Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Forums in Three Days

I love candidate forums.  They are the closest thing we have to "testing" the candidates on their true convictions and concerns.  Any observer will be able to see who has passion and who has another appointment to get to.  Unbridled tempers flare while cooler heads sit back and watch.  These forums are the best part of the campaign season.

On Saturday, I attended the African American Coalition of Howard County's General Election Candidate Forum.  I was actually the only candidate from 9B there.  I won't ascribe any disrespect or dismissal to Bob Flanagan, as I know the campaign can be long and sometimes things happen.  It was just unusual to be without the usual "contrast" that comes with a head-to-head election.

Due to the large number of candidates for the House of Delegates (we were all on stage at the same time), each district was only asked one question.  For District 9, the question was how to help those who had "done everything right" and still could not find a job.  I answered last and most of the comments about education and job training had already been made.  I fully agree that the best thing we can do to help raise employment is to provide a platform for workforce development while improving the business climate for Maryland-based businesses through streamlined regulation and a fair, predictable tax burden.  However, when it was my turn to speak, I commented that we also need to consider those who had not "done everything right", simply because there were so few that would fit the offered description.  Do we foreclose opportunity for those who are trying to return to the straight path or recover from a bad choice?  I think we need to, because our government pays for bad decisions (i.e., prisons, food & medical assistance) and benefit from productive members of society.  Maryland needs a real expungement law for those who have decades of clean living and needs to provide more ladders of opportunity for those currently homeless looking to pick themselves up off the ground.  That is not to the exclusion of those who have "done everything right", but rather as a part of a holistic approach to unemployment.

On Monday, I attended the League of Women Voters Candidate Forum and this time was joined by my opponent.  We were asked a series of questions about issues that the League has made a priority in this election, including fracking, redistricting, Affordable Care Act launch, referenda, and transportation.  These forums will eventually be made available online.  I will provide brief summaries of my responses here:

Fracking - The gorilla in the room on fracking is methane gas.  I am certainly interested in examining the utility of a fuel that burns cleaner than coal and may be a "bridge" to renewable energy, but have yet to be convinced that it can be mined from the ground in a manner that does not release a concerning amount of methane into the atmosphere.  Methane is 20 times more effective at trapping radiation than CO2 and 60% of all methane emissions come from human activities.  This is a persistent concern with natural gas and one that I will need to see addressed before embracing it as a matter of public policy.

Redistricting - There is uniformity in my race on this issue, as both Bob Flanagan and I support an independent commission to draw Congressional and state district lines.  I think an important caveat is that the purpose of such a commission should not be to create "competitive" districts as much as create districts that keep communities whole and allow meaningful representation.  Even with common sense redistricting reform, we will still have races decided in the Primary.  The difference will be that the people will be empowered to mobilize their individual communities to be heard and, frankly, exert meaningful control over their representative.  We don't have that when zip codes are sliced and diced to meet certain demographics or target vote numbers.

Affordable Care Act Launch - Give some candidates a hammer and say "Affordable Care Act launch" and you are bound to see some happy demolition.  I don't think anyone is happy with how the roll out went, but we're being elected to fix problems, not just yell about them.  I have significant concerns about the burdens placed on small businesses to meet the requirements of the Act and want to see what we can do to help ameliorate that burden.  That said, we also need to recognize the admirable purpose of the ACA, which is to expand health insurance coverage, particularly for those with preexisting conditions.  You don't meet those two concerns with a hammer.  Looking back, we need government contracting reform to foreclose the opportunity for no-bid contracts.  I would project that the genesis of 70% of government waste is a no-bid contract and we have an obligation to fix that.

Referenda - My opponent and I agree that the referendum process must be reformed to provide more clarity to petitioners at the beginning of the process by approving language on petitions before they are brought out for signature.  To be clear, this does not mean that all petitions will be approved.  There are certain pieces of legislation that are too complicated to be communicated via petition and will have to be brought to referendum in parts.  I also think we need referendum reform to ensure that the civil rights of minority groups are not put to petition ever again.

Transportation - I call this a fundamental "think outside the box" issue.  The "box" is "build more lanes", which is a fundamental waste of government resources.  Since the late 1990's, we've known that when you increase road capacity, it is filled within 5 years.  However, when you expand transportation options and change the way people get to and from work, you diversify the channels of transport and ease the burden on roads.  As I said at the forum, we can't just build rail and presume people will use it.  We need to start with dedicated bus lanes that provide an advantage for taking the bus, which will then create a "culture of mass transit".  Once that is in place, we can evaluate the utility of additional options, but I think it would be foolhardy to take a "build it and they will ride" approach to billion dollar transit systems.

