Josh Kurtz: Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark

Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D).

The 2019 General Assembly session opened with news that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has stage 4 prostate cancer. The session is ending with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) hospitalized for a prolonged period with pneumonia, a byproduct of two years of health woes.

In between, the headlines have been dominated by scandal and bad behavior – most notably, the alleged self-dealing of Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) and other members of the University of Maryland Medical System Board of Directors; the internal disciplining of Dels. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford) and Hassan M. “Jay” Jalisi (D-Baltimore County) for, respectively, uttering a racist word within earshot of colleagues and being an abusive boss; and other embarrassments that did not penetrate beyond the boundaries of State Circle.

When historians look back on the 2019 session, they’ll see that plenty of worthy pieces of legislation became law. We’ve been chronicling them in news articles here at Maryland Matters and will continue to do so in the days ahead.

With three days until Sine Die, not every legislative battle has been settled – and when it’s over we’ll be especially interested in assessing how all the aggressive progressive newcomers fared in an institution that prizes incrementalism and is dominated by special interests. We wonder if they feel democracy is being practiced here.

The session had a dramatic and emotional high point – President Clinton’s visit to shower love and admiration on Miller, the ailing Senate president who has been on the job for 33 years. And speaking of national politics, Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s flirtation with national political relevance served as an interesting backdrop to this session – though his impact on the proceedings of the past three months in Annapolis seems pretty small by comparison.

It’s easy to be titillated by the s**tstorm raining down on Pugh, and hard not to make “Healthy Holly” jokes, but this is really, really bad. It’s hard to remember that in the 2016 Baltimore mayoral election, Pugh was the “white hat” in the Democratic primary against former mayor Sheila Dixon, who was merely seen as a petty thief, pocketing gift cards meant for others and accepting largesse from a developer she happened to be dating.

Dixon at least was a decent mayor.

In retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised about Pugh. She served on the Finance Committee in the state Senate, one of two panels in Annapolis – House Economic Matters being the other – where lawmakers are the happy recipients of special interest cash and attention, given the committees’ business-heavy portfolios. And Pugh was known to be very close with certain plugged-in lobbyists.

But few people knew that she was, if the stories are to be believed, a habitual shake-down artist. It’s hard to see how Pugh, now on indefinite leave for supposed health problems, comes back – let alone avoids serious punishment. Healthy Holly may discover it’s tough to find organic veggies in the hoosegow (we’re entitled to one HH joke, right?).

Josh Kurtz

So the 2020 mayoral election is now under way, with the Democratic primary set for April 28 of next year. There’s plenty of time to talk about that, and no shortage of intriguing potential contenders, but here are two quick observations: Dixon will be the frontrunner, if she chooses to run again. And in Chicago this week, another city struggling with high crime and racial and economic divisions, the city overwhelmingly elected as mayor an African-American lesbian reformer who was at odds with the political establishment. Sound like anyone we know in Baltimore?

Meanwhile, the University of Maryland Medical System is in the unfamiliar position of finding itself under intense scrutiny. It’s an interesting, powerful and unique operation, an important health care provider, with tentacles everywhere in the state, influential patrons, politically savvy leaders, and a galaxy of bold-faced names serving on the board. How the agency grew and thrived, how it came to be a cash cow for its board members, and who allowed that to happen, certainly merits future exploration.

The irony is, none of these transgressions would have come to light if it weren’t for legislation sponsored by state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) to prevent UMMS board members from getting contracts from the hospital system, and subsequent digging by The Baltimore Sun. Carter is the rare freshman lawmaker unafraid to offend, and high-ranking legislators were forced to follow her lead. It was a little surreal hearing Miller sing her praises on two successive days on the Senate floor this week.

The health of Miller and Busch also dominated the conversation in Annapolis this session, adding to the unease that accompanies every first year of a legislative term, but also serving as a visual and metaphorical reminder that the old ways of Annapolis are slowly changing – maybe even adding urgency to that dynamic.

They’re not changing fast enough to have prevented Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) from receiving an old-fashioned smackdown from the legislature this year. The empire is still capable of striking back.

Now Franchot has more kerosene for his anti-machine rhetorical fire. It’s a potent message. But is he the right messenger?

Frail as Busch has looked at times this session, those who work most closely with him in the State House say he’s been as engaged and strategic as ever. And Miller has seemed stronger lately, physically and intellectually, than he did in the early days of the session, when the shock and strain of his illness were clearly taking a toll. Indeed, Miller, who often shares too much – while Busch, by contrast, often shares too little – told his colleagues Thursday that his PSA’s are holding steady.

That’s not going to stop every sneeze and stumble from these two powerful figures from sparking a new round – or really, the same old tape loop – of succession jockeying and speculation. With Miller and Busch distracted, with Hogan seemingly disengaged and enthralled with his newfound national standing, there were times this session when it was impossible to wander around the State House and environs and not wonder: who’s in charge here? And we say that with all due respect to Busch’s chief of staff, Alexandra M. Hughes, to Miller’s chief, Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann, and to the governor’s legislative liaison, Christopher B. Shank, who are all enormously competent.

So who is in charge?

On Monday, the last day of the legislative session, starting at noon and running until at least 8 p.m., five of Annapolis’ top lobbying firms will be throwing receptions for the legislators, administration officials and top staffers. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is holding an open house. The Maryland Catholic Conference is hosting a barbecue lunch.

It’ll be a rerun of opening day on Jan. 9, when several lobbying shops held welcoming receptions – only the weather will be nicer, even with a chance of rain.

The party’s almost over. Who knows how long the hangover will last?

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