Josh Kurtz: The Nancy Kopp Perplex

State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. during a recent Board of Public Works meeting. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Twenty-eight days out of every month, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better state treasurer than Nancy K. Kopp.

She’s smart, studious and conscientious, and knows her way around government policy and finances like no one else. She’s a pragmatic progressive. She’s even-keeled and courteous.

And, after 17 years on the job, which followed 27 years in the House of Delegates, she takes the long view about every aspect of state government. Every day, throughout her distinguished career, she has worked hard to make government better, more equitable and more responsive.

Just the other day, appearing before the District 18 Democratic Club in Silver Spring, Kopp heard herself described as a “heroine” and a “role model.” There are generations of Maryland politicians, especially women, who hail her as a trailblazer – in policy, politics and the personal. Early in her career, Kopp was the first Maryland legislator in history to give birth while in office.

So what could possibly be the problem with Nancy Kopp as state treasurer?

The answer comes those other two days out of the month, when Kopp sits alongside Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) at the biweekly Board of Public Works meetings.

For those of you just tuning in, the Board of Public Works is a three-member, unique-to-Maryland governing body that doles out major state contracts and deals with other important financial matters. Here again, Kopp seems well suited for the job.

But as Kopp herself noted during her speech to the political club, the nature of the BPW meetings – especially since Hogan took office and teamed with Franchot, his closest Democratic ally – has changed.

“The board is becoming more and more a platform for statements,” Kopp observed.

A platform for statements – now that’s an understatement!

Every two weeks, Hogan and Franchot kick off the BPW meetings with well-scripted – and often coordinated – rants.

Sometimes these have something remotely to do with what’s on the board’s agenda that day. Just as often, they address current events, or are designed to advance the governor’s or comptroller’s pet causes.

The agendas of Hogan and Franchot so often align because both believe they get great political mileage out of criticizing – whether it’s directly or over the top or more subtly – the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly.

Hogan and Franchot have a flair for the dramatic – and for expressing umbrage. Both like to portray themselves as outraged champions for common sense and the common man – as if one hasn’t been a political insider his entire life and as if the other hasn’t been in elective office for 33 consecutive years.

Sometimes, Hogan and Franchot can be enormously effective. Other times, they can come off like bullies.

“It’s beginning to sound a little too much like Washington, I think,” Kopp said.

But this thoroughly predictable biweekly act becomes problematic for Kopp, who, unlike Franchot and Hogan, is not elected by the voters. Rather, she is appointed treasurer by the General Assembly – and is, technically, the legislature’s representative on the Board of Public Works.

So the question for lawmakers becomes: In this era of pugilistic politics, with Board of Public Works meetings live-streamed, and Hogan and Franchot so obviously putting on a show, is quiet, wonky Nancy Kopp the right person for the job?

Watch enough BPW meetings, and a pattern is hard to miss: Hogan attacks. Franchot attacks. Kopp defends. Well, it isn’t so bad, she might say. Or, well, the legislature is within its rights to do X, Y and Z. Or, well, the people you are criticizing are doing their best under trying circumstances.

Often enough she’s right. Or she’s at least putting forth an argument. But is she effectively making the case?

Hogan complains about lawmakers because he often opposes what they want to do, and vice-versa. Rare is the governor who doesn’t grouse about the legislature, but with a Republican governor and a General Assembly that’s dominated by Democrats, even greater tensions are inevitable.

JDK
Josh Kurtz

Franchot spent 16 years in the legislature, but there are times when you’d never know it. Franchot at last week’s BPW meeting – during which Hogan announced that he would not release funds that the Assembly had sought for certain programs – expressed not just disgust with the legislature’s budgeting process, but also bewilderment. For a guy who spent 10 years as a subcommittee chairman in the House Appropriations Committee, that’s pretty rich.

But inevitably, with Hogan and Franchot such good communicators, a certain narrative develops. And Kopp rarely shows an ability to reverse it.

During her speech this week, Kopp said that given the unique position a state treasurer in Maryland holds, not having to stump for votes or raise money “gives you a sort of freedom that most politicians don’t have.” But Kopp did acknowledge her “188 constituents” in the General Assembly.

“I have a lot of people watching what I do all the time,” she said.

Late last summer, as Kopp was gearing up to seek another four-year term as treasurer, House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) pulled some historical statistics that showed that on the BPW, Kopp actually voted with Hogan more often than Franchot did. He was cagey about why he sought and released these numbers, but suggested that Kopp was perhaps not adequately representing the legislature’s interests on the BPW.

There was speculation at the time that Branch might be interested in the job himself – or was at least paving the way for another member of the Legislative Black Caucus to take Kopp on.

Ultimately, the black caucus did not get its act together and Kopp this year was reelected with 134 votes. As part of her outreach to the caucus in the run-up to the election, Kopp frequently invoked the name of the late House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings (D), referring to him as a hero and mentor.

Rawlings was surely one of the smartest guys in Maryland political history: shrewd, tough and crafty, whose gift with numbers was even more impressive than Kopp’s and who used it as a political cudgel. But to many members of the black caucus – and to the legislature as a whole – Rawlings, who is 16 years gone, is simply a name on edifices and scholarships these days, and the father of a former Baltimore mayor who is regarded as a flop.

How closely are Kopp’s 188 bosses watching the proceedings of the Board of Public Works, and what are they seeing? The question for Democrats in the legislature isn’t all that different than the dilemma all Democrats face when they contemplate how best to defeat President Trump in 2020:

Do they fight bullies with a bully, or with earnest policy arguments and a velvet glove?

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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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