Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Maryland is Different

(Owings Mills, MD) “I’m going to vote for Jealous, but I know he is going to lose,” is a sentiment I heard often while covering the Maryland Gubernatorial election of 2018. But after that, the people who would tell me who they voted for made this admission, “I want to send a message,” that’s what I heard.

This was a message election which spilled into the state. It manifested itself with early voting, was it enough? Trump’s name wasn’t on the ballot, but he was on their minds. I jokingly said, “Will Maryland have an Ocean City Wave, a Blue Wave or a Tsunami.” Turnout was the key. Democratic nominee Ben Jealous said as much when he came to Maryland Public Television prior to General Election.  “If we (Jealous Campaign) can have a million voter’s turnout for the election I have a chance.”

Wishful thinking or shrewd strategy? Looking back at the Jealous and Gov. Larry Hogan campaigns they had different goals. For Governor Hogan, it was about not expending more cash or energy than necessary, limit debate opportunities, play to strengths, and have a closing argument which could have coattails.

For Jealous it was about nationalizing the race, maximizing voter turnout in the democratic strongholds and paint the governor as an extremist.

Each man used different methods to reach their goals, but there can only be one winner.

Governor Hogan had to expend little energy during the Republican primary. He ran ads touting his accomplishments and laying the foundation for a second term. The Governor thought his Democratic challenger would be Prince Georges County Executive Rushern Baker. Baker was the choice of the establishment Democratic Party in the state. The Prince George’s County candidates name recognition was limited to the Washington suburbs, so he spent an inordinate time in the Baltimore metro area. What he was unprepared for was the Jealous’ ground game. Jealous also defined himself via TV ads. The Republican Governors Association wasted no time airing ads right after his nomination in the general election. Jealous had no money left to counter being defined as “extreme and a socialist.”

What Larry Hogan Got Right

Governor Hogan’s rise to the top came at time when Maryland voters were tired of democratic control of state. The political novice was and is shrewd. In a two to one democratic state Hogan knew using a national Republican playbook was not going to work. While surrounding states (Virginia, New Jersey, West Virginia and Pennsylvania) had trended to the GOP, he knew it wasn’t going to work. Instead his idea was to appeal to the “every-man” idea. What I am talking about is Hogan was the kind of guy who you might have a beer with in a bar. I like to call him, the “Aw shucks Governor.” He also rejected Republican touchstone issues (abortion, school choice etc…) to prove it, he bucked the national party and only embrace New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s model. Governor Christie’s tactic of lowering taxes, ending bureaucracy, and becoming business friendly. The catch phrase of his first campaign was “ending the rain tax.” A populist move that few could disagree with.

Once in office he found his perfect foil, the Maryland Legislature. With super majorities he could run against them calling them obstructionist. But what put Hogan over the top, was sympathy he received after being diagnosed with cancer. Despite being in the hospital receiving chemotherapy Hogan spent hours doing work from his hospital bed. This lead to a nearly 60 percent approval rating in a “blue state.”

He also found an issue which crossed party lines, the opioid crisis. Look, heroin addiction has been in Maryland since the 1920’s. It was confined to inner city Baltimore. Hundreds were hooked on the drug and help fuel a crime wave to feed a habit from the 60’s through the 70’s.

When the drug came to the suburbs in the 80’s and 90’s killing white kids and adults it was serious for this politician. It was a dirty little secret no was paying attention to and wasn’t just affecting major population areas but was an epidemic in places like Cumberland, Hagerstown, and Frederick, Washington, Carroll, Cecil and Queen Anne’s Counties. These jurisdictions saw people turn to the heroin because they were unable to keep up with their OxyContin dependencies. I was initially suspect. It changed when Governor Hogan, said he was personally affected when a cousin overdosed after years of addiction.

Under the radar Governor Hogan through his Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford cultivated something the Maryland Democratic Party never embraced, Black Business. Despite years of “lip service,” minority set asides had gone from hard targets to simply goals. The whole idea of the state having minority vendors had become a mess. This entrepreneurial class has embraced anyone who would listen to their plight and actually make a difference. Enter the Maryland GOP. The governor’s embrace of a “business first mentality” was perfect for this group. African-American entrepreneurs are lukewarm to embrace the party’s social policies, but they are “all in” on getting a seat at the table. They ended up having this group to themselves.
So why are 30 percent of African-American voters drawn to Governor Hogan? This group was half this size in his first run. They are collection of voters who are discussed at the idea "Democrats have Black people’s interest at heart." You saw this at the end of the O’Malley administration, when the idea of locking people up (mostly African-Americans) for nuisance crimes was policy in Baltimore. Add to this disinvestment in communities of color. The “Baltimore Uprising” was literally the last straw and how former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake was nowhere to be found during at its height. They may have whispered their support in the past, but now you see it. The Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle sided with Hogan in his first run. The closing political ad featuring Bmore News founder, Doni Glover, saying “Governor Hogan showed up and it wasn’t his first time.” The ad laid bare and full view of an anti-establishment critic endorsement.

