop and implement and will surely cost more than some would like, but the costs of not taking that approach should be readily apparent to all.

The losses–financial, emotional, time and effort–of so many people who had worked so hard to rebuild Ellicott City are absolutely heart-breaking.  Public officials must be honest about the response to the 2016 flood and  make sure they get it right this time. They will have to be candid about costs and uncertainties and provide major financial support through the process.

Will Howard County leaders be up to the challenge?

 

 

 

Death and Taxes

As sure as we are that the sun will appear each morning, we are just as certain that the next mass shooting is coming soon.  And in what may be the perfect symmetry of irresponsibility, many of the very same people who have prevented a rational response to our public health crisis of gun violence are also leading the charge to undermine the sysyem of taxation that has provided the funds to make America great.  Irony intended.

The common thread through these two self-defeating approaches to important public policy issues is a narrow focus on self-interest and a rejection of any sense of the common good.  A proto-typical Second Amendment advocate argues some version of: “My God-given right to own and carry whatever weapon of deadly violence I choose is more important than any right you may assert.  As far as I’m concerned, the Second Amendment is the only section of the U.S. Constitution that matters.  And it is the only clause that should be seen as absolute without any limits or qualifications.”

A non-Muslim, non-foreign terrorist with a gun unleashed the most recent round of carnage in Santa Fe, Texas on Friday.  The same can be said about Parkland, Florida, Charleston, South Carolina and lots of other mass shootings.   The Texas assassin didn’t need to climb over or dig under a wall.  He didn’t need to take advantage of some loophole in the immigration sysyem.  All he needed to do—and it was incredibly easy—was to grab the guns that his father had purchased legally but had failed to secure in a safe place.  Shouldn’t people who are so careless with guns be criminally liable?

What is stupid, irresponsible and stunning is that we have a clear list of things we could do to reduce gun violence in this country if  only we had the courage to act.  There are no perfect solutions, no fail-safe remedies, but we sure could do better.  It is a national disgrace, though apparently not an embarrassment to Second Amendment absolutists, that we don’t.

The Republican Party in almost its entirety is a group of craven cowards.  They are petrified by the fear of the NRA’s supposed political might and indebted to its campaign contributions.  Since rational discourse is totally ineffective, the only appropriate response is to vote as many of them out of office as possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump can’t even muster an ounce of genuine sympathy for the victims of gun violence.  He moves onto the next subject so quickly that you’re not even sure he has uttered pious words about “thoughts and prayers” for the families.  Trump deserves the same fate as the congressional members of what once was a party of honorable and decent people.

Trump is trying to destroy American government as if it was an alien being. If you’ve haven’t read it yet, take a look at Evan Osnos’ recent article in The New Yorker, “Only the Best People.”  He describes in chilling detail how Trump is dismantling one agency after another and driving loyal American civil servants away.   Similarly, his executive order attacking Planned Parenthood and his rejection of scientific research about climate change are at their base efforts to prevent people from speaking the truth.

Trump’s attack on the role of government builds on the foundation of those who have been arguing for years about the evils of taxation.  Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said a century ago that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.  Government funds allowed us to build the massive infrastructure that has been the literal backbone of the country as well as the catalyst for much of our economic growth.  Do you remember the debate during the 2012 presidential campaign about whether captains of industry built their fortunes entirely on their own?  Barack Obama was correct then and he still is that it requires a partnership.

Much of the anti-tax movement is about greed, pure and simple.  And it’s been working incredibly effectively, as the increased concentration of wealth at the very top vividly demonstrates.  But accumulation of riches by the 1% apparently hasn’t been enough as the unseemly rush to enact another Republican tax law earlier this year attests.

Meanwhile, basic services of government at the state and local levels are stretched to the breaking point—decaying infrastructure, out-of-date school textbooks, potholes that go unrepaired.  Federal officials, citing inadequate revenues—the direct consequence of tax cuts—increase the rent of people in public housing, hollow out the State Department, drive up the cost of health insurance even as many lose their coverage and talk ominously of needing to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits in order to “balance the budget.”

The ugly truth is that the American social contract is unraveling before our eyes. Even though we can’t yet see the full extent of the damage being done by Trump and his co-conspirators,  “We the People” is turning into Us and Them.  A refusal to tax ourselves for the things that will make us a better country and will enable everyone to have a share, if only a small one, is both a cause and a symptom.  The unwillingness to enact obvious remedies to the epidemic of gun violence that every other civilized nation in the world has seen as unacceptable is the other bookend of our malaise.