This post was much longer than I anticipated, which means there is probably more than enough to start a discussion.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Friday, September 26, 2014

$405 Million Shortfall

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Maryland is facing a $405 million shortfall over the next two years.  The Bureau of Revenue lowered revenue projections for this year by $177 million and next year by $228 million.  However, as the article also notes, the Board of Public Works cut $84 million in July and the Budget Secretary notes that the state will be able to absorb the rest of the shortfall without further cuts, presumably with over-budgeted items elsewhere in the budget, projects that were budgeted but not executed, and other planned expenses that never manifested themselves.

Nevertheless, next year's budget will require serious review and revision with the bulk of the structural deficit being found there.

The director of the Bureau of Revenue notes that this shortfall is directly related to federal cutbacks and the uncertainty among private companies that depend on federal contracts.  Live by the government contractor, die by the government contractor.  While Republicans may jump on any bad news as evidence of mismanagement, it is worth noting that Virginia, our much more conservative neighbors to the south, faces a $2.4 billion shortfall also due to federal cuts.

The core problem is easy to identify, but hard to address - Maryland needs to diversify its economy.  If we were to can the rhetoric and talk honestly, we can say that every state faces this dilemma or will face it in the near future.  Those states with economies centered around booming industries will boom.  Those states reliant on industries in retreat will see their bottom line do the same.  But who is going to tell Texas and Alaska not to rely on oil and natural gas?  Who is going to tell Iowa not to rely on agriculture or New York not to rely on the finance sector?

This is most likely due to the fact that the catalysts for growth are often outside of the hands of government.  Maryland didn't choose to be next to the Capital, but it certainly is not going to reject the benefits of the same.  Maryland didn't create the exponential increase of private companies doing public work with the expansion of government contractors, but the revenue derived from the same protected our state from large parts of the recession that weighed heavily on the rest of the Country.

While this shortfall will be painful in the short term, Maryland faces a great opportunity to transition to a new economic focus.  And it won't be up to Maryland lawmakers to decide what that new focus will be.  Rather, our lawmakers should recognize the opportunity and do what it can to make Maryland a better place to start and grow a business, make connections across sectors, and innovate.  It does not necessarily mean drastic tax cuts are necessary.  Business leaders want predictability.  "If this is the tax burden, so be it, but don't change it on me."  More importantly, Maryland needs to leverage the tools of the 21st Century to streamline and decrease the regulatory burden.  Imagine a single interface, a single website, that business owners could access and complete that would populate the numerous paper forms and filing they are otherwise expected to complete on a rolling basis.  Imagine business owners having the opportunity to track the approval process online in the same way they track a package.  Imagine public and private entities talking to one another as business partners instead of ruler and subject.

We have a lot to improve, but don't let anyone tell you it is as simple as "cutting taxes".  Our state's core economic engine is shrinking and we are facing the expected result of that.  Now the question will be - how do we respond?

Have a great Friday doing what you love!

Monday, September 22, 2014

NAMI Candidate's Forum Recap

On Saturday, September 20, Howard County candidates for the General Assembly participated in a forum hosted by the Howard County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  The uniqueness of this issue prompted candidates to "do their homework" on the issue, review position papers put out by NAMI, and provide specific answers on complex subjects such as Outpatient Civil Commitment and Crisis Intervention Teams.  I will say that from all the forums I've participated in, I learned the most from this one.

Introduction

In my opening minute, I noted that when you talk about allocating resources for mental health, you are commonly talking about dollars that are already being spent somewhere else.  If we aren't funding early detection and preventative care at the front end, we will end up having to spend more on prisons, institutions, and homeless shelters at the back end.  I also highlighted the fact that this issue requires collaboration and cooperation across multiple stake-holders.  One of the greatest frustrations you can expect would be that of a parent who is forced to operate across "silos of care and treatment" that do not connect or speak to one another.  Many times government doesn't have to create a new program, but instead can provide the "webbing" between already existing programs to make them work better together.

