Josh Kurtz: Kiss of Death?

Too bad the 44,468 students from Baltimore County and Baltimore city who missed school Wednesday due to the week’s extreme heat didn’t watch the livestream of the Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis.

They would have at least learned something about the art of Political Kabuki. They might also have learned about the BPW, a one-of-a-kind procurement entity in the United States with a political culture all its own, consisting of the governor, the state comptroller and the state treasurer – the latter of whom is appointed by the 188 members of the legislature.

That Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) used the meeting to blame local school officials (in Hogan’s case) and Democratic legislative leaders (in Franchot’s case) was hardly surprising. Both were in high dudgeon and at their finger-pointing, prosecutorial best. They’ve made overheated or freezing classrooms, depending on the season, one of their top political issues.  

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp

Hogan said Baltimore city school officials lied to the state about the progress of school air conditioning projects.

Like Sam Waterston in “Law & Order,” Franchot laid out the case that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) had systematically sought to weaken state oversight of school construction projects.

“We’re talking about people who’ve had power for so long that they’ve forgotten who they work for,” said Franchot, who has been in public office for 32 consecutive years.

The Baltimore city and county school systems and those who oversee them have been a regular foil for Hogan and Franchot, but with Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), the former Baltimore county executive, now in the grave, the targets are a little less juicy and considerably more anonymous. But it is an election year, so their attacks – and the responses to them – are no less political.

Most Democrats, from gubernatorial nominee Benjamin T. Jealous on down, say the lack of progress on school building improvements is less a function of feckless education bureaucrats and impotent local officials than a lack of state funding for school construction. Yet Hogan insists he has provided record levels of school construction funding during his four years in office.

What’s a confused voter to believe?

And is it possible, as State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp had the temerity to suggest amid all the chest-thumping Wednesday, that Baltimore City, handicapped by a limited exchequer, is at least making slow progress on school building repairs?

One of the problems that is quite real is that the city, unfortunately, does not have the resources that Montgomery County or Baltimore County have to put into their share,” Kopp said. “That adds up and that makes a difference.”

About Kopp: She found herself the target of stinging criticism from Hogan after she remarked that any in-depth discussion on air conditioning in schools might benefit by waiting until after the election.

“To insinuate this is all about politics, when there’s an election coming up, when the issue is 44,000 kids missing school today, it’s outrageous,” Hogan said. Yet just before he laid into her, Hogan was careful to say how much he respects Kopp, that it’s been “an honor” to work with her.

Franchot did the same.

And at the end of the meeting something even more extraordinary happened: Franchot and Hogan took the time to publicly praise their colleague, even though they have differed with her on some of the bigger controversies to come before the BPW. If that seemed random, you haven’t been paying attention: Hogan and Franchot dispensed their tributes in response to a remarkable article in The Daily Record a week earlier, in which House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) implied that Kopp may not be adequately representing the legislature’s interests in the BPW.

If you read between the lines, you could interpret Branch’s comments as a not-so-subtle hint that the 74-year-old treasurer, who has held the job since 2002, ought to consider moving on at the end of her term. And there was some speculation that he was teeing up the job for Speaker Busch, who has long been rumored to be interested in becoming treasurer.

“It’s as if people were criticizing her for not being partisan enough,” Hogan said of the article, telling Kopp directly, “I think you’re doing a wonderful job.” Franchot referred to the treasurer as “my distinguished colleague,” and added, “I have never and will never question her motives…I hope you’re here as long as you want to be here.”

Before The Daily Record ran its piece, I caught wind that Branch had in his possession a run-down of the BPW members’ voting records, and I asked him what he was up to during the Maryland Association of Counties conference in mid-August.

He was cagey. “I was just curious,” he said.

Regardless of the longtime scuttlebutt, there isn’t any tangible evidence that Busch is trying to become treasurer at this point. If Kopp moves on next year – and I wouldn’t bet on that, either – it’s inconceivable that legislators wouldn’t appoint a woman to replace her. With Hogan and Franchot likely to return to the Board of Public Works, they’d see it as a moral imperative. So instead of perpetuating rumors about Busch, State House insiders might instead turn their attention to potential Kopp replacements. Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s)? Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County)? Del. Aruna Miller (D-Montgomery), who is leaving the legislature at the end of this term?

Any of those three women would be more combative on the Board of Public Works than Kopp is now. Yet Nancy Kopp has been a highly-valued public servant – smart, sober, hardworking, conscientious, talented with numbers – both as treasurer and during her 27 years in the legislature. Even when Hogan snapped at her Wednesday, she showed a unique ability to diffuse the tension. After Hogan gave a Customer Public Service Hero award to a nurse practitioner from the Howard County government, Kopp chimed in about the “extraordinary” growth of the nurse practitioner profession in Maryland, and suggested that political leaders should feel proud about it. It was an unnoticed but classy moment.

Maybe Franchot and Hogan were paying honest tribute to Kopp. Maybe, in the small, rarefied world of the BPW, they felt the need to protect one of their own. But their public praise was prompted by a newspaper article that they could have ignored. I

nstead, Franchot, who went first, chose to keep the controversy alive. To some ears, the Hogan and Franchot remarks sounded patronizing and sexist – bordering on a kiss of death.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.


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