Josh Kurtz: Stations of the Cross and the Station That’s Become a Cross to Bear

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By Josh Kurtz

We may as well just go ahead and cancel the 2014 General Assembly session. What, after all, is left for Gov. Martin O’Malley to accomplish?

Legislative sessions in election years are usually sleepy affairs, anyway. With re-elections uppermost in the lawmakers’ minds, no one has the stomach to confront anything remotely controversial. That’ll be especially true with primaries just six or seven weeks after Sine Die.

But for O’Malley, the 2014 session is looking like a zero sum game.

By any measure, even if you can’t stand the guy, he’s been on a remarkable winning streak during the past couple of years. Why tempt fate with another ambitious legislative push? He’d only encounter resistance -- not that the legislature has proven much of an impediment to him so far.

Political insiders have marveled at O’Malley’s less-than-stellar polling numbers in Maryland. They shouldn’t. Those numbers are almost irrelevant in a certain way.

Sure, they matter -- just not to O’Malley. If there’s “O’Malley fatigue” in the electorate, it will attach itself to Anthony Brown, his loyal lieutenant governor and designated successor.

As for the charge that O’Malley’s agenda has been so liberal that it could boomerang on moderate Democratic legislators serving swing areas of the state -- really?

Increasingly, Maryland isn’t a one party state, as the conventional wisdom goes. It’s really a three party state -- with liberal Democrats, who are dominant, moderate Democrats who help fatten the majority, and Republicans.

With the rare exception of someone who is going to be picked off because he didn’t campaign hard enough, most moderate Maryland Democrats are savvy enough at this point in their careers to figure out how to thrive in the current political environment. They shrug off the march of progress in Annapolis by voting against gay marriage and the DREAM Act and gun control. O’Malley is an irritant to them, but not a major worry, because their political identities are well established and they‘ve learned how to work around him -- and vice-versa.

And the Republicans? They continue to slouch toward total irrelevance. Only in Maryland would House Republicans save a leadership fight until just after the legislative session is finished. Makes absolutely no sense. It’s like saying “wait ‘till next year” -- this year. The “leadership” “battle” at the state GOP is another train wreck we’ll have to address another time.

As for O’Malley, he once cared what voters in places like Odenton and Essex and Waldorf thought. Swing voters were essential when he ousted Bob Ehrlich from Government House in 2006, and when he stomped him again four years later. Now, he cares more about Democratic caucus and primary voters in places like Ames, Iowa and Portsmouth, N.H.

And what does he have to offer them? Over the past couple of years, O’Malley has made successful stops at just about every liberal station of the cross. It’s a pretty impressive offering, when you stop and think about it.

Gay marriage? Check. Gun control? Check. Immigrants’ rights? Check. Rescind capital punishment? Check. Renewable energy initiatives? Check. More transportation and infrastructure spending, an essential ingredient for every Democratic recipe on economic development? Check. Expanded gambling, a high priority for most trade unions? Check. Same-day voter registration? Check. Ample education spending? Check. Policies that put the state in line with the rules and principles of Obamacare? Check.

It’s a menu as enticing for Democratic activists in early primary and caucus states as any potential 2016 presidential contender can offer -- even Hillary Clinton.

Which doesn’t mean that O’Malley can beat Clinton, if she runs. Or that he’s the best candidate. It just means that O’Malley has skillfully built a plausible case for a national candidacy. Skeptics back home should get over it -- and enjoy the ride.

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It should be lost on no one that the biggest fiasco of Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s tenure is happening in the same place where former County Executive Doug Duncan enjoyed his greatest triumph -- downtown Silver Spring.

The county’s inability to bring to a close construction of a sprawling transit center there -- now $80 million over budget and two years late (and counting) is no longer just an eyesore and an inconvenience and an embarrassment. It could potentially turn into a major political liability for Leggett -- and an opportunity for Duncan.

Although he continues to do his Hamlet-on-Hungerford thing, it’s widely assumed now that Leggett will seek a third term. Duncan and County Councilman Phil Andrews seem determined to take him on in the Democratic primary, and Councilwoman Valerie Ervin may as well.

Count me as one of those Montgomery County political observers who has thought that Leggett will wipe the floor with Duncan and Andrews -- and I guess I still do. But the transit center may present Duncan with an opening.

All along, Duncan’s prime argument for a comeback has been, “Look what I did.” And the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring will always be Exhibit A. But with the transit center, designed as a hub for Metro and MARC trains and dozens of public bus routes, stalled, Duncan can now say, “Look what I did -- and look what he couldn’t do.”

Is it enough to derail Leggett’s re-election bid? Does it bring Duncan any closer to the Montgomery County electorate, which has changed dramatically since he left office? Probably not. But it’s something that Leggett is going to have to answer for -- and that's not an enviable position to be in.

Meanwhile, Andrews’ candidacy seems designed to appeal to one entity only -- The Washington Post. Don’t underestimate the political potency of that potential alliance.

If Duncan is out of sync with the modern Montgomery electorate, Andrews, with his aw-shucks, Boy Scout demeanor, appears to be, too. And the success he’s had in his Council district, going door-to-door all these years, can’t be replicated in a countywide race.

But he’s still got allies in the civic community. And some voters will find his Common Cause history appealing. If there’s going to be one candidate with a modicum of grass-roots support in next year’s executive race, it may well be Andrews.

And then there’s the Post. The editorial writers there like his good government cred as well. But most of all, they like his increasing stridency against the public employee unions -- a stark contrast to Leggett, who just offered most county workers a fairly generous contract.

People have asked: Could the Post really turn its back on Leggett after being such an integral part of his success for so long? Isn’t the editorial board terrified of abandoning a high-profile African-American elected official?

Not in the current political atmosphere, with the Post's jihad on public employee unions. With Andrews mouthing their positions on labor relations, the editorial writers may be all to happy to offer Ike Leggett a gold watch and send him on his way.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Fools Rushern In

A Sense of the Senate

Montgomery Councilmember Seeks Investigation Into Anonymous Web Attack

Peter Principle

Louie, Louie
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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.