Protect and Expand Mental Health Services

Candidates were asked to address if, and how, they would protect and expand mental health services.  I told they audience that I would support the Safety Net Act, which would provide some of the "webbing" noted above and implement significant portions of the Service Arrays advocated for by NAMI.  Although not asked directly, I said later on that the funding for these programs should come from what we already spend on warehousing the mentally ill.  More specifically, I think we can find front-end resources in the decriminalization of marijuana passed last year, which should result in lower costs from imprisoning non-violent criminals.

Outpatient Civil Commitment

This issue seemed to engender some confusion across the candidates and attendees.  As opposed to inpatient civil commitment that we see on movies and television shows wherein an individual will be committed to an institution or hospital, outpatient civil commitment requires that person to participate in treatment outside of the hospital, such as medication or therapy.  Maryland is one of only five states that has not adopted Outpatient Civil Commitment (OCC).  In my remarks, I observed that this presents an opportunity to identify best practices and challenges in implementation from those other states who have had an OCC system for a number of years.  I think it is clearly time for Maryland to adopt this system so long as we can also make sure the treatment network is sufficient to accept additional capacity.

Crisis Intervention Teams

Crisis Intervention Teams include first responders from an array of specialties who respond in times of crises, particularly when the issue may be more complex than what law enforcement alone may be able to address.  In implementation, these teams also work to train law enforcement on how to respond for these unique circumstances.  Howard County is on the fore-front of using CIT's, in great thanks to our County's partnership with the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.  I suggested that we identify what makes this partnership so successful and augment it further rather than try to reinvent the wheel through state bureaucracy alone in other states.  I have some concern about hoisting unfunded mandates on other jurisdictions, particularly the police, and to supplant additional training hours for real solutions.

There were some additional questions from the audience, but I did not take detailed enough notes to include them here.  I would recommend Amanda Yeager's coverage of the event, which did a good job of capturing the general sentiments of all the candidates.  This was a great forum with mostly civil, intelligent, and genuine comments by everyone who participated.  It is interesting to me that some candidates can spend their entire campaign talking about cutting spending and decreasing taxes, but once in front of an underfunded constituency spend the next hour and a half pulling money out of a hat.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!  Sorry for the long absence.  I can honestly say that between work, campaign, and baby, I am the most busy I have ever been in my life.  But I'm still having fun!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Bubble

It is amazing it has taken me this long to write about "The Bubble" in great detail (I referenced it briefly in July).  It is something I talk about on a near daily basis and most of the people on my campaign team are tired of hearing about.  From my perspective, it requires daily focus, analysis, and exclusion.  Unwary observers can be caught up in its hallucinations and live in distorted worlds unconnected to reality.  Most importantly for present purposes, it is an interesting thing to consider.  So today let's talk about The Bubble.

The Bubble is "us".  It is the 500 to 800 people across the County that pay attention to hyper-local politics, talk about hyper-local politics, and can name at least three members of the Board of Education (if we were a club, that would be the pass-code).  We pay attention to each and every move a candidate makes and will look at campaign literature more than once after it arrives in our mailbox.  If you're reading this, you are at the pinnacle of the bubble - you cannot get enough of this stuff.  

But that's not always a good thing.  As noted above, The Bubble distorts things.  It makes you see things that aren't there.  It builds confidence in places of great doubt.  And it is most deceptive around election season.

The Bubble makes elections seem closer than they are.  For at least 60% of the elections in this County, the decision as to who will represent us in 2015 was made in June.  We can wring our hands all we want about how unfortunate that may be (or fortunate if your person won), but it is the truth.  Nevertheless, those who pay particularized attention to these races, and know the names of both candidates, by that very fact alone will see the race as closer than it is.  They saw Candidate X door knocking.  They saw Candidate X had over 30 people at their fundraiser.  Candidate X is talking a big game on Twitter.  Presumptive Incumbent Y doesn't look like they are working very hard, they don't have a Twitter account, and seem dismissive of their opponent.  Well that sounds like a formula for a loss.

It's not.  For these types of races, where registrations and resources lie heavily with one side over the other, it is a pure numbers game.  Everything else is theater.  

The Bubble makes front-runners in close races.  The Bubble has a horrible tendency to make front-runners.  Just as it can make one candidate look like they are making a race in a difficult district, it can also make a difficult district seem like a runaway.  Any race in which the margin of victory lies within the unaffiliated voter base should probably be treated like a dead heat until the votes are counted, particularly in Howard County.

