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Analysis: General Assembly session ends, but questions abound

The Maryland General Assembly session began in January with legislators being indicted. It’s ending in April with another legislator indicted.

What have we learned from this experience?

The third session of a four-year cycle is usually the most momentous and productive. The governor and legislature have found their footing, and it’s far enough from the next election that lawmakers feel they can tackle tough issues without major political consequences.

It’s also the session where the contours of the upcoming election year become apparent – the battle lines are drawn, the candidates are coming forward, and the attack lines are being road-tested.

Whether 2017 was a typically productive third-year session is debatable. It started out very slowly, but it ended with a respectable amount of substantive legislation being enacted.

What’s incontrovertible is that this session left many political questions unanswered:

–We don’t know what the political climate is going to look like in 2018, nationally or in Maryland.

–We don’t, just 14 ½ months before the primary, have a clue as to who the Democratic nominee for governor will be.

–We only have an inkling of how Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is going to comport himself during his re-election campaign.

–We don’t know much about the physical health of the legislature’s veteran presiding officers, House Speaker Mike Busch (D) or Senate President Mike Miller (D), or how long they plan to stick around. Ditto for some of the legislature’s most senior and powerful leaders.

–We don’t really know who speaks for the Democratic Party in Maryland right now.

Every mid-term election presents some peril for the party that occupies the White House. Hogan’s re-election would be more secure if Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016.

Hogan would surely have been a little more vulnerable with any Republican in the White House. But with Donald Trump as president, who knows? 2018 could be historically bad for the GOP.

On the other hand, Trump could so thoroughly scramble the political calculus – and Democrats nationally and in Maryland could overplay their hand in opposition to Trump – that GOP losses may be minimized. That could especially apply to a Republican who tries to keep his distance from the national party, like Hogan.

One thing that is clear is that Democrats aren’t really afraid of Hogan any more – and that’s a huge contrast from last summer or fall, when there was general resignation that a second term was almost inevitable. Now, the Democratic nomination for governor will be worth something – but it’s hard to predict who the nominee will be.

The nominal frontrunners continue to be Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. But there is so much churn in Democratic politics, nationally as well as in Maryland, that neither’s status seems especially secure. None of the possible candidates for governor — insiders or outsiders — really took advantage of the session or elevated his profile.

Hogan will certainly be well-funded for his re-election bid – more so than any Democrat. But as this session has shown, he hasn’t quite figured out how to navigate the newly choppy waters, either.

Is Hogan the tough-talking partisan who rails against the teachers’ union and against Democratic corruption, who aligns with the extreme education agenda of Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration and vows to hold the line on taxes and spending regardless of what those liberal elites think?

Or is he the centrist who is compliant with Democratic priorities such as banning fracking and providing emergency funds for Planned Parenthood – against the very vocal wishes of most Republicans in the House and Senate?

Hogan at one point vowed to veto the Democrats’ paid family sick leave bill. But does he really want that issue to roar back with a likely veto override in January, that much closer to the November 2018 election? Does he think simply advancing a more modest sick leave proposal, and then doing very little to promote it or work toward a compromise with the legislature, will give him enough political cover?

Regardless of Hogan’s insecure footing, courtesy of Trump and naturally shifting partisan sands, the Democrats – and outgoing U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein – have given him an enduring gift by keeping the issue of corruption in the headlines. With so many senior leaders at the top of the party, it’s easy to advance the “out of touch and in power for too long” argument, whether or not these are isolated incidents.

Still, Democrats have emerged from this session stronger. But how much stronger?

True, they finally got their act together on issues like sick leave and the fracking ban – though they probably could have gotten more political pop if they had passed those last year, when Hogan was hesitant to go along. And they actually responded appropriately to the Trump threat by protecting Planned Parenthood and aspects of Obamacare.

But it may be a mistake to try to compare Hogan to Trump at every turn. That argument may be worth keeping in the voters’ minds – but not every day and with every single issue.

At any rate, the Democrats in Maryland are in for a turbulent several months. Not only is the national Hillary-vs.-Bernie narrative at play here, even if it has been trumped up by the media to an extent. The  generational tensions that have subtly defined the debate over the future of the party for the last several years are now also bursting out into the open, accelerated (or exacerbated, depending on your point of view) by Trump.

So for those who follow Maryland politics closely, congratulations on making it to sine die. Rest up for maybe 48 hours. The fight for 2018 is only just beginning.


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Analysis: General Assembly session ends, but questions abound