Josh Kurtz: Rights and Wrongs

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On the day state Senate Democrats voted to override his veto of legislation restoring voting rights to 44,000 parolees and probationers, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered Bipartisan Crab Soup at Chick n' Ruth's deli in Annapolis.

Cornered by reporters in the cramped governor's booth as he ate with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), Hogan was quick to condemn the vote and suggested that there could be political consequences for the senators who went against his wishes. Some, he predicted,
"won't survive the vote."

Minutes later, like clockwork, Change Maryland, Hogan's political organization, listed the 29 Democrats who had voted to override the veto, accusing them of "ignoring an overwhelming majority of Marylanders" and suggesting that they be targeted for their votes. In the days that followed, angry Marylanders let these lawmakers know how they felt – sometimes in intemperate, threatening ways.

Can we please, please discard the notion, symbolic culinary preferences notwithstanding, that Hogan is a bipartisan governor? Even when he delivers a State of the State speech full of bipartisan platitudes, as he did two weeks ago, Hogan's words are almost immediately contradicted by the biting rhetoric and bare-knuckle tactics of Change Maryland – as if this organization, which Hogan built specifically to crap on Democrats and get himself elected governor, is somehow a separate entity from the man atop state government. Senate President Mike Miller (D) blamed Change Maryland for the hostile messages he and his colleagues have received – and he's got a point.

And when is someone going to have the temerity to suggest that some of the rhetoric emanating from the governor's full-throttle political operation is, intentionally or not, a dog whistle to some of the whiter communities in the state and some of the darker elements of the conservative movement – who see every taxpayer dollar going to places like Baltimore city and Prince George's County as money wasted on undeserving minorities?

It is increasingly possible to see a link between the anti-government message that Hogan employed to great effect in 2014 and the intolerance that's routinely coming from the Republican candidates for president. Hogan's is just delivered with his affable smile.

Whether Hogan's opposition to the voting bill is another example of Republican attempts at voter suppression, as some Democrats charge, is hard to say. Undeniably, given the state of the modern American criminal justice system and Maryland's population, many of the 44,000 ex-offenders who will now see their voting rights restored on an accelerated basis are African-American and Latino. And they are more likely than not to vote Democratic, making this nominally blue state just a tad bluer.

Yet Democrats are casting this measure as an expansion of democracy – which it is – and are soft-pedaling the partisan implications.

Change Maryland isn't directly mentioning the partisan implications, either. But as it ostensibly targets all 29 state Senate Democrats who voted to override Hogan's veto, it is really only targeting a handful – the Democrats representing districts that Hogan carried in 2014. So look out John Astle and Ed Kasemeyer and Ron Young and Bobby Zirkin – and yes, Mike Miller.

Can 44,000 newly-enrolled voters put Democrats over the top in 2018? Can Change Maryland sustain the ire against the vulnerable Senate Democrats long enough to defeat them in 2018? Here are examples #1,047 and #1,048 of why the 2018 election is already well under way.

But on the issue of expanding democracy in Maryland, the Democrats are not without their contradictions and hypocrisy, either. If a purer, more robust democracy is truly the goal, then the Democrats ought to go along with Hogan's bid to reform the redistricting process in Maryland – as it is or with variations.

There is, of course, a partisan element to Hogan's push for redistricting reform – though he won't cop to it. After all, if Maryland Democrats aren't gaming the process, Republicans stand to gain.

And Democrats are right to point out that Republican abuses of the redistricting process in a handful of other states are just as bad as Democratic gerrymandering in Maryland. Some Democrats have called for federal redistricting reform to level the playing field – and that's a desirable goal, in theory.

But as long as the drawing of congressional and legislative district boundaries remains the purview of states, the solution to a stilted process ought to be found at the state level. Whatever the motivations, Hogan's recommendations to put redistricting in the hands of a nonpartisan commission seem modest and come, for the Democrats, with minimal risk.

How many Democratic-held congressional seats in Maryland would flip with a fairer redistricting process? One or two? How many legislative districts would change hands? Not many. Why are the Democrats ceding the moral high ground here to Hogan and the Republicans?

Last fall, the Florida Supreme Court threw out that state's heavily-gerrymandered congressional map, which favored the GOP. The end result? Democrats may pick up a couple of seats.

Less than two weeks ago, a federal court threw out North Carolina's congressional map, which may be the most gerrymandered in the nation – even though that state's primary is just a couple of weeks away. A new map could yield a couple of seats for the Democrats, at best.

How long till someone finds a legitimate legal argument to upend Maryland's misshapen political map?

Yes, if Democrats go along with Hogan's redistricting plan, Hogan wins. But guess what – if Democrats resist and obstruct it, Hogan wins, too.

Just last week, in a triumphant, nostalgic return to the statehouse in Springfield, Ill., where his political career began in 1997, President Obama made a full-throated cry for redistricting reform. In another statehouse, several hundred miles away, Democrats should take his words to heart.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.