Turns out there was a Democratic presence at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference after all.
Benjamin T. Jealous, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, was nowhere to be found in Ocean City. That breach in tradition, if not protocol, had insiders up in arms and wondering about the health of Jealous’ campaign. It also largely left the stage to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who was only too happy to have it – and to remind people, “I’ve been going to MACo for 40 years.”
Susan W. Turnbull, Jealous’ running mate, did make it down to Ocean City midday Friday – day three of the four-day confab. And she and Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews were among the politicians making the rounds at the convention’s crab feast Friday night.
Yet a brief news conference in the convention hall Saturday morning by two Democratic senators and the new president of the Maryland State Education Association was more telling: Democrats still think the education issue gets them an advantage over the governor.
The main topic of the MACo conference was water. But just minutes before a scheduled panel featuring members of the Kirwan Commission discussing their forthcoming proposal to overhaul the state’s public education system, Sens. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) and William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) and MSEA President Cheryl Bost blasted Hogan’s education record and challenged him to commit to fully funding the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations.
Jealous has vowed to pay for Kirwan through a variety of measures, including legalizing marijuana in Maryland and earmarking those revenues for education funding, including significantly higher teacher salaries. Both Bost and Pinsky accused Hogan of governing in “soundbites.”
“Not everyone agrees with every proposal that Ben Jealous has put forward,” Pinsky conceded. “But at least he’s got a vision.”
Hogan has boasted of spending record amounts of money on education. But Democrats and the teachers’ union argue that he is simply fulfilling legal mandates at the same time he has rejected a supplemental funding package while boosting state funding for private and parochial schools and favoring school vouchers – “just like Betsy DeVos,” as Bost put it.
Part of the Democrats’ exercise was an attempt to goad Hogan into saying whether he’d be willing to raise taxes to fund Kirwan, which Pinsky called “a dynamic proposal” with potential to transform the state’s struggling schools and have a nationwide impact.
But the Democrats weren’t able to put a price tag on the final Kirwan proposal, and the Hogan camp wasn’t taking the bait.
“The Kirwan Commission hasn’t come out with its final recommendations,” said Amelia Chassé, the governor’s communications director. She noted that Hogan signed a bill that the Democratic-led legislature passed this year, putting a down-payment on the less controversial recommendations in the Kirwan plan.
As Hogan’s team and the Republican Governors Association repeatedly hit Jealous for his costly and “risky” proposals, Smith on Saturday was quick to point out that Jealous’ initial plan to fund the Kirwan recommendations “doesn’t require more taxes. It’s a patchwork of solutions.”
‘As the governor, he gets to take credit’
One consequence of Jealous’ decision to skip MACo was that Hogan was able to turn the event into a series of victory laps, rather than having to address the future or roll out new initiatives. Jealous was invited to appear on the stage back-to-back with Hogan, answering the same set of questions posited by county officials. But when Jealous declined, Hogan was able to give the traditional convention-ending gubernatorial address.
MACo had booked the convention hall’s performing arts center for a full hour, but Hogan was in and out in a tidy 17 minutes, using the occasion for a recitation of his greatest hits. But for a couple of not-so-subtle digs at Jealous for being absent – “nothing could have prevented me from being with you here today,” he said – Hogan essentially gave the same campaign-style speech he’s being giving for most of the spring and summer.
From cuts in taxes, tolls and fees to record spending on education, the Chesapeake Bay and transportation projects to an improved business climate and voter optimism, Hogan was happy to take the local officials through a tour of the previous four years. He reminded them that when he appeared before the MACo conference as a candidate in 2014, he pledged that he would pay attention to areas of the state that had been ignored under previous administrations, and added, “Over the past four years we have made incredible progress. We have made significant investments in each of your jurisdictions.”
As he often does, Hogan, near the end of his speech, included the admonition, “We cannot afford to reverse course.”
As expected, he got a lusty response from the county leaders, cabinet officers and administration staffers in attendance. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who sat in the front row and earlier in the morning joked that he had helped Hogan write his speech, offered an unusually harsh assessment.
Miller’s criticism carries some significance because he has been reluctant to embrace Jealous in recent weeks and is regarded as personally friendly to the governor (though Miller did not write Hogan’s speech Saturday the two in fact had breakfast that morning, according to Miller).
“As the governor, he gets to take credit for a lot of things he had nothing to do with and campaigned against,” Miller said, citing the gasoline tax hike of 2013, which he said is serving as a catalyst for all the transportation projects Hogan is touting.
“He’s had the benefit of a good economy,” Miller continued. “He’s stood on the shoulders of hard-working legislators.”
Asked about Jealous’ decision to miss the MACo conference, Miller was surprisingly forgiving: “It would be hard for him to counter anything the governor said.”
Miller also endorsed Jealous’ political calculation, noting that “there are people from all over the state here” – an observation about the fact that far more Republicans than Democrats attend MACo. “Ben Jealous is going to get his votes from Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, Howard County, Charles County,” Miller said.
Asked if he trusted Jealous over Hogan to fully implement the Kirwan recommendations and other reforms, Miller said yes – but acknowledged that the Democratic nominee will face some challenges getting his message out.
“He’s going to have to have Marylanders recognize that he’s one of them and that he can solve their problems, particularly on education,” Miller said.
Hogan, who spent the previous days in Ocean City meeting the public at various venues and making himself available to the media, left the convention hall after his speech without pressing the flesh or meeting with reporters.
At a party thrown by his campaign at the legendary Seacrets bar on Friday night, Hogan said of Jealous: “He’s so far left, he makes [former Gov.] Martin O’Malley (D) look like a conservative Republican.”
Hogan also exhorted the crowd not to get complacent about his reelection prospects, even though “things are looking great.”
“Nobody wants to wake up the morning after Election Day and say, ‘boy we wish,’ [or] ‘we shoulda, we coulda,’” he said.
Beyond the political rhetoric, the conference session on Kirwan Saturday – featuring none other than former University System of Maryland chancellor William E. Kirwan himself – was part status report on the commission’s work, part look ahead to the political and policy battles that will follow.
Kirwan said the commission is organized around five essential goals:
–Significant investments in early childhood education, including access to full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds and full-day pre-K for all 3-year-olds living in poverty.
–Significantly more support for at-risk kids, including more community schools and after-school programs.
–Transformation of the teaching profession, “making it a high-status profession,” Kirwan said, with commensurate salaries.
–A rigorous curriculum that stresses continuity from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
–Improved governance and accountability of the state’s schools.
Kirwan said the commission should be issuing its final report in November, and legislative leaders have said they expect the General Assembly to act on the recommendations in the 2019 session.
“We have taken such a deep dive on what makes schools a success,” Kirwan said. “The challenge is going to be, will the state have the will to follow through on these recommendations?”
Allegany County Commissioner William R. Valentine (R), who is serving on the Kirwan commission, put the challenge of fully implementing the plan even more succinctly: “It will be expensive,” he said.