An online journal of politics, policy, and society with a special focus on Maryland -- Contact: on_background at yahoo.com.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Democratic Power

Let’s call a spade at least a garden shovel by agreeing that the words Democrat and Republican often mean less than they ought. As noted in this space previously, parties are intended to give voters a shorthand so that they can easily understand what candidates stand for. In an increasingly complex policy environment, few voters pay enough attention to make informed judgements and, while one may find the idea of voting a straight party line with little thought to be a bit troubling to notions of real democracy, it is better than withdrawing from the process or completely uninformed voting. Of course, in all too many areas of our great nation, one or the other party dominates, making voters much less free to decide who will lead or represent them.

In large parts of Maryland the Democratic Party is overwhelmingly dominant, and holds a significant edge in the state as a whole. While this is not necessarily a problem and one is even tempted to point out the many advantages wrought by progressive leadership, it does make a bit of a farce out of most general elections. Rational politicians or would-be politicians in Maryland who are anything but the most conservative, or truly Green, are thus encouraged to become Democrats. One can hardly blame those of moderate temperament and values who could be anything from New Democrats to Rockefeller Republicans, to find a way to be Democrats.

The long and short of this is that I read that Senate President Mike Miller wants to cement his control of the Senate by making it easier to stop filibusters. Now personally, I’m not thrilled with Governor Ehrlich and I welcome steps which clip his wings, but Miller is hardly a Democrat’s Democrat. One of the balancing acts the founders of the nation tried out, to some success one cannot help but note, was to create a republic that is both responsive to the wishes of the citizenry while protecting us from the tyranny of the majority. Without overstating the case, I ask whether we should alter the balance between those competing goals for short term political gain? And, do we really want Mike Miller to have more power even if it helps to weaken Ehrlich?

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Where Have All the Parties Gone?

A Washington Post article over the weekend brought to light recent forays by Lt. Gov. Steele and an Ehrlich aide into fundraising for Democrats. One cannot help but feel at least a bit of admiration for Messrs. Ehrlich and Steele for having the moxie to put everything on the line for a longshot bid for statewide office in Maryland, where Republicans are outnumbered and few have won the top offices in the last four generations. They also should be credited with skill (and that of their staff) in winning, despite other reasonable explanations for why they managed to do so. And the Republican Party of Maryland does seem to have a spark to it that was missing not long ago.

If they can build at the grassroots and reach out to new voters, build their ability to contest a fair number of congressional seats and count on continued disarray and division within the Democratic Party, then it is possible.

In the end, though, if either Democrats or Republicans want to reinvigorate their parties in a way that will lead to a more substantial majority and fight against the trends of voter apathy and decreased interest in parties, they'll have to show that they are still relevant. All too often the parties, particularly in Maryland, seem to be populated by a relatively small number of activists who come out time after time, but have little interest in growing the base, getting others active, or making a real difference in the lives of the people. Sharpening their messages is not a bad idea (The Baltimore Sun today shares that Delegates think that a more focused message, perhaps led by Maryland Democratic Party Chair Isiah Leggett), but is not the solution in and of itself. Unless they realize how important real organizing is, the two party system will continue its slow slide into obsolescence.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Fair and Balanced

In Maryland, Fox News continues its "fair and balanced" coverage of Congress with an attack on Rep. Roscoe Bartlett , who is being challenged by a conservative in the primary.

There is a long article on former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke's housing policy in the Baltimore Sun.

And young Del. Jon Cardin has his own piece worth a few minutes, and surely to be used in future campaigns.

McCarthy won't run in 2004

In a decision that might surprise those who have not been reading this column or Polstate.com, or paying close attention to Kansas City politics, it seems that Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-MO), the troubled Kansas City Congresswoman, will not run for re-election next year.

After a years of skating by in a safe district despite a lack of productivity or efficacy, McCarthy's reputation of ethical lapses and poor treatment of staff, combined with a robust challenge from a couple of Democrats and two Republicans
seem to have convinced McCarthy to retire. With McCarthy's exit from the field, former KC Mayor Cleaver and others with more experience, support, and name recognition might well decide to enter the race, which is music to the ears of political junkies, as well as those who want the best for KC.

