Josh Kurtz: The Future Is Now

Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City)

Now, more than ever, Maryland politics is at an inflection point.

Every election is a change election – even in a state like Maryland, where political leaders become embedded in their jobs. Think about the last few:

In 2016, Baltimore City got a new mayor and several dynamic new City Council members and the state got two new members of Congress.

Not only did we get a rare Republican governor in 2014, but Republicans made significant, durable gains in certain rural and exurban legislative districts. Overall, more than 40 percent of the House of Delegates turned over.

2010 saw major Republican pickups in county-level offices. 2006 brought a new governor, a new comptroller, a new attorney general and a new U.S. senator.

Yet this year feels different – and more cataclysmic.

2018 was a status quo election at first glance. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) was reelected – both a seismic event and a yawner at the same time. U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) kept his 52-year winning streak alive. Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) won a fourth term, and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) won his second (both were first elected to the legislature in 1986). All seven U.S. House incumbents seeking reelection won easily.

Josh Kurtz

Most significantly, the 2019 General Assembly session will begin with the same two presiding officers who have been there since the Truman administration (only a slight exaggeration), Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

But in reality, last week’s election brought more change than it first appeared.

Start with new county executives in five of the state’s seven biggest counties, and lots of other new county officials. Add in 16 new state senators – seven of them in their 30’s and 40’s – and more than 40 new House members.

But more important, the next several years in Maryland politics represents the beginning of the end.

If a federal court order for the state to redraw its congressional district map next year stands, that will begin to upend the regular order. Another round of redistricting will be right behind it, following the 2020 U.S. Census. Whatever the partisan outcome, especially with Hogan having a say, our congressional district boundaries – and the delegation – will be changing.

Hogan just won a smashing reelection, but Republicans were unable to break the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature – and in fact, Democrats gained seats in the House. So it’s not clear how ambitious an agenda Hogan will be pursuing, even with the mandate he can claim.

What’s more, Hogan has signaled his interest in becoming a bigger part of the national conversation – and as chairman of the National Governors Association beginning next July, he’ll have the platform to do so.

We can’t call Hogan, at the height of his popularity and political power, a lame duck. But we can’t call him transformational, either. His policy legacy will mostly amount to playing defense. And his political legacy? He has yet to build the state GOP.

What this means is that it’s OK to peek ahead to the next governor – not to the 2022 horse race, necessarily (despite what you might have read in these pages last week), but to the notion that change is on its way. Hogan will be a lame duck, eventually.

Whether they’re angling for the next big political opportunity, or just grappling with the challenges of their job, each of the new county executives will be fascinating to watch.

Prince George’s Angela D. Alsobrooks, Howard’s Calvin Ball, Montgomery’s Marc B. Elrich, Baltimore County’s John A. “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr., and Anne Arundel’s Steuart Pittman are all Democrats, but their political journeys, personal philosophies and governing styles couldn’t be more different. Same for their goals and the problems they’ll confront. And beyond what they do in their own jurisdictions, they’ll each have an opportunity to put their stamps on state and regional politics as well.

Moving on to statewide offices, Franchot in 2022 will be 75. Frosh will be 76. How long will they stick around?

Will this be the last rodeo for Miller and Busch? That seems like a logical assumption – though they have defied all logic in the past. Imagine Annapolis without one of them, let alone both. Imagine them departing at the same time. Apocalyptic? Could happen.

It feels early to talk about succession, and we probably won’t see overt jockeying for a while (though if you’re looking for clues, follow the money). But as we watch new, young and galvanizing leaders flex their muscle on Capitol Hill, especially as House Democrats sort out their leadership situation, we wonder whether any restiveness will be on display in the State House.

Add to all this Maryland uncertainty the gale-like political forces at play in Washington, D.C., the unprecedented level of instability and fury across the country, and we really can’t know what to expect. The occupant in the White House come 2021 could say a lot about what happens in Maryland in the following years.

Over the past few decades in Maryland, even with a few major upsets like Hogan’s victory in 2014, so many political developments have seemed preordained, the cast of characters static. That’s about to change.

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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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