Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refuge in Howard

Two days ago, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued the following statement:
As governor of Maryland, the safety and security of Marylanders remains my first priority. Following the terrorist attacks on Paris just four days ago, and after careful consideration, I am now requesting that federal authorities cease any additional settlements of refugees from Syria in Maryland until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety.
There are many things wrong with this statement.  First, the reference to the attacks on Paris suggests that the attackers were Syrian refugees.  That is incorrect. We don't know all the facts yet, but we do know that most of the attackers were French and Belgian nationals.  One of the attackers had a fake Syrian passport, but is of unknown origin.  Hence, this statement begins based on what can best described as an "urban myth".

Second, the Governor presumes some degree of authority over the federal placement of international refugees in Maryland and/or the "security" of Maryland's borders.  Last time I checked, the only distinction between Maryland and Pennsylvania is a difference in road paving materials.  The Governor's authority to limit refugees rests entirely on the cooperation of social services within the state.  Said otherwise, all Governor Hogan can do is refuse to offer assistance to refugees once they arrive, which raises legal issues of an entirely different sort.

Finally, Governor Hogan's statement fails in asking the federal government to prove a negative.  Stating that you wish to foreclose all refugees until the U.S. government can "provide appropriate assurances that refugees from Syria pose no threat to public safety" is a waste of digital ink.  No one can prove that an entire demographic will pose "no threat to public safety".  In fact, in an irony that was not lost on most, the front page of the Baltimore Sun yesterday included an article about Hogan's rejection of refugees and an article about a white kid from Pennsylvania picking up a gun from his parents' house and closing down an entire university for two weeks.  Please, no more white kids from Pennsylvania until the U.S. government can provide appropriate assurances that white kids from Pennsylvania pose no threat to public safety...and will not shut down our institutions of higher learning.

This is a scary time, folks, and not the way many may have you believe.  People running for President of the United States have suggested that there should be a religious test for those fleeing violence.  Others are suggesting we can, and should, close down certain religious facilities due to over-generalities and prejudices of violence.  We are repeating our most embarrassing and shameful moments without any reasonable explanation for doing so.

Just as Governor Hogan has no legal authority to refuse refugees, Howard County has no prohibition against going over his head.  We can, and should, reach out to federal authorities and nonprofit relief organizations to assist in the placement of refugees here, regardless of their nation of origin.  In order to be accepted as a refugee in the United States, one must go through 18-24 months of screening, multiple interviews, and a background check.  This is not an easy process and, had the Governor done one Google's search worth of research, he would have known that.  The unfortunate thing is that I don't think he cared.  This is political posturing, not policy.

Tell me if you've heard this one before: "Howard County is one of the wealthiest counties, in one of the wealthiest states, in the wealthiest country in the world."  Don't listen to the people who try to put manufactured scarcity or unfounded security concerns before the basic principle that we are the home of the brave.  Bravery is not just something we sing about at sporting events.  It means taking risks in pursuit of our virtues.  Being proud of being extraordinary.  Holding that torch high in the air and saying "This place is safe."

One last thing - After Attacks, France Increases the Commitment to Refugees

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

364 Days

Three hundred and sixty-four days ago, I was sitting in my wife's OB's office when the doctor said "Did I see you on a street corner the other day?"
"Yes.  Yes you did.  I was running for state delegate."
"Oh wow.  That's so cool."
"If you saw me, you're probably in the district.  Did you vote?"
"I did vote."
"I don't think I voted for you.  Sorry."
"That's ok.  Most people didn't."

Two hours later, I'm standing in the Howard County General Hospital Emergency Room checking my wife in for the birth of our first child.  My mind is racing.  I feel equal parts joy and fear.  I'm running through all of the obstetrical information gained from six years as a medical malpractice attorney while attempting to flush out all of the horrors that may be attached to such information.  My phone rings:

"Hi, Tom.  It's Dr. *****."
"Is everything ok?  We're at the hospital."
"Yes.  I just wanted to tell you I did vote for you."
"You and your wife have different last names, right?"
"See - I did vote for you.  I just wanted you to know.  I felt so bad for saying I didn't vote for you."
"Well..thank you.  I appreciate the call."

Approximately seven hours after that, I met my daughter.

This is one of the weird, amazing, and lasting memories I gained from running for office.  On the precipice of one of the most important events of my life, someone called me with the (fair) presumption that the election was equally significant.  And at that time, prior to my daughter being born, I likely would have agreed with them.  The loss felt heavy.  Too heavy.  As with most other big disappointments, it also felt permanent.  Most of you know where this story goes.  My daughter lifted me back up.

Even still, in the days, weeks, and months after the election, I felt embarrassed.  I think that is a fair emotion to feel, but looking back it was without merit.  For all past and future candidates, successful or not, the result of the election is the same.  The people that didn't like you still don't like you.  The people that liked you still like you.  Everyone else who never met you and never knew you still won't care one way or the other.  The only exceptions for me personally have been a gentleman who works at the Dorsey's Search Giant who continues to call me "Mr. Politician" (he thinks I won) and an occasional random kind person who says "I voted for you".