Unfortunately, this is another of the many safe seats so the Democratic primary will probably decide things. And if Mayor Cleaver steps in this will be an open-and-shut race, as the former Mayor is widely respected and has a strong base of support. Finally, there is hope that Kansas City will get real representation in DC.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Ruben and Duncan

New efforts are being made by Senator Ida Ruben and others to enact a statewide smoking ban in Maryland. I think its high time to make all restaurants and bars accessible to those of us who don't feel like sitting in smoke, smelling disgusting and risking cancer. Whether this helps Sen. Ruben in her 2006 reelection is irrelevant as she is secure in her seat and has a huge campaign treasury.

And today's Post local section suggests that Doug Duncan might benefit from the blowup over alleged improprieties by former top cop of Maryland and Baltimore Norris.

And in national news, the big scoop of the day is that CBS News reports that the head of the 9/11 commission, Republican former (NJ) Governor Thomas Kean, is saying that the 9/11 tragedies were preventable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Over the Hump

The Gazette featured Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan putting the onus for increased revenues for 2004 on the state of Maryland:

Duncan also rejected slot machines - Ehrlich's top priority - saying that the county and state would prosper by investing in biotechnology and other new ventures.

"I want to live in a community that has a long-term strategy to attract the world's best and brightest and doesn't have to rely on people cashing in their Social Security checks at slot machine palaces," Duncan said, in a refrain that other top Democrats are sure to echo as they develop a message to use against Ehrlich.

Yesterday’s Kausfiles is interesting for the spin it puts on what some are suggesting would be a Dean third party candidacy if his little dance with the Dems doesn’t work out.

I found this snippet from CQ’s midday update thought provoking, following on the heels of the LA Times in-depth look at Senator Reid’s family’s success in lobbying.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, became a millionaire in the late 1990s "thanks to investments with businessmen who received government contracts or other benefits with his help," the Los Angeles Times reported today. In a 4,300-word story, the newspaper detailed how Stevens became wealthy, including helping to save a $450 million military housing contract for an Anchorage businessman who made the senator a partner in a series of real estate investments that turned a $50,000 stake into at least $750,000 in six years. An Alaska Native company that Stevens helped create "got millions of dollars in defense contracts through preferences he wrote into law. Now the company pays $6 million a year to lease an office building owned by the senator and his business partners," the paper said. Stevens, in a written response to questions submitted by The Times, said all his official actions were motivated by a desire to help Alaska, and that he played no role in the day-to-day management of the ventures into which he put money.

And one cannot help but wonder if the labor union movement in the U.S. is being revitalized by the efforts of organizers around the country. In particular, the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, is just one example of the success that many are having in using lists, listservs, websites, and online activism to supplement a resurgent organizing effort on the ground:

December 10 was a huge success with thousands of workers and their allies rallying in over 71 cities nationwide to send a single message: Workers Rights Are Human Rights! More than 2, 500 hundred rallied in Washington on the steps of the Department of Labor, over 5,000 marched with Rev. Jesse Jackson in Los Angeles, 4,000 rallied in Boston, 2,500 protested with President Sweeney in NY, 2,000 rallied with Sen. Barbara Boxer in San Francisco, over a thousand rallied in Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland, Philadelphia and 500 participated in St. Louis, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland and Miami. There was civil disobedience in New Haven and New Jersey. In Atlanta, workers and their allies closed operations at the notorious anti-worker law firm Jackson-Lewis. December 10 was just the beginning.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Dean for America

The Washington Post’s editorial page had a gonzo day today. While I quickly got bored with a couple of pieces, Charles Fenyvesi’s column anecdotal piece on dealing with evildoers in custody struck a cord with me. He tells the tale of a family friend who, after WWII, lost control of himself briefly when interrogating a war crime suspect, leading to a confession. His tale encourages one to grapple with the human rights standards we hold so dear and how they mark us, and impact our lives.

Fred Hiatt’s piece on Russia’s aggression in Chechnya also pushes one to think about the compromises we make in geopolitics: “It is in the accumulation of such small victories that a great nation diminishes itself.” Those “victories” are illustrated by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s accusation against the world community’s indifference toward the atrocities in Chechnya: “And how did they die? Amidst global silence, in solitude, with occasionally some people murmuring ‘never again’ – but not really attaching much significance to them.”

