Richard J. Cross III: Notes from the Speechwriter

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Having been a political speechwriter in a prior professional life, I know that the job has its ups and its downs.

Sometimes it can be really rewarding – especially when you know your ability to craft a message gives you a real opportunity to impact policy and help shape your boss’s image.

At times, however, it can be tedious, such as when you’re working on a script for a routine, mundane event and you know your boss probably won’t look at his prepared remarks, anyway.

Anyway, it teaches you to accept criticism and to grow a thick skin when necessary.

Last week, however, we witnessed perhaps the most bizarre response to a speech in Maryland history.

Governor Hogan delivered his second State of the State speech before the assembled members of the Maryland General Assembly.  It was a brief, conventional speech that struck a strong bipartisan tone, effectively repackaging a lot of the governor’s signature initiatives for public consumption.

Perhaps more interesting than the speech itself was what occurred ahead of it.

The heads of four local governments – County Executives Rushern Baker, Ike Leggett, and Kevin Kamenetz and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake – held a press conference in which they proceeded to bash the speech before the governor even had a chance to deliver it.

This quartet of Democratic partisans used the opportunity to accuse Hogan of lacking substance, and to whine about the Red Line, partial funding of the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) last year, and other partisan battles.

At one point, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz rhetorically asked the governor, “Where’s the beef?” One wonders whether Kamenetz could have done better than cribbing Walter Mondale’s most memorable line, but I digress.

All told, the press conference was a shrill, clumsy, and muddled attempt at commandeering the political agenda. As messaging goes, it was as elegant as a drive by shooting, only its perpetrators used blanks instead of actual bullets.

We can draw a number of lessons regarding the state of Maryland’s Democratic establishment given what occurred at the press conference.

First, and most obviously, the 2018 gubernatorial race has begun. All three of the county executives who participated in the event have been mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates themselves. None of them possesses the consensus choice status Martin O’Malley did when he was angling to challenge then-Governor Bob Ehrlich. So I imagine we will see more of these kinds of political stunts as each fledgling candidate explores way to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack.

Second, many in the Democratic establishment have not absorbed the lessons of the 2014 election.

The Democrats lost the governor’s mansion because they nominated a flawed candidate who chose to treat Larry Hogan as some archetypal GOP bogeyman. They also failed to gauge citizens’ everyday concerns about taxes, tolls, and spending amid a questionable economy. Their State Circle perspective eclipsed their ability to see things from a Main Street point of view.

As the press conference demonstrated, their arguments have not evolved over time. The overblown partisan rhetoric is still there. So is the stubborn adherence to a 2007 policy mindset. The participants of that press conference seemed more interested in re-litigating the results of the 2014 campaign, as opposed to embracing the kinds of reforms and introspection needed to win the next one.

So what can the Democrats do to turn the page? First, they can begin articulating and defining the concept of results-oriented government, rather than constantly talking about this program or that project and other solutions imposed from above.

The citizens of Maryland have heard the lofty promises too many times before. They would like to know how exactly their tax dollars are being spent in a way that yields real benefit to their lives.

Second, they can tone down the rhetoric. Reasonable people can disagree over the Red Line, but bringing it up time and time again ensures that people will eventually tune out the complaining. It also forces people to wonder whether you stand for anything else.

Third, they should be willing to learn some lessons. If people in Maryland believe they pay too much in taxes and fees, it is not because they’re imagining it or are otherwise uninformed. It is probably because they have a story to tell.

Every time I hear a politico deliver a major address like the State of the State, my first reaction is to be glad I no longer have to write them. Then I try to listen.

Perhaps it is time for change averse establishmentarians invested in the old status quo to do the same.

Richard J. Cross III, a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter, resides in Baltimore, and can be reached at .

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