Josh Kurtz: Like Moths to a Flame

By Josh Kurtz

Guess all that talk about this being a sleepy legislative session, with no divisive social issues consuming it, was a little premature.

Legislative leaders were hoping for a quiet session, free from the controversy that engulfed them last year. And most members of the legislature, on the heels of exhausting fights over gay marriage and the DREAM Act and gambling and budgetary chaos, wanted nothing more than a guarantee that they’d be able to go home on time come mid-April.

But Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had other ideas. And now all of the legislature’s provocateurs and headline-seekers, on the left and on the right, are busying themselves cranking up the heat. The media are giving them plenty of attention.

We knew all along that O’Malley would make one last stab at repealing capital punishment. So we’ll give him that.

But in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., there’s been a rush, in certain state capitals, and of course, down at the White House, to push through all manner of gun control legislation. O’Malley, with an apparent eye on what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) just impressively rammed through in Albany, has his own ambitious package of gun safety legislation.

By all means, let’s have those debates on the death penalty and gun control. They’re worth having, and most of O’Malley’s proposals are sound.

But let’s also recognize that by doing so we’ve concocted a toxic brew of emotional issues that are bound to dominate the discourse for the entire General Assembly session. Many other worthy issues are liable to be ignored, if not cast aside altogether.

O’Malley has his reasons for wanting this, and let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt that presidential politics are only a part of it. But it’s fair to ask: aren’t other issues that are cropping up this legislative session just as important, and couldn’t some of them advance O’Malley’s presidential aspirations as well?

Take the far more prosaic — and now perennial — discussion in Maryland over transportation and infrastructure funding. Here is a glaring need, a structural deficit of dangerous proportions, that no one seems ready or willing to address.

Isn’t it worth O’Malley’s time — and the expenditure of some political capital — to figure out how to fully fund our transportation needs? Wouldn’t there be a political benefit to being able to tell voters — not just here, but in Iowa and New Hampshire — that we’re on the verge of breaking ground on two exciting and important rail projects, that we’re fixing all our roads and bridges, that we’re doing innovative stuff with busways and so on? Yes, there would be.

But while O’Malley has given lip service to the need for more transportation funding, and on numerous occasions, he has yet to advance a comprehensive plan for doing so, and everything he says on the topic suggests, at best, a seat-of-the-pants approach. He doesn’t even have a secretary of Transportation — leaving one of the most important cabinet agencies in the state rudderless for more than half a year.

Across the Potomac in Virginia, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s call to eliminate the gas tax seems foolhardy. But at least it’s an attempt to propose an innovative solution for the state’s transportation funding needs.

It’s enough to make one long for the days of Parris Glendening and his calculating, methodical approach to the sausage making. Glendening’s way of passing major legislation was to float an idea at the summer MACo conference; build a case with strategic public appearances and meetings with key stakeholders all fall; and, as the debate in Annapolis commenced, retain a strong awareness of where the votes were and how to attain a majority.

But with O’Malley, there is little of that. Infrastructure doesn’t excite the activist base of the Democratic Party, and the national media wouldn’t be interested. And O’Malley’s 2016 strategy for now seems predicated on appearing on TV — or at the very least, being mentioned on the air and in print — as often as possible.

Just last week, The Hotline, National Journal’s invaluable political tip sheet, published a short meditation and a longer column comparing O’Malley’s recent activities on gun control with Cuomo’s.

“Here’s a parlor game we’ll be playing for the next three years: Who can get further to the left, Martin O’Malley or Andrew Cuomo?” the editors wrote in a blurb at the top of the Jan. 16 Hotline. “The two governors are shadow-boxing in their home states before they take the fight to the Iowa caucuses.”

In a longer piece in the same edition, Josh Kraushaar, the Hotline’s No. 2 editor, wrote, “The transparency with which politicians try to exploit short-term changes in public opinion can sometimes be painfully obvious. And such is the case over gun control, with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both 2016 presidential hopefuls, looking to pass ambitious gun laws in their home states.” Kraushaar went on to argue that all their posturing on gun control will amount to nothing come 2016, because so many other issues will have risen to prominence by then.

That’s a debatable point, when you’re talking about a Democratic presidential nominating contest, when every bit of progressive posturing grabs attention and enables candidates to accumulate points (O’Malley’s push for wind energy, if successful, will be another couple of notches in the liberal belt).

The very fact that National Journal is noticing speaks volumes. Drama sells, drama makes you part of the conversation on MSNBC. Rolling up your sleeves and digging down to find long-term solutions to Maryland’s most intractable problems? Not so much.

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Anthony Brown’s narrow victory over Doug Gansler and Ken Ulman in the annual fundraising sweepstakes last week was symbolic at best. But it means precious little.

The fact remains that Gansler is going to have at least twice as much to spend as his two rivals in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Brown’s showing, given the rumors about how well he had done, must come as a relief to his team. But it doesn’t affect the bottom line.

Perhaps most noteworthy was Ulman’s strong showing for the second year in a row. It is still hard to see Ulman’s path to victory at this point — his candidacy so far, and his fundraising prowess, impresses the insiders rather than average voters. But he has earned the right to stick around and make his case. Considering that he once again is showing more money on hand than Brown, the talk about him dropping back and becoming Brown’s running mate should dissipate considerably.

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:

New Year’s Appeal

Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Party Like It’s 1986

Sole Practitioner

Franchot to Seek Re-election, Won’t Run for Governor

No Heroes Here

Running Mates