Shhh, Ben Jealous is Running for Maryland Governor.

In a crowded primary field Ben Jealous was the perfect “I’m not a politician candidate.” The problem is this type of candidacy would have worked four years ago, but was an anathema in an era which gave us President Donald Trump. Was he qualified? His turnaround of the national office of the NAACP was laudable, but no one had ever voted for him for anything. It is true all politics are local. 

So a surrogate for Presidential candidate Bernie Saunders national campaign saw a clear path to victory by nationalizing a gubernatorial race and its disgust with Washington, DC. It worked in the primary enabling Jealous to raise money outside the state. This allowed him to be the first up with television with ads, allowing him to define himself.

What Maryland politicians saw and understood from this, “he didn’t need them.” Great for an insurgent campaign but not for coalescing the state’s power brokers to embrace your run.  Its manifestation came in what can be best described as “non-endorsements.” Hogan trotted out a number of former Democratic leaders to endorse his campaign (most were people who were beyond their expiration date). You know it’s telling when the states Comptroller Peter Franchot says, he “will not endorse you, but not campaign against you.” (What the hell?).

Even more telling after the primary, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker delays embracing your campaign and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggit questions your platform of “Medicaid for All.” Leggit asks, "How will pay for it?  Stop. These are two leading African-American leaders in the state (Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is the other) and they are already questioning your policies in the state (In my ESPN voice “C’mon Man!).

Race is a delicate issue. Some politicians use it to their advantage, others discount it and lay claim to being the best candidate in the race. Jealous is a product of a bi-racial marriage. His parents were forced to move to California where he grew up but spent his summers in Baltimore with his grandparents (Hogan suggested he didn’t live in the state but he does).His time at the NAACP has gave him a close up look at the "mean and nasty" regarding race. Nowhere did he ever embrace the notion of being the first African-American governor of the state of Maryland and what it would mean. It was understood internally it would turn off white voters embracing his campaign.

Crying you’re "being treated unfairly" is not a political strategy. The Jealous organization to counter being out spent tried to go around the ads defining him to the public. News organizations love an underdog story.  So we often want to hear your thoughts about scurrilous claims. On August 8, 2018, Washington Post Political Reporter Erin Cox asked Jealous “Whether he identified with the term “socialist,” as his political opponent, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), has labeled him. ‘Are you f---ing kidding me?,’ Jealous responded.” This was an endorsement event, and left those in attendance with mouths open.

Look these are challenges a traditional campaign would have thought through. This is big boy politics where your narrative is key and people have to see themselves in you. During this campaign I did not see an air of “desperation.” Politicians who I’ve seen be successful have this sense they are losing and must talk to everyone who will listen. Those who won’t listen to you still reach out them because you can believe you can persuade them. If you don’t persuade them they must come away with an idea that you are competent.

The Debates

Fast forward to the debate/s. My office Maryland Public Television MPT has a stellar reputation as being the host for statewide debates. I was fortunate to be selected to be a part of the Democrat Primary debate at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. During this session I got candidate Jealous to admit how he was going to pay for “Free College Tuition.” “I’m going to tax the highest ten percent tax payers in the state.”

As we awaited word on the General Election debate Governor Hogan announced he would do two debates in September. Jealous countered with having five in October. In the end we were left with just one debate at MPT on September 24, 2018. The planning for the debate was coordinated by the two campaigns (sitting or standing, how close the podiums will be, opening/closing statements). It was agreed there would be five panelist. Both camps were given a single veto over who could be a questioner. This is where things get tricky.   Both camps were concerned about previous questioners in the primary (including yours truly, Jane Miller – WBAL-TV, and Clarence Mitchell IV WBAL Radio). We were out. It was agreed to have two the leading newspapers in the state participate but the Hogan camp insisted that there be a reporter from the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland. Earlier during the campaign it didn’t help that Jealous had to retract several debate decisions.

He suggested that Tamela Baker of the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown should be remove. He ended up retracting the idea. Not a good look. He also suggested Maryland Reporter.com was a right-wing website. Hmmm! That’s a stretch.

So where do we go from here? My quick assessment is this will be the last time Democrats in Maryland nominate a Black candidate. The failure to deliver in two elections cycles is telling. I don’t think this will be the right choice but it will send the message.

Lastly, for the next four years the GOP will expand the landscape in Maryland. Here’s the rub, "who is waiting in the wings."


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