Josh Kurtz: Opening Day

By Josh Kurtz

Enough with the presidential election already!

Tomorrow the real fun begins. It’s the official kick-off of the 2014 election cycle in Maryland.

Like any season opener in the wide world of sports, optimism is at its highest today. Everyone is tied for first place; no one has lost yet. The air is rife with possibility.

A lot of people think 2014 will be the most exciting election in Maryland, with the most turnover at every level of government, since 1986. At the very least, it’ll be the best since 2006, when we elected a new governor, a new U.S. senator, a new attorney general, and a new state comptroller.

As we fans sit here in the stadium stands, we can only imagine the stars about to take the field, and the dramatic games to come. Could we be looking at five serious Democratic candidates for governor? Open seat races for attorney general and comptroller, with a full slate of candidates?

Think of all the people running to replace the people running for governor and comptroller and AG. Five serious candidates for governor also means five people willing to sacrifice their current career paths to join their tickets as candidates for lieutenant governor.

And then we gaze longingly down the ballot. How about multi-candidate races for county executive in Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties? How about a credible anti-gambling pol — not you, Rev. Muse — taking on Rushern Baker? How about a dramatically redrawn congressional map, courtesy of voters today? How about wide open races for legislative seats from one end of the state to the other, breaking the endless logjam of leadership positions in Annapolis?

And, for a little extra drama, let’s ponder the possibility of comeback attempts by the likes of Doug Duncan, Frank Kratovil and Jim Smith.

Yes, anything is possible at this early stage, and it could be a great season ahead. I seem to recall a column Blair Lee wrote back in 1997 when he spun some kind of scenario where Paul Sarbanes would be appointed to the Supreme Court — even though there was no vacancy at the time — thus setting off a series of dominoes, all of which I’ve forgotten, ending with Nancy Grasmick being elected governor in 1998 with Chris Van Hollen as her running mate.

Absurd as that may sound today, there was a whiff of plausibility to it then, even if it was a bit fantastic. That’s the stage we’re at in the 2014 cycle now. A top Maryland operative recently suggested a gubernatorial ticket headed by Jim Smith, with Heather Mizeur in the No. 2 slot. Why not?

Why not? Because it ain’t gonna happen.

Delicious as the possibilities may seem, we’re all going to be disappointed soon.

Just as Washington Wizards fans can already see the long season ahead, despite the fact that the games just started and the team is currently only 0-2, reality will soon come crashing down on Maryland political junkies.

The first drop-out of the gubernatorial election could come in just a matter of weeks. In fact, of the five Democrats looking at running — Anthony Brown, Peter Franchot, Doug Gansler, Ken Ulman and Mizeur — only Gansler and Brown seem like they’re definitely posting. The others — who knows, despite what they may say? In any cycle, rare is the time when there are more than three top-tier candidates running in the same gubernatorial primary anyway.

If Franchot doesn’t run, then there’s no race to replace him. Jim Rosapepe, who has been the most aggressive of the potential Franchot successors, insists he won’t challenge Franchot in the Democratic primary, and chances are no other credible challengers will emerge. No Rosapepe in the comptroller’s race means no race to replace him in the state Senate. And so on down the line.

Then take some of these county races. In Montgomery and Anne Arundel, insiders can identify six or eight potential candidates for county executive. But realistically, you’re not likely to see more than three serious contenders in the Montgomery Democratic primary and three in the Anne Arundel Republican primary. When they stop and think about it, County Council members who fancy themselves moving up to the big job would rather keep their sinecures than risk a long-shot race when the alternative is being out of the political game.

Which isn’t to say that 2014 won’t be a very good political year in Maryland. It just may not be a banner year some fans are expecting. Political change just doesn’t take place all that quickly here.

———————————————————————————

The news that Joe Bryce, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s chief legislative officer, is leaving to take a job with the Manis & Canning lobbying firm in Annapolis, is significant on a few different levels.

First, it means we can now see the beginning of the end of the O’Malley administration.

Of course, the governor still has more than two full years left in office, and more than a few things left that he’d like to do, like finally get his wind energy initiative through, and end capital punishment, and replenish badly-depleted transportation funding. But the heaviest legislative lifting is probably over, and it would not be surprising to see other O’Malley administration powerhouses head for the exits sooner rather than later — some, no doubt, for his nascent presidential campaign.

Bryce was rumored to be leaving months earlier, but he stuck around for two special legislative sessions. He’ll be tough for O’Malley to replace — some of the governor’s legislative agenda would never have gone through over the years without Bryce smoothing the way. The same is true of Parris Glendening’s legislative agenda, when Bryce worked for him.

Bryce is the second big catch for Manis & Canning in the past year, following John Favazza, the former chief of staff to Mike Busch. It suggests that in the firmament of Annapolis lobbying shops, Manis & Canning is plainly ascendant. Whether it affects that firm’s bottom line in the short- or midterm — or the bottom lines of its competitors — remains to be seen. But that small firm is now chock-full of heavy hitters, and it’ll be interesting to see if, or how, other firms adapt.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Bryce takes to the job. He certainly knows the terrain and is one of the smartest operators in Annapolis. But it’s one thing to be speaking for the administration when talking to legislators, to have the upper hand. It’s another to be hustling for a client, a supplicant. It’ll be an adjustment, to be sure.

Will Bryce’s move also change the relationship between O’Malley and Busch? Bryce’s marriage to Kristin Jones, Busch’s chief of staff, helped define the dynamic between the two offices — and some Annapolis insiders have groused that Busch, and by turn the House, has been too pliant when it comes to O’Malley’s agenda.

Just another episode in the saga of “How Annapolis Turns.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Duncan Moving Closer to Comeback Bid

A Perfect (Political) Storm Hits Prince George’s

Sail Away

Nov. 6 Could Spell Trouble for Top Maryland Dems

Louie Louie

After the Blue Wave Crashes

The Impossible DREAM?

I’m Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille

A Conversation with Ken Ulman

The Future Is Now?