The Bubble amplifies small sounds.  We're a club of talking heads and we have a tendency to overreact to small things.  "Candidate X did this, so that must mean they have a secret poll showing..."  Stop.  Please, for everyone's sake, stop.  Despite what many may think, polls are incredibly rare in local elections.  Even in a County Executive race, there may be 1 or 2 polls an entire election cycle.  James Carville isn't coming through that door saying "The polls look horrible, let's run a mailer/take a bizarre position/knock more doors."  A campaign is run in great part on feel, using your advantages to the fullest extent possible, and putting your name on anything people will allow.  To ascribe a motive to such things is embarrassing for you, for me, and for everyone who heard you.

If you take The Bubble away, elections and campaigns are the hulking decision-makers that keep candidates and their teams up late into the night working, planning, and not sleeping.  That's why it is good to identify what The Bubble is telling you and exclude it.  Chances are, things are much different than they appear.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Comparative Politics

When you decide to run for office, one of the first things you are supposed to do is complete a box with four squares.

Top Line:
1. What I say about myself
2. What my opponent says about themself

Bottom Line:
3. What my opponent says about me
4. What I say about my opponent

Most candidates would like you to go into the voting booth with a simple message:  "I love everything you love.  I hate everything you hate.  Vote for me."  In fact, that is the theme of most political campaigns, with few exceptions (i.e., those who are driven by a particular mission like anti-development or pro-round-a-bouts).

For that reason, political opponents are compelled to break the narrative.  "Well, just so you know, Candidate A doesn't love everything you love and they don't hate everything you hate.  Don't vote for them."  These responses are best placed on particular issues that have traction with the electorate - taxes, education, personal rights & freedoms, or public safety.

Our collective response to "narrative breaking" is discomfort.  It is like a heated argument about the Middle East breaking out at a dinner party.  "That's just a whole bunch of rude right there and I do not appreciate it.  We're going to Arby's."  But, it is part of the political conversation we treasure in a democracy.  It is why we trust our electorate with electing our leaders when previous generations had them appointed or deigned by birthright.  It's nominate, scrutinize, vote; not nominate, lionize, vote.

Acknowledging that this is part of the process, I would suggest a secondary test to determine the value of such political speech:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it relevant?
3. Do you have anything else to say?

On the first point, we can tell a lot about a candidate based on whether they are lying to us out of the gate.  "Candidate A supports baby punching."  No I don't.  "But you would if it came up for a vote."  No, seriously, that sounds like a horrible idea and I would never support it.  "That's exactly what a baby-puncher would say." 

Admittedly, this is a hard line to hold considering the nuance of political speech.  As an example, shortly after The Sun published its article about the race in 9B, my opponent interpreted the piece to say that I supported "more spending and more tax increases."  That's not true and nothing in the article could be read to suggest it, but this is a boiler-plate attack line used by Republicans against any Democrat that dares to run for office.  So while it is not true, it also not as morally reprehensible as a "lie".  (But is a tired old line out of the "Tired Old Political Handbook", Kindle edition not available.)

The second question of relevance lies entirely in the eye of the beholder.  Supporters of each candidate look to set the terms of the race by saying what issues matter and what issues don't.  Issues for which the candidate is aligned with the electorate matter.  Issues that are discordant with the electorate do not matter.  The most interesting point here is that those who say certain issues don't matter are those who may otherwise agree with the candidate on those "irrelevant" positions.  "He's 100% right, but let's not talk about it." 

And relevance is entirely subjective and no hard-line test will suffice.  We can all agree that Michael Peroutka's pro-secessionist leanings will not come up for vote on the Anne Arundel County Council, but most of us find that position "relevant" to his pursuit of elected leadership.  Whether an issue is well-settled law or completely foreign to the office sought, voters have a right to make the decision of what is relevant, not candidates.  As candidates will often say "Voters are the boss."

The third is most important to me.  If you spend all of your time in the bottom of the box, whether that means attacking your opponent or responding to attacks, you should rightfully lose.  If we spend too much time in the lower half, the likely outcome is a depressed disaffected electorate who will no longer attend our dinner parties.  A candidate who can successfully leverage their positive message, while also making clear the differences presented by their opponent, will have voters thinking of their positive message on election day as they "pull the lever".  And I can tell you from experience that it is much harder to attach, and you spend much more time pushing, a positive message over a negative one.

But hear this - it is entirely legitimate and appropriate to "break the narrative".  To suggest otherwise is to encourage a very dangerous type of censorship relating to some of the most important conversations we have as governed citizens.

