Josh Kurtz: Mission Accomplished?

Federal agents remove items from the home of Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) as they execute a search warrant on Thursday. Photo by John Strohsacker/Getty Images

When the Russians decided to hack the 2016 U.S. presidential election, they knew exactly what they were getting: A President Trump who would create chaos at home and abroad.

No one is suggesting that Maryland House Republicans are as evil or have as much guile as Russian leaders, spies and hackers. But when they decided to vote as a bloc for a Democratic candidate for speaker of the House, rather than fruitlessly attempt to promote one of their own when the legislature convenes in special session next Wednesday, they must have figured that doing so would contribute to chaos and disorder among Maryland Democrats.

Mission accomplished.

Not that the Democratic chaos and disorder, in the wake of House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s untimely death on April 7, wouldn’t have happened anyway. But the Republicans’ decision to become players in the succession process has amounted to a hand grenade tossed into the middle of the Democratic caucus. It may also produce the rarest of things in politics: A black-red alliance.

And with Democrats scuffling over the speakership and reeling from the FBI and IRS raids on Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s residences and offices Thursday, well, it’s been a pretty good week for Maryland Republicans. They even got Vice President Mike Pence to agree to headline their biggest fundraiser of the year – even though Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) just returned from New Hampshire, where he blistered Trump and the Republican National Committee.

Busch’s death was going to set off intense political jockeying and soul searching even if the decision to replace him was taking place within the Democratic caucus alone. But now that the GOP’s 42 votes have become a valuable commodity in a chamber with 140 members, the conversations are even more tortured and pointed.

When unions and progressive groups, which form the backbone of Democratic support, reacted skeptically to the Republican maneuver, the temperature went higher. And when Maryland Democratic Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings issued a warning Wednesday to Democrats who might be thinking of entering into an alliance with Republicans, during the speaker vote or in upcoming elections, everything went thermonuclear.

The House Democratic caucus is fractured, along racial, gender, generational, geographical and ideological lines. So is the state party writ large. On top of that, in Annapolis, you’ve got committee loyalties and other relationships to consider.

The latest news suggests that the two African-American candidates for speaker, House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) are forming an alliance. They’re tentatively scheduled to hold a joint news conference in Baltimore with House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) Friday morning.

Caucus votes are impossible to predict. Most analysts think House Appropriations Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) is ahead in the race to replace Busch, at least within the Democratic caucus. She has been working it the longest and has a bonafide whip operation in place.

But if all 42 Republican votes go to Davis, and if a majority of the House’s 45 African-American members do too, that’s a different story.

Are there stylistic, managerial and philosophical differences between the candidates? Of course. Davis, in particular, has been guilty of certain apostasies against the Democratic left, and in his role on Economic Matters he has been supportive of the industries his committee oversees, like energy companies, utilities, financial institutions, tech firms, and so on. But in the end, the three candidates are all institutionalists, and change in the post-Busch era will likely come to the House incrementally, regardless of who wins.

Meantime, all the usual Democratic trouble-makers and provocateurs are coming out of the woodwork on the left, right and center. And poor Maya Rockeymoore Cummings – five months ago, she was the progressive insurgent. Now she’s the embodiment of the machine.

Republicans don’t need to stir the pot. All they have to do is sit back and enjoy the Democrats’ circular firing squad. And if somehow Davis ends up as speaker, they can enjoy the spoils of victory – whatever they turn out to be.

Turning to Baltimore City…Wow! Could things possibly get worse?

Even before Thursday’s raids, Pugh was in incredibly deep trouble. But the presence of IRS agents from Washington, D.C., combing through homes and offices throughout Baltimore, should make a lot of people nervous.

This means forensic exams for nonprofits, for the University of Maryland Medical System board, for companies that did business with Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC or bought multiple copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books, and for various executives, political officeholders and staffers.

If you’re a tax lawyer in Maryland, your services may be in very high demand very soon.

As for Pugh herself, there probably isn’t voter in the city who doesn’t think she’s hanging on to her job for leverage, as she and her lawyers negotiate her fate with law enforcement authorities. Otherwise, she’d already be gone – and this tragic-comic opera would mercifully end.

Instead, we get the spectacle of her lawyer suggesting Thursday that Pugh is too frail and too traumatized to be thinking rationally. Or was he merely launching a trial balloon for a “pneumonia defense”?

The interim result for now, coupled with the intensity and growing acrimony of the speaker’s race, is more disquiet for Maryland Democrats.

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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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