Laslo Boyd: Transitions

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By: Laslo Boyd 

In the world of politics, it looks like 2015 will be really different from 2014. Well, maybe not so much at the national level. Republicans will control both Houses of Congress, but that probably doesn’t mean that bills will be passed. Having responsibility can be a terrible burden. It’s so much easier when all you have to do is obstruct and grandstand.

Curiously, there may be more changes on the horizon for Democrats than for Republicans. This last election was a disaster. It would take a remarkable level of obliviousness to think that having a good chance to win the presidency in 2016 is enough to make things right. The party has a structural turnout problem that won’t be solved merely by a presidential election. The Democratic coalition, such as it is, is hard to awaken for state and local elections, especially in non-presidential years.

The lack of attention to state legislative and gubernatorial elections was at least as costly as the heavy losses in the House and the Senate. Neglecting to have a positive message focused on issues of concern to voters, and instead trying to demonize opponents using negative ads and scare tactics, didn’t work. There really weren’t many people in Maryland, for example, who believed that Larry Hogan was dangerous despite the constant barrage from Anthony Brown’s campaign.

Similarly, the flood of self-congratulation about the superior use of social media and Election Day organization in the 2012 Presidential Election looks pretty shallow in the aftermath of this year’s debacle. In other words, the Democratic Party better be engaged in a really serious reexamination and transformation.

Democrats need to focus on recruiting candidates at the state and local level and pay more attention to messaging and retooling the party organization. Perhaps most important of all, figuring out how to get irregular voters to turn out in non-presidential elections will provide a very full agenda for the Democratic Party.

In Maryland, the new governor has offered few clues as to what his policy priorities for the next four years will be. There’s a lot of tea leaf reading going on, based on what he has said and hasn’t said, on whom he has appointed to his transition team, and on the broad themes of his campaign. His first order of business will be figuring out how to balance the budget. His approach, including how he works with the General Assembly, will tell us a lot about how he intends to lead.

Early speculation, which may be only wishful thinking, is that Larry Hogan will try to govern as a moderate. He ignored unpopular social issues during his campaign, but will certainly face pressure from some within his party to revisit laws and policies enacted during the O’Malley Administration. If he does, it could be a very short honeymoon.

Rolling back tax increases from the past eight years was a popular campaign message, but won’t be an easy promise to fulfill. Hogan will have considerably more opportunity to impact the state’s regulatory environment. Initiatives in that area may allow him to assert that he has improved Maryland’s business climate.

Ultimately, Hogan’s ability to be a successful governor will depend in significant degree on his ability to form a constructive working relationship with Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch. As extensive as the Constitutional authority of the Maryland governor is, getting the cooperation of the General Assembly’s two presiding officers is critical if he hopes to accomplish much.

Watching Miller and Busch deal with Hogan will certainly be one of the more interesting shows in Annapolis. There are many Democrats who are already counting on Hogan having only one term and are relying on Miller and Busch to make sure he doesn’t have too many successes. If that approach seems to come straight from Congressional Republicans, it is a reminder that politics is very much about whose ox is being gored.

You shouldn’t ignore the two other statewide elected officials. Comptroller Peter Franchot’s seat on the Board of Public Works will allow him direct interaction with Hogan’s agenda on a regular basis. He has staked out an independent position within the Democratic Party and is likely to support the Governor on fiscal restraint, at least in the short term.

The new Attorney General, Brian Frosh, has a long history as a strong advocate for environmental protection, gun regulations, and civil rights. As an independently elected constitutional officer of the state, he will not be bound by Hogan’s approach to those issues.

At the local level, County Executives were all sworn in earlier this week. In central Maryland, there are three returning Democrats and three new Republicans. What may unify them is the impact that significant state budget cuts instituted by Hogan would have on local government finances. County government is very much about delivering services and managing costs. It is, therefore, less prone to the ideological battles that occur at the federal and sometimes the state level.

On the other hand, at least some of those six may already be thinking about a campaign for governor in four or eight years. The most interesting jurisdiction politically is Baltimore County, where Kevin Kamenetz won re-election with only token opposition while Larry Hogan was carrying the county by a large margin. Which way Baltimore County goes in future elections could be the key to whether Democrats maintain their dominance in the State or whether Republicans are able to be consistently competitive.

At this point in the transition period, there are many more questions than answers. And the answers may be difficult to decipher for quite a while.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.