The only lasting pain is found in the inability to do the things that need to be done.  The e-mails I still get from people who need help, but aren't getting responses from Annapolis.  It seems likely that three years from now the same issues I spent 18 months talking about will still be left to address.  That may be a politician's dream, but it is a community's tragedy.  That part still hurts.

I walk to work, enjoy what I do there, and have lunch with my family almost every day.  Life is good and getting better.  365 days ago I lost an election.  364 days ago, my life started over as something brand new.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Politics of Scale - A Better Board of Ed

My Council-member, Jon Weinstein, and Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary made a huge splash last week by announcing their efforts to transform the way we elect our Board of Education.  Amanda Yeager and Lisa Philips with the Howard County Times write that under their bill five board members will be elected by councilmanic district and two will be elected at large.  This effort has been spearheaded by Councilman Weinstein pursuant to his campaign promise of increasing accountability for the Board of Education.

This is a great bill and an important change for Howard County.  It seems that every two years I offer up the confession that despite my intense focus on local news and local politics, Board of Education politics escapes me.  Not only while they are deliberating and voting, but, more importantly, when I am deciding who I want to represent me on the Board.  You can confess too.  It's ok.  No one will judge you.  There are often 10+ people running for 3-4 spots.  A thorough study of the candidates will likely offer you little more than platitudes and campaign platforms that sound more like corporate-speech than education policy (ex., capitalize, leverage, synergy, capture, release, promote, empower, maximize).  And without a doubt, during some point in your evaluation of Board candidates someone will tell you it is the "most important vote you make" because our education budget is 60% of the County budget.  "Thanks.  It was a hard choice as it is, but now it is a hard and stressful choice.  I'm now going to go back to figuring out who's going to think outside of the box in a synergistic way that STEAMs the hell out of Howard County."

With so many candidates running (and confusion regarding what they are actually looking to do once elected), name recognition rules and accountability is lost.  If you can get your sign at more gas stations than the next person, you win.

Enter Team Weinstein-Atterbeary.  By grounding five of the seven members in geographic terms, voters benefit from "politics of scale".  The number of candidates will be manageable, more specific issues will be addressed, and, once the election is over, Moms and Dads will have someone to call when they have questions or concerns about their school.  It is that simple.

We should be thankful that Jon and Vanessa were willing to take up this issue.  The Board of Education has recently been a third-rail for Howard County politicos.  While everyone gets together behind ribbon cuttings and anti-bullying campaigns, Board-Council and Board-Executive relations have often been strained.  Why?  Because the Board gets to write a check for the County to cash.  And sometimes, the County needs to make painful decisions in other areas of budget to come up with the funds.  Any push-back in this regard is destined for failure so long as the headline would read "[Insert Elected's Name] Seeks to Cut Education Budget".  They may as well move to Cecil County before the Flier hits your doorstep.

Optimistically, a new method of elected Board members will change that.  If you feel your taxes are too high, you'll have three people to address that with - your Executive, your Council-member, and your Board-member.  And I'm going to guess the first two will send you to the third.

Do I expect this new structure to result in more restrained education spending?  No.  And do I think the current Board is irresponsible with education dollars?  No.  But do I think our current method of electing our representatives is fair?  I don't.

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Social Media and the Veil of Confirmation

"How can you possibly think that's true?"

That is the second most common question that comes to mind when reviewing my Facebook feed after "Aw, cute baby".  How can you possibly have bought into that bit of fear-mongering?  How can you possibly have weighed the facts and reached that conclusion?  How can you possibly have such a different world-view than myself?

It is that last question that turns the inquiry in reverse.  How can I possibly think that way?  What opinions have I accepted as unimpeachable truths without scrutiny?  What news makes me comfortable?  What news makes me uncomfortable?  How do I leave myself open to conversation and conversion after staking out a position?  Am I using more question marks than exclamation points?

During my blogging sabbatical, I've been thinking about these things a great deal.  I had a great discussions of "Politics in a Pub" last week with a number of people with differing views and was reminded of how much fun it is to disagree respectfully with an interest in understanding one another.

Next Wednesday, September 9, the Howard County Library will be hosting a Choose Civility "Happy Hour Power Up" at the Rumor Mill addressing Social Media and how it affects our consumption of news, our interpretation of current events, and our political beliefs.  Here's a summation from the Facebook event page:
At our Happy Hour edition Power Up, Tom Coale will speak about how social media has affected our individual and collective news filters, and how trends in social media have led to a personalization of our news feeds. How has social media changed what we accept as "truth"? What stories are we being sold and what stories are we missing? Join us in this conversation. 
I facilitated a similar discussion in 2013 with Sheilah Kast addressing "Civility in the Media", which, thanks to those who participated, was one of the most enjoyable, enlightening, and far-reaching round-table discussions I have ever participated in.

