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Thinking about our co-founder, four years after he left us

The late Keith Haller (right), with his close friends, former U.S. Rep. Michael Barnes (center) and former state Del. Bill Bronrott. Flickr photo.

It’s been a season of change in Maryland politics and government.

Last week alone, new terms for county executives and county council members began across the state, with the usual fanfare. Newly-elected state lawmakers flocked to Annapolis for orientation sessions. Even the fractious Maryland Republican Party chose a new leader Saturday, Nicole Beus Harris.

And the pace of change will intensify next month, when a new and historically diverse slate of leaders is sworn into the four statewide government offices.

It’s a season of renewal, a season to feel optimistic, if only for a moment, about the state of our politics. New terms, new leaders — it’s like the beginning of a new season for a sports team. As the cliché goes, every team is undefeated on opening day, and every team has an equal chance of winning the championship.

You can hate the incoming roster of leaders, you can have voted against all of them, and still feel a small sense of optimism as they prepare to take office. Heck, Herblock, the famed Washington Post cartoonist who had been merciless about Richard Nixon throughout his political career, drawing him with a menacing 5 o’clock shadow, offered Nixon a “free shave” after he was elected.

I mention the optimism because optimism was a hallmark of Keith Haller, a co-founder of Maryland Matters, who died on Dec. 11 four years ago from prostate cancer.

Keith Haller

Keith, a professional pollster and communications specialist, was a realist, who knew the political score. But he was also an unflagging optimist, not just about politics, but about every endeavor he flung himself into — and there were so many over the years. That was certainly the case in the early discussions about Maryland Matters.

I’ve written in the past about Keith’s vast contributions to getting Maryland Matters off the ground. I had been talking about the idea, abstractly, for quite some time. Keith was the first person to offer help, and those conversations helped me focus considerably.

Keith could be almost too optimistic at times —his forecasts of our early fundraising potential, for example, seemed out of this world, only because they were — but that in its own way was one of his charms, being wholly aspirational if somewhat unrealistic. And yet, looking back, it’s amazing how many things Keith preached or desired or anticipated for Maryland Matters eventually came true — and not just on the fundraising front. I’d like to think Keith would be pleased and proud of our progress after just a few short years of publishing — and yes, optimistic about our future.

The state of our politics these days is frightening, confusing, confounding and dangerous. One of the things I miss most about Keith is that he, somehow, would have made sense of it, and would have offered us assurances.

They say a month is a lifetime in politics, and Keith has been gone now for four years. It seems like just yesterday that Keith left us, but that’s a long time in the political realm, and we’ve absorbed a lot of changes in that time.

It’s fun but bittersweet to speculate about how many of the developments in Maryland politics, and particularly in his beloved Montgomery County, that Keith would have anticipated. There are some things he would have celebrated, like a female majority on the Montgomery County Council for the first time, and the diversity of our incoming statewide elected officials (he was always impressed with Lt. Gov.-elect Aruna Miller, as I recall). There are other things that would have dismayed him. I certainly miss having the chance to argue with him about some local races, because we would not have always seen eye-to-eye.

But always, with Keith, there was that optimism, and love for the political game, and admiration for those who entered the arena and devoted their lives to public service.

So as we enter this season of new political beginnings, I’ll try to relieve myself of some of my own built-in cynicism and attempt to view the world a little more sweetly, through Keith Haller’s eyes.

Click here to read Josh Kurtz’s article on Keith immediately after he died.

Click here to read an interview with Keith’s dear friend, former U.S. Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), about Keith.

Click here to read an account of the celebration of Keith’s life in 2019.