Josh Kurtz: Getting to Know You

The Board of Public Works. Left to right: State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot. BPW photo

In the past few days, resumes have been arriving in the offices of Maryland state lawmakers, introducing them to one Nancy K. Kopp.

You’d think that Kopp would need no introduction.

She’s been state treasurer, one of the most powerful positions in state government, since 2002. Before that, she served in the House of Delegates, first elected in 1974. She’s been a trailblazer, an estimable public servant, and one of the sharpest budget minds in Maryland government, for decades.

But 1974 was a long time ago. Heck, 2002 was a long time ago.

Think about this: Of the 188 current members of the General Assembly, only 23 were serving when Kopp was last in the legislature. And that could be a problem for Kopp. Next month, Kopp will need the votes of at least 95 senators and delegates to win another four years as treasurer.

There are 48 state treasurers in the U.S., but the Maryland treasurer’s role is unique – as is the way our treasurer is chosen.

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Josh Kurtz

As treasurer, Kopp is responsible for the management of Maryland’s investments and bond sale revenues, and has several other fiduciary duties. In addition, she serves on the Board of Public Works, that one-of-a-kind entity consisting of the governor, the state comptroller and the treasurer, who dole out state contracts and make other important financial and policy decisions.

Thirty-eight state treasurers are elected by the voters; six are selected by governors. And in four states – Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Maryland – treasurers are appointed by the state legislature.

That makes Kopp, or any state treasurer, beholden to legislators – and susceptible, at least once every four years, to their vagaries and whims.

In recent Maryland history, treasurers have come from the state legislature – and not surprisingly, most have been members of the House of Delegates, which has three times as many members as the state Senate.

When Kopp’s predecessor, Richard N. Dixon, resigned in 2002, there was little doubt that Kopp would be selected to replace him. And in the subsequent four legislative terms, she was reelected with ease.

But in an environment where younger politicians are becoming antsy over the relative lack of opportunities to move up the political chain, Kopp now may find herself vulnerable. It is the Legislative Black Caucus – or at least certain members of the caucus – who seem most anxious to see someone else in the job.

But as everyone in politics knows, you can’t take out someone with no one. And the simple fact is members of the black caucus have not been able to convince any current or former caucus members – or any other prominent African-American political leaders – to jump into the race.

House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County)? Not interested. Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who recently became vice chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee? Ditto.

Del. Tawanna Gaines (D-Prince George’s), the vice chair of the Appropriations Committee? Apparently not.

Former state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City)? If she were state treasurer, people would pay to watch the twice-monthly Board of Public Works meetings, but alas, she appears to be a “no” as well.

The latest State House rumor has Major F. Riddick, the chief of staff under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and currently on a return engagement as the chief administrative officer in Prince George’s County, being talked about as a possible state treasurer candidate. Riddick certainly knows state government, and he’d be able to pad his state pension if he got the job. But he’s even less well-known to the legislature than Kopp at this point, so that probably won’t work, either.

The Legislative Black Caucus is scheduled to meet again on Thursday morning. Will the members come up with a new candidate or a new plan? The LBC now has a record 56 members. That’s almost 30 percent of the full legislature and about 43 percent of the combined Democratic caucuses – a substantial bloc.

Some African-American lawmakers argue that the state is due for another black treasurer, since Dixon has been out of office for 17 years. Some progressive Democrats have suggested that Kopp is insufficiently aggressive with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) during Board of Public Works meetings, which have become staging areas for their latest crusades, and that she has voted too often with the governor. Just as likely but never said directly, these people are making a generational argument against Kopp, who turned 75 on Pearl Harbor Day.

But generational arguments only go so far in Maryland politics – in fact, they usually don’t go anywhere at all. And anti-establishment arguments rarely work, either, even though Kopp will surely be the choice of most legislative leaders and party bosses and institutionalists (and retains loyalty among many women and most members of the Montgomery County House and Senate delegations).

The most high-profile time in recent memory that an insurgent ousted an establishment favorite in Maryland Democratic politics was when Maya Rockeymoore Cummings beat incumbent Kathleen Matthews to become a state party chair in early December. It was as if Matthews was made to pay for a generation’s worth of pent-up ambition and frustration with establishment party leaders, even though she did a pretty good job this past election cycle.

Of course, Rockeymoore Cummings is a longtime Washington, D.C., policy consultant and the wife of a congressman, so calling her a true insurgent is a bit of a stretch. But we digress.

Even though the state treasurer is elected by the legislature, the occupant of the office generally lives an ivory tower existence. Unlike the other members of the BPW, she doesn’t have to campaign. She doesn’t have to raise money. Kopp’s personality — at BPW meetings and in life generally — is far more low-key than Hogan’s and Franchot’s.

So Nancy Kopp may be paying the price now for her detachment from her benefactors. That’s why she’s finding herself forced to scramble to introduce herself to the people who will determine her political fate.

But apart from a little discomfort, she is, three weeks before candidates for treasurer are to be interviewed by a legislative panel, unlikely to suffer any devastating consequences. Chances are, she will be reelected.

Yet this is politics, and times are changing. So you never know.

Click here to see the formal job posting for the state treasurer position.

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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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