Those aren’t our only serious problems and, in fact, should be easier to deal with than some of  our other challenges such as race relations.  As one of the songs in the hit musical “Hamilton” puts it, “Oceans rise, Empires fall.”  That about says it all.

Sights and Sounds from a Funeral

“We shouldn’t be here.” “This shouldn’t be happening.” That  message was voiced by all the speakers at the funeral last Friday for Kevin Kamenetz.  It had to be the thought going through the mind of everyone at the service as well.

Kamenetz, the Baltimore County Executive and candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor, died suddenly at age 60 the day before.  I’m sure that all the people who received the early morning news of his passing couldn’t quite comprehend it.  There must be a mistake.  That can’t possibly be.

Yet, by the day after his death, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was packed with mourners who rearranged their schedules without a second’s hesitation.  Despite his relatively young age, Kamenetz had been on the political scene in Baltimore County for decades, first as a member of the County Council, then as Executive, and more recently as an aspiring statewide figure.  That record certainly contributed to the overflow crowd.

Family and friends.  County employees.  Other elected officials.  Lots of officials.  People there to pay their respects who may never have met Kamenetz in person.   All of them in a state of shock.

The service itself was direct and  unadorned, much as some would have described the County Executive.  Only one elected official, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, spoke.  That was a well-advised decision for at least two reasons.  First, Cardin was eloquent, personal and appropriate.  His remarks were never about himself, but focused exclusively on paying tribute.

But second, if there had been more speakers than the one who nobody could have disputed, the list would have been endless.  The reality is that funerals for public figures are, in part, political events as well.  Some people show up to be seen regardless of what sort of relationship they had with the deceased.  Just as John McCain has made it clear that he doesn’t want Donald Trump speaking at his funeral, you might well surmise that if Kamenetz had had the choice, he might have placed some of the attendees from Friday way back in the balcony.

Still, most of the political figures had  good reason to be there.  It was, in part, a gathering of Maryland’s governmental leadership, a coming together that Kevin Kamenetz would surely have appreciated.  The four current and former U.S. Senators present have among them nearly three-quarters of a century of service in that august body.

I counted five former Baltimore County Executives in the crowd going all the way back to 1974.  That group was uniquely qualified to understand the challenges and stresses that Kamenetz had faced in office.

The speakers, however, devoted most of their remarks not to his public life but to his qualities as an ordinary person. They recounted his humor, his passion, his love for his family.  His wife, Jill; his oldest son, Carter; two long-time friends.  Jill’s comments demonstrated an incredible bravery in being willing to speak publicly the day after Kevin’s death.  They also reflected a pain that felt almost too personal to be shared.

There has been constant media coverage of Kamenetz’ death as well as of the funeral.  I was only able to see some of the people there and some of what transpired during the afternoon service.  There were a few things that caught my attention beyond the profound sadness of being there.

Senator Cardin in his remarks repeated a story that Kamenetz had told a lot of people.  I know that because he told it to me.  As a very young man, he had been a driver for the legendary former mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, and credited his career in public service at least in part to that experience.  One manifestation of the link with Schaefer was that Kamenetz was always a supporter of regional cooperation and of assistance to the City.

When I looked around the room on Friday, I was struck by how many lives and careers had intersected with Governor Schaefer’s.  There was Ted Venetoulis, former County Executive, who had been deeply involved in Schaefer’s first campaign for mayor.  There was U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, who worked in the Washington office when Schaefer was governor.  There was former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, whose first term on the Baltimore City Council coincided with Schaefer’s first term as Mayor.  And I’ve scarcely begun.

While we were waiting for the service to begin, Ben Jealous, one of Kamenetz’ rivals for the Democratic nomination, sat down in the row in front of us.  I couldn’t see everyone in the room, but I have it from a reliable source that other candidates were also there.

I want to end with one more sighting.  Don Mohler, chief of staff to Kamenetz for his entire time as County Executive, was serving as a kind of unofficial greeter for all the elected officials who filed in.  Given his closeness to Kamenetz, I know that he was carrying out those duties despite being numb and still in a state of shock.  The loyalty and dedication of so many people like Don Mohler is one more proof of the warmth and leadership qualities that Kevin Kamenetz brought to public service which will be so sorely missed.