You, reader of this blog, really should do your best to attend next Wednesday.  You are the type of person who would likely enjoy and feel enriched by this kind of discussion.  The event is free to attend and will include appetizers from The Rumor Mill (one of my favorite restaurants in Howard County).  Tickets are limited, so if you plan to attend please reserve your seat today.  There are only 9 tickets left! ONLY 6 tickets left!

Have a great Thursday doing what you love!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Claire McGill - Howard County Will Miss You

This weekend, one of my very good friends moves back to the UK.  Claire McGill, aka Desperate English Housewife in Washington, is leaving after three years living, breathing, and "being" everything that Howard County, Maryland, and the United States has to offer.

I often think about how we (i.e., Howard County/Columbia) are perceived by other people around the state.  We have a peculiar way about us that makes detailed study a worthwhile endeavor.  When the greatest public nuisance is considering whether a Grateful Dead Tribute performance simulcast around the world was "too loud", you need to look around and think "I sure do love this place, but it's not 'normal'."

That was one of the things I loved (and still love) about Claire's blog.  She would write about something being "Americaland" (innit?) that was actually quite Columbialand.  On other occasions, she would comment on a certain style or attitude being "American" that was otherwise quite foreign from Howard County.  Her observations were rarely wrong, but the fact that observations were being made at all merited attention and scrutiny of the world around you.  Packaged by a great writer with an amazing sense of humor and a constant camera, and you have one amazing blog.

But Claire's blog was the smallest of her contributions here.  When you live in proximity to someone soaking up everything life has to offer, the world looks different.  That random ad about a festival or musical performance changes from background noise to an agenda.  Small amounts of time are stretched and packed with memories, stories, and people.  At some point you think, "I should do this all the time" before your subconscious convinces you that you are too tired, you have too many chores to do, or you can't afford it.  Here's a secret I learned from Claire - you're not, you don't, and you probably can.

Personally, Claire is one of the best friends Nicole and I have.  And not just because she brought so much fun to our life.  She was there for us when we were sick, when we needed help with our new baby, and even when we just needed someone to say "Hey, get out of your house."  Babies have a way of making you shut-ins and that wasn't something Claire was going to allow.

I'm not good with goodbyes.  Never have been.  We're already planning a trip to the UK next year.  But even if I never acknowledge a "goodbye", I know I will miss Claire, Jel, and Harry every time I just want to "do something" without making the obligatory plans one week in advance that so many of my friends (rightfully) require.  I will miss them when I see a festival or fair that I know they would enjoy.  But the best thing we can say about friends we will miss is that you have valued your time together.  It would be impossible to overstate how much that time has meant to me and how it will hold a special place in my heart.

Have a great Thursday doing what you love.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

James Coale, You (Kinda) Owe Some People Some Money

To beat a thoroughly dead horse, I returned from a weekend away yesterday to find an invoice addressed to "James Coale" from the Columbia Flier.  It invited me/James to pay $19, if we were so inclined, but concluded with the assurance that if I did not pay, my free weekly paper would still be delivered as scheduled.

I don't think you'll find a much stronger supporter (financial and otherwise) of local media, but I'm not paying those $19.  And I can't speak for James, but if he's as stubborn as all the other Coales I know, he isn't either.

As indicated by the letter and the posts cited above, this was what can best be described as a "dry run" for when the Flier converts to paid subscriptions.  They want us to know what it will feel like to receive an invoice.  I suppose the greatest merit for this exercise is having readers consider "What is this paper worth to me?"  If it is not worth anything to you, $19 incorporates your drop off.  If it is worth substantially more to you, congratulations, you have a discount weekly paper.  For the rest of us, $19 may be just about right.

Every Thursday morning, I pull my Flier from The Sun (I know some of you receive it separately), read whatever Political Notebook Amanda Yeager has written that week and then flip to the editorial page.  I can normally guess the number and tone of letters based on the hot issues of the week.  Plus, the bi-monthly anachronistic letter urging CA to go in a different direction on Symphony Woods.

More recently, I've discovered that Glenn Foden, the cartoonist for the Flier, "inks from the right" and otherwise spends genius (?) addressing subjects like abortion and "gray lives matter".  In fact, I've never found Flier editorials to meet the stereotype of either Columbia or "liberal media".  They're fairly right-leaning and that's ok.  Sometimes Columbia (and Howard County) needs a splash of cold water.  The only problem is that such pages (and the cartoons that accompany them) carry the weight of authority that may not be due or may not be otherwise accepted if the right-leaning nature of such pieces were plain.

And that makes the "poor jar" letter a little more interesting.  It may be a very "Columbia" thing to do, and many people may pay the $19, but I would presume and expect our more conservative friends at around page 22 of the Flier to skewer the effort.  What kinda capitalistic enterprise are you running here?  What cartoon would best capture the absurdity of paying for something that's free?

We all love you, Flier, but it sure would be interesting to see you be the subject of your own scrutiny.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

New Ellicott City Staircase in Action

This video was posted to the Old Ellicott City (Historic District) page last night and was too cool not to share:

Credit: Cecilia Lane