That's all for today.  Have a great Friday doing what you love! 

Ravens 26, Bengals 24

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

This past weekend I participated in the League of Women Voters YouTube interview session.  This is another great service provided to the voters that, if I was not running for office with concomitant demands on my discretionary income, I would certainly support.

One of the last questions they asked was: "What do you wish that citizens knew about the office for which you are running?"

That's a delicate question because I like to presume that most voters know about what a Delegate does; not necessarily because they do, but because it is important not to underestimate the electorate.  Nevertheless, my response can be summarized in one word - Collaboration.  The one thing I wish more voters understood (and accepted) was that members of the legislature are elected to collaborate towards reaching the common good.  We live in an individualistic culture that rewards those who break out from the herd.  Even the most romanticized theatrical depiction of what it is like to serve in the legislature, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", used as its centerpiece a filibuster of one.

When members of the legislature set their sights on executive office, you'll commonly hear descriptive terms like maverick, fighter, or independent leader.  Rarely do you see a legislator run for Governor with the moniker "Plays well with others."

And boy do we hear about fighting during the campaign season.  "I will fight for X!"  Whenever I hear one of these promises, I think of the converse.  "I will fight for smaller class sizes!"  Who are you fighting?  Sure, some policies and budget cuts indirectly increase class sizes, but there is not exactly a "large class size caucus" who will receive your volleys.

I've made it a point to run honestly and tell you all from the beginning that my focus is to collaborate, team-build, and welcome all comers to the decision-making process.  I think one of the root ills of our divisive politics is alienation.  Disagreement is inevitable, but alienation is a choice.  I want to be someone who Republicans can talk to about their concerns and positions.  I want to make sure that those most heavily affected by legislation feel heard before the final votes are counted.  I want to be someone who can build support for important policy, even when that policy is part of the unpopular method of governing.

And that's another important point I didn't make in the interview, but later wanted to include - not every decision the government makes is going to be popular.  Once you say that out loud, it seems so obvious, but when you look at the rhetoric coming from social media and in the Op/Ed pages, you realize it's not.  There is some presumption that in a democracy, every decision should be a popular one or it is wrong.  That is a very dangerous presumption.  And incorrect.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!  Also, if you get a chance, please read MM's great piece on the race in 9B.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ferguson and the Community Conversation

In March 2014, the American Psychological Association issued a research study finding that "[b]lack boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime."

On Sunday, I attended a Community Town Hall hosted by Dr. David Anderson and Bridgeway Community Church.  The room was packed with what I would estimate to be between 200 and 300 people.  I would further estimate that about 75% of the audience was black and of the 25% who were white, at least half were elected officials or those aspiring to the same.

I've said repeatedly over the past week that I am proud that when a situation like Ferguson arose, Howard County Police looked for the first chance to talk.  To find a table and discuss.  But it is just as important to recognize that Howard County Police did nothing wrong.  In fact, they went out of their way to do something right, even if it meant positioning themselves as a lightening rod for frustration directed at police hundreds of miles away.  If we really want to do something about Ferguson and Michael Brown, we need to recognize that police, both in Howard County and otherwise, are a conductor for a larger conversation charged with emotion, frustration, and grief.

What does it say about our Country when the most likely interface between the races in places with de facto segregation such as Ferguson (or Baltimore) are the police; men and women tasked with protecting the peace, backed by the authority of the law, and armed with lethal force.  Laws passed in marble halls are handed down to govern those interactions, and in many cases increase their frequency, without considering that these laws are communiques in a correspondence that has gone on for centuries.  And that is a poisoned way to talk.

Things are broken.  Black parents are compelled to tell their children that they may be treated differently than white children when interacting with authority figures like the police.  It was this kind of implied inferiority that upended separate but equal, yet we have let the destruction of the institution absolve us from cleaning up its legacy.  And it's alienating us further.  We have balkanized this conversation, much to our own destruction.  This is not a conversation between the black community and the police.  This is our conversation about why it is that 10 year old boys are seen by white males as threatening and what we can do to make sure that fear does not result in violence.  We don't need to cure the subconscious of its faults, but we do need to keep our children safe.  Our children.  And we need to be outraged when we fail.  All of us.

We need to stop letting the police be the interface.  We need to stop pretending that this is a story about the police.  The Howard County Police were in that room on Sunday to have a community conversation.  Those who are blessed with the delusion that we are in a post-racial society were not.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love.