Josh Kurtz: Postcards from MACo

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OCEAN CITY – MACo is Maryland’s version of Fellini’s “Satyricon” – one surreal and disturbing scene after another.

Officially, the Maryland Association of Counties annual summer convention is a professional gathering with a series of policy discussions. But outside the frigid expanse of this city’s convention center, it’s a sweatfest and a schmoozefest and a boozefest, a place where political theories and rumors are swapped like trading cards – some as nonsensical and flimsy as a summer romance, others more likely to last.

This year’s MACo was especially significant because it was Republican Larry Hogan’s first as governor – last year at this time he was undergoing chemotherapy. Attendance swelled, and there was a dizzying, record-setting number of political fundraisers and lobbyist and special interest receptions, perhaps owing to the presence of Hogan and his entire cabinet – or the anxiousness of many political people to bring on the 2018 elections already.

Whatever the explanation, it was yet another reminder that Maryland politics and governance has become big business, and the smell of fear seemed as prevalent as the smell of sunscreen. What would the folks back home think if they knew their elected and appointed leaders were spending so much time slurping adult beverages at the parties of benefactors of unknown origin?

Hogan strikingly was accorded a hero’s welcome – county officials were never, in our recollection, so happy to see Parris Glendening or Bob Ehrlich or Martin O’Malley when they were governor. But then the sheer number of Republican county officials around the state greatly overshadows the number of Democrats, even with the state’s blue tint. And O’Malley in particular on more than one occasion came to deliver a message that county officials were less than thrilled with.

Hogan visited a beach house for young cancer patients and their families, where he enjoyed another hero’s welcome, and strolled the boardwalk greeting happy passers-by (just once we’d like to see a Maryland politician working the boardwalk on a Friday or Saturday night, when the scene transforms from a family playground to a succession of Diane Arbus photos).

Hogan also basked in a couple of standing ovations when he gave his very short speech to county leaders on Saturday morning. It’s hard not to like a guy who pretends that he’s leaving the stage before he’s uttered a word because the applause has already been so overwhelming.

Hogan’s message, however, was notably less sugary. He continues to preach bipartisanship, but it’s really bipartisanship on his terms. If you’re a Democrat and you agree with him, swell. If not, watch out.

Most significantly, Hogan signaled that he plans to use the issue of priority scoring for transportation projects as a political sledgehammer against Democrats. Even though the dispute with the legislature is tinged with bureaucratic jargon, Hogan clearly thinks it’s a political winner.

“Regrettably, the legislature overrode a veto to push a bill forward that has the potential to kill nearly all of these priority road and bridge improvements,” he said. “On your behalf, our administration will continue to push for the repeal of this terrible legislation.”

That dichotomy – an olive branch in one hand, a brickbat in the other – is vintage Hogan. Still, it’s easy to see why Republican optimism was so sky-high at MACo and why, 26 ½ months before Election Day 2018, some Democrats are all but conceding Hogan a second term. “2022,” a couple of Democrats confided, “is not all that far away.”

Gavel Grabbing

Pulses in Ocean City quickened when the conversation turned to the possibility of House Health and Government Operations Chairman Pete Hammen (D), who has held the post since 2005, taking a high-level job with the city government after state Sen. Catherine Pugh (D) is elected mayor of Baltimore.

Hammen isn’t even gone – and there’s no guarantee that he will be – and already a scramble is on for the gavel.

As the vice chairwoman of the committee, Del. Shane Pendergrass (D) will rate some consideration, but she may be a little too liberal and unpredictable for risk-averse legislative leaders.

Del. Eric Bromwell (D), chairman of the panel’s Health Facilities & Occupations Subcommittee, is openly campaigning for the job – with an assist from his dad, former Senate Finance Chairman Tommy Bromwell (D), who no doubt still has friends in the health policy world even after doing time in prison on federal corruption charges. Part of the Bromwells’ pitch to Democratic leaders: That possessing the gavel will help Eric solidify his precarious political position back home, thanks to all the industry cash he’d be able to vacuum up as chairman, thus saving a seat in eastern Baltimore County, where Democrats are finding it difficult to win elections.

Another scenario is moving a senior lawmaker from a different committee over – possibly Del. Sally Jameson (D), the vice chairwoman on Economic Matters. That would give House Speaker Mike Busch (D) another plum position to play around with – though it would concentrate an awful lot of health policy power in Charles County, with Sen. Mac Middleton (D) now in his 14th year as Finance chairman.

Bipartisan Agreement: We Love Free Booze

Two of the biggest receptions at MACo took place Thursday night. Partygoers misinterpreted their significance.

Scores of people watched the sun go down at Ropewalk, at a party sponsored by Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R) and his colleagues. More than a few Democrats – including Senate President Mike Miller and the Bromwells – turned up.

“THIS SHOWS THAT MARYLAND REPUBLICANS REALLY ARE ASCENDANT,” a couple of different people consuming Jennings’ liquor opined. Indeed, some Republicans good-naturedly groused that Jennings should have made the event a fundraiser.

A couple of hours later, many of the same sweaty people were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder at Skye Bar, where the fire marshal, incredibly, did not shut down the joint. This revelry, sponsored by the Energy Systems Group, American Traffic Solutions, and Mayson-Dixon Strategic Consulting, was in honor of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks (D), and House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D).

“IT’S AN EARLY SHOW OF STRENGTH FOR BAKER’S GUBERNATORIAL BID,” confident drunks observed.

Really?

The safer assumption is that crowds were so big at Jennings’ and the Prince Georgians’ events BECAUSE BOTH WERE OFFERING FREE BOOZE, and lots of it. End of story.

Drink Up!

The convention itself had several interesting sessions on everything from medical marijuana to school funding to Pokemon Go. But because we’ve spent a lot of time in our day job following the drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., we were especially interested to listen in on a session about what the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the state’s largest water utility, is doing to prevent the same thing from happening in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The good news: WSSC has had no violations for its drinking water quality in its 98-year-history. The agency conducts 650,000 lab tests a year, but no longer uses lead pipes and has an aggressive corrosion control program.

Even better: Asked whether it would be better to drink WSSC water or the bottled water that had been left for convention-goers in the room, Karyn Riley, the utility’s director of intergovernmental relations, did not hesitate.

“You don’t need that,” she said, gesturing to the bottled water dismissively. “We should have imported a tanker of WSSC water.”

Bike Trek – the Next Generation

Vincent DeMarco, the ubiquitous and remarkably effective progressive activist, who has been in the thick of every important debate in Maryland on health care, tobacco and guns in the past quarter century, was at the convention center Thursday morning before kicking off a 473-mile bike ride to Deep Creek Lake, which concluded middayMonday.

DeMarco – acting as a citizen, not in his professional capacity – was part of a small group of pedalers looking to win publicity for the push to override Hogan’s veto of a bill to boost renewable energy standards in the state and promote clean energy jobs.

Notably, DeMarco was joined by his 23-year-old son, Jamie DeMarco, a recent college graduate and climate activist, who helped organize the “Ride for the Override.” The younger DeMarco, who has worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, is about to start a year-long fellowship at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, working on nuclear disarmament and climate change, among other issues.

Don’t be surprised to see Jamie DeMarco weighing in on progressive causes in Maryland in the years ahead.

“This is really important to our whole family,” the proud papa said.

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.