 

Is there a new “normal” in politics?

 

Critics of Donald Trump frequently react to some particularly outrageous behavior by describing it as “not normal.” Constant lying. Personal insults to political opponents. Tweeting as his primary means of communicating. Spewing racist comments. Governing by sudden, inconsistent pronouncement. And the list goes on.

At a more analytical level, it has been argued that Trump is defying long-held political norms which have reinforced the institutions that preserve democracy. The book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt asserts that this undermining of political norms is a most serious threat to the stability of our political system.

The authors of “How Democracies Die” point to two norms as historically having been critical: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.  Today, they seem to have given way to demonizing the opposition and doing whatever it takes to win the immediate battle.  Exhibit A: the cries of “lock her up” at Trump rallies.  Exhibit B: Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016.

Some people argue that Trump is an aberration, an outlier, a temporary phenomenon. They assert that those norms or guardrails will reassert themselves a bit like a gyroscope bringing us back to level. I fear that view may be a bit too optimistic.

It’s clear that Trump didn’t all by himself create the chaos, instability and polarization that characterizes today’s politics. To employ a different metaphor, American politics have been oscillating wildly for at least two decades, probably more. Consider Newt Gingrich’s total warfare approach of the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s playing fast and loose with presidential morality and George Bush’s lying us into an unnecessary war in Iraq as all helping pave the way for Trump’s presidency.

While some will be quick to argue an equivalency in Democratic and Republican behavior, numerous academic studies all come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has contributed far more to the current state of dysfunctional politics than have the Democrats.  Wherever you allocate the blame, however, the result is a political system seriously out of balance– and with no auto-correct mechanism available.

Americans have lost confidence in the major institutions of society, not just of government.  We are deeply divided on many of the major issues facing the country.  Liberals and conservatives rely on different sources of news and often have differing perspectives on facts.  Discontent takes at least two forms: not voting and voting for changes that promise to tear the system down.

Will we get back to “normal” in the next election cycle or two?  Let me start by making the case that it’s far from a sure thing.  Trump ran a campaign for the presidency that defied every norm and every rule of politics.  Experts kept saying that his most recent incendiary remark would surely be the end of his campaign.  And yet he won.

Since becoming president, he has continued to throw away the traditional playbook.  This week, he acknowledged knowing about a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels after repeatedly denying any awareness of it.  His cabinet of “the very best people” has been a revolving door with scandals shadowing a number of them.

And the only thing we can say for sure about the future is that his actions will continue to be unpredictable and well outside the norms of traditional politics.

And yet, Trump’s base is unfazed by his behavior in office; in fact, they seem to relish it.  He has created a cult of personality in which his supporters follow him regardless of what he does, even as he fails to fulfill promises that he made to them.   Moreover, they seem unconcerned that his presidency is damaging the very democracy that has been the essence of “American exceptionalism.”

Reestablishing those “guardrails of democracy” will take a concerted effort by active citizens.  We are unlikely to get back to the exact same normal that we have had in the past, but we may be able to create a new democratic reality.  There are, in my judgment, three crucial tests that we face in the near future.

One is the election of 2018.  Signs of Democratic energy and activism are everywhere and they need to be sustained through the November election.  If Democrats don’t recapture at least one of the houses of Congress, the situation is going to get much worse.  Similarly, the efforts to win state and local elections are crucial to both sending a message and insuring that the new round of legislative redistricting is not abused in the way that the last one was.

The presidential election of 2020 is obviously the second big hurdle.  Finding a Democrat who stands for restoration of the norms and values that have preserved American democracy and can defeat Trump’s run for re-election is crucial.  Similarly, winning both houses of Congress and continuing to win elections in the states are necessary to beat back the corrosive impact of Trumpism throughout the country.

But, most ominously, there may be one more test to be endured.  There have been at least some signs that Trump and his backers might not accept the results of an election.  In 2016, he constantly railed about the system being rigged.  Republicans in many states are in fact trying to put their collective thumbs on the electoral scales by implementing voter ID laws, changing polling place locations and hours and erecting other barriers to participation.

A failure to accept the voter’s will would be the most serious norm to fall, but it could happen.  The best way to avoid that risk is to make sure the Democratic wave in 2018 is gigantic.  Winning that election by large margins will be the most effective way to start rebuilding the political norms that Donald Trump has been attacking.