Josh Kurtz: Weekend Update

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By: Josh Kurtz 

It says a lot about the state of Maryland politics when, less than a month before the most important primary election in years, local political headlines are dominated by a half-baked idea to change the school calendar, followed by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s non-appearance at a televised gubernatorial debate.

Who’s most closely associated with the push to put off the start of the school year until after Labor Day? Not any of the candidates for governor, but a guy who chose to stay on the sidelines – state Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Franchot is a master of hogging media attention when he wants to, but this time, it wasn’t necessary. He has been promoting the Labor Day idea for a couple of years now, as a means to extend family vacations and the summer tourist economy, and it was given major validation last week when a state task force voted 11-4 to recommend it.

The recommendation will likely result in legislation during next year’s General Assembly session, though its fate there is unclear, especially if the teachers’ unions remain opposed to the calendar change. Even so, the concept is making remarkable progress and, more than any issue in the gubernatorial campaign, seems to be capturing the attention of the public and editorial writers.

(It also represents a second important recent victory for state Sen. Jim Mathias, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the general election. His district includes Ocean City, where a later start to the school year would be an economic boon, and Wicomico County, where a large-scale wind energy project is proceeding after Gov. Martin O’Malley vetoed a bill to delay it).

The two Democratic candidates who did appear at the Channel 45 gubernatorial debate this week, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur, were asked about the school calendar. Mizeur said she wanted to keep the decision in the hands of local officials, while Gansler -- whose own kids attended private school – fully embraced it.

Increasingly, Gansler seems to be running the campaign for governor that Franchot might have -- substantively if not tactically and stylistically -- emphasizing many of the same issues that Franchot has tried to make his own, like opposition to the gas tax increase, a push for financial literacy programs, and a pro-business agenda generally.

Gansler still brings up his estimable environmental record as attorney general, but it hasn’t moved either of the state’s leading environmental groups, with the state chapter of the Sierra Club backing Mizeur and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters bestowing its endorsement on Brown just this week.

Interestingly, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation, Gansler was never even in the conversation when it came to the LCV endorsement. There was a vocal faction on the LCV board, based largely on the Eastern Shore, in favor of getting behind Mizeur, but in the end, LCV leaders concluded that endorsing the frontrunner Brown was a low-risk, moderate-reward course of action.

Brown seems to have benefited from that kind of thinking across a spectrum of interest groups aligned with Democrats, reinforcing the sense of his inevitability in the gubernatorial primary. Even Franchot, despite the apparent mind meld with Gansler, stopped himself at a Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, which Brown was presiding over, to say, “Gov. Brown…Hmm, has a nice ring to it.”

The rollout of LCV’s endorsement of Brown was a smart play both for the green group and the candidate. Rather than taking place at some predictable pretty location along the Chesapeake Bay, the event instead was held at an urban rain garden in East Baltimore, to highlight Brown’s and LCV’s dual commitment to environmental justice.

(LCV is now wading into a hot Democratic primary in a majority-African-American district in Prince George’s County, where on Thursday it committed an unprecedented $40,000 to help Del. Veronica Turner defeat state Sen. Anthony Muse. Turner is not the most dynamic candidate in the world, but powerful forces are lining up to push her across the finish line, including key labor unions, Working Families Maryland, and now, LCV. Turner’s campaign website features the same purple and gold hues associated with the Service Employees International Union, one of her top benefactors.)

As the LCV event once again proved, Brown’s message to the primary electorate is clear: I’m black. This was also the case Tuesday night, when he missed the televised debate but could be found at a senior center in Northwest Baltimore, talking about his recently-deceased father’s humble upbringing in Jamaica and his commitment to Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities.

Brown was roundly criticized for missing the debate, and rightfully so. It was a bad idea tactically, because it reinforced the notion that he’s running a Rose Garden strategy, that he’s uncomfortable in unscripted situations, and that he’s reluctant to engage his opponents.

But debates over debates are among the stupidest campaign storylines of all time. Who cares that the candidates disagree over whether they committed to two televised debates, or three, or a thousand?

At any rate, we know the Democrats will be debating on Monday night, on Maryland Public Television. And if voters just tuning in for the first time learn anything, it’ll be how much Brown and Gansler really dislike each other.

There’s a reason for this, of course: They’re in each other’s way. Both are devoted public servants. But Gansler has been plotting his run for governor since at least 1998, when he was elected Montgomery County state’s attorney. And Brown entered the political big time as soon as he returned from his nine-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2005.

From that moment on, Brown and Gansler, two men with boundless ambition and tremendous egos, have regarded each other only as rivals. If ever there was any good will between them, it was fleeting.

And now, with less than a month to go, the Democratic primary for governor has devolved into a bout of name calling and toxic TV ads. Small wonder the electorate seems focused on more pleasant topics like family vacations.  

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

 

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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.