Richard Cross, III: Annapolis and Towson in the Age of Soap Opera Politics

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This week, our state’s annual State House soap opera returns to Annapolis. For the next three months, the machinations of the Maryland General Assembly will dominate state news, treating Marylanders to an occasionally interesting, often exasperating political sideshow as they wrestle with the realities of their own daily lives.

Will Governor Hogan succeed in maintaining his momentum? Will the Mikes reclaim the agenda? Will citizens be treated to a dose of lower taxes? Will the state’s leaders respond to events in Baltimore with a bold show of economic largesse, or will gridlock rule the day? 

Tune in tomorrow and in the days ahead to find out the answers to these and other burning questions, as they used to say on TV.

As most of my fellow political pundits are already speculating at length about events to come in the 2016 legislative session, I decided to flip the channel this time and to look at the soap opera emerging in and around another important seat of government: Towson, Maryland.

Growing up near Towson and working for two local members of Congress during the course of my career has given me an affinity for Baltimore County politics. This Democratic but centrist jurisdiction is its own unique animal and a bellwether when it comes to statewide elections.

In other words, Baltimore County is to Maryland politics what Ohio has become to presidential elections.

The average Baltimore County citizen believes strongly in two things: low taxes and efficiently provided government services.

Within the confines of fiscal responsibility, they expect good schools, excellence in public safety, strong infrastructure, timely trash pickup, well-funded senior centers, and a reliable snow removal plan. 

Compared to other jurisdictions, one might say Baltimore County residents demand a “just the basics” approach to local government – nothing more, nothing less.  In return, Baltimore County voters often reward their state and local elected officials with a certain measure of longevity.

No incumbent Baltimore County executive has been defeated for reelection in over 20 years and in 2002, 2006, and 2014 – years in which GOP gubernatorial candidates carried the county – Democratic county executive candidates swept to victory. Many recent members of the Baltimore County Council served four terms before they choose to self-select off the council.

Further, over time veteran state legislators like former Senator Norman Stone (D) and current Senator Kathy Klausmeier (D) become institutions in their districts. If a council member or legislator loses reelection, scandal or redistricting is usually the cause, rather than voters reacting to acts of ideological apostasy.

Nonetheless, signs exist that this bastion of political stability in the heart of Maryland may be undergoing a period of transformation.

In 2014, Republicans swept councilmanic and legislative races in Dundalk, a blue collar, post-industrial community in eastern Baltimore County, for the first time ever.

Even bigger changes may be coming down the pike in 2018.

Incumbent County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) is term limited and cannot seek reelection. His departure has significant down ballot implications.

Democratic Senator Jim Brochin, popular Councilwoman Vicki Almond, and former Delegate John Olszewski, Jr. are all said to covet the county executive’s seat, raising the likelihood of a bustling primary campaign. Former Delegate Jim Ports and at least one other candidate have been mentioned as possible GOP alternatives.

In the case of Brochin, jumping in the county executive’s race touches off a competitive battle for his GOP-leaning state senate seat. Among Republicans, Councilman (and former 40-year delegate) Wade Kach, veteran Delegate Susan Aumann, and retired anesthesiologist and unsuccessful 2014 Brochin foil Dr. Tim Robinson are all possible candidates.

Further, Kach’s departure from the council after a single term could create an opportunity for former Councilman Todd Huff (R), whom Kach defeated in the 2014 primary, to wage a comeback bid. 

Incumbent Councilwoman Cathy Bevins has alienated some of her constituents through her support of a controversial proposal to build an outlet mall in White Marsh. Voters will determine the fate of the project via a ballot measure this November. The outcome of that vote could determine if that proposal haunts her going into 2018.

As for the long serving Senator Klausmeier, while she has not formally declared her intentions, her hypothetical departure could trigger a competitive showdown between Democratic delegate and Bromwell family scion Eric Bromwell and freshman GOP Delegate Christian Miele.

Lastly, due to a change in the law, in 2018 Baltimore County voters will be able to do something they have never had the opportunity to do before: Elect members of the county school board.

Seven members will be elected – one from each of the county’s seven councilmanic districts – while four additional members are appointed by the governor. While these elections will be nonpartisan, it creates a new category of candidates with the kind of name recognition, campaign experience, and grassroots connections needed to pursue higher office.

As is the case in Annapolis, the looming political soap opera in Baltimore County raises a number of interesting questions.

Will the developers who have long dominated fundraising in the county, and who are invested so heavily in the status quo, be willing to take upstart GOP candidates seriously in some of these races?

Assuming Hogan maintains his strong popularity, will his presence at the top of the ticket help boost GOP candidates compete effectively for races that have traditionally eluded them, such as county executive?

Lastly, if – as has been widely speculated – Kamenetz seeks the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, will his candidacy help or harm his partisans in the county?

An able fundraiser and manager, Kamenetz’s reputation for abrasiveness and his widely reported difficulties working with a majority Democratic county council and a Democratic comptroller may work against him.

If you’re a political junkie like me, I hope you will enjoy watching the soap opera politics unfolding in Annapolis and Towson as much as I do.

Should it ever get tiresome, boring, or exasperating, just remember one thing: There’s always Donald Trump.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore, and blogs at http://rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com. His e-mail address: 

 

 

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