So, I’ve decided to face the music. It seems that I’ve become a Dean supporter. I went back and read some of my old stuff after recalling recent conversations where I tried to stay neutral but couldn’t help saying good things about Howard Dean and finding fault with most of his competitors. Although I have great respect for some of the other Democrats running and have questions about some of Dean's issue positions, I can no longer pretend to be on the fence. Dean and his team have run a good campaign, he appeals to me on several issue fronts and in what kind of leader he seems to be, and the recent endorsements by the very progressive Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., SEIU and AFSCME, and Rep. Elijah Cummings have made me turn the corner. So, you will see a Dean button on this site and, though I will endeavor to continue to write as I see fit, I recognize that these pieces will probably be slanted toward Dean.

For instance, several pieces in today’s Washington Post illustrate how those close to Dick Gephardt are funneling money to his campaign for president through means that those who support campaign finance should have difficulty accepting. While I cannot help but wonder if any candidate can keep their hands really clean in this day and age, I am concerned that some are not trying very hard.

The American Prospect has a good piece by Michael Tomasky on how Democratic Party muckety-mucks need to stop whining about how Dean might hurt our causes and leaders, and start working to make sure that the breath of fresh air he is bringing in is best used to make a long-term difference. Tomasky quotes the President of the New Democrat Network, a one-time Clinton campaign staffer: "If Clinton modernized the message," says Simon Rosenberg, the most prominent centrist Democrat who's enthusiastic about Dean, "then Dean is rebuilding the party. In the '90s party, it was, 'Write us a big check.' Regular people were left out of that equation. Now, through new technology, we're getting them back in."

Monday, December 15, 2003

Maryland's Online Skirmish

Roll Call reports a new web site that attacks Rep. Bartlett as the primary for Congress in Maryland’s 6th heats up:

George Rasley, a veteran Republican operative, put out the word last week that he had created a new Web site to, in his words, “expose” GOP Members of Congress who aren’t as conservative as they make themselves out to be. So far the site, www.honestyincongress.com, features just one offender: Six-term Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R).

Why Bartlett? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Rasley is a top campaign strategist for Bartlett’’s challenger in the March 2004 GOP primary, Frederick County States Attorney Scott Rolle (R).

Of course, online sources tend to have some energy, as a message questioning Rep. Al Wynn on a Maryland message board indicates:

First, Wynn's constituent service operation is a joke -- I, like many Democrats in PG and Montgomery
counties, have never received replies to regular letters and calls, except for a glossy flier that did
not answer my questions.

Second, Wynn consistently fails to push for the interests of his constituents, so those who know what
he actually does in the House are the least interested in promoting him.

And also in today’s news (from Georgia) Baltimore’s Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, endorsed Howard Dean, telling Dean: ''I thank you for making the dreams of African Americans and all people your dreams.''

Friday, December 12, 2003

Another Friday Web Log

The problem’s for Kansas City’s Democratic Representative got worse late last week when Karen McCarthy indicated in an interview that she might, indeed, retire. This prompted speculation that popular former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who had previously deferred to McCarthy, might be interested in the safe Democratic seat if she retired. The local alternative weekly The Pitch also questions McCarthy's effectiveness.

And in Maryland, the slots juggernaut rolled forward during a discussion between Governor Bob Ehrlich and Speaker Mike Busch. Ehrlich is probably already thinking ahead to the reelection campaign that will probably pit him against either Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley or Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, knowing that how he handles the budget will be key.

Speaking of gambling and future races, the Maryland Progressive recently had a good piece questioning Al Wynn’s stands on a number of issues:

"Time and time again, Wynn has cast key votes that put him on the same side as right-wingers who could never get elected to anything in the district Wynn represents. Even worse, Wynn has on several occasions stuck his neck out to provide cover for corporate special interests thrilled to have at least one reputedly "liberal" African-American Democrat in their corner."

It cites a number of such instances including opposition to a living wage measure and to campaign finance reform, and support for the energy bill. What a guy.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Guns or Butter

Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. Dwight D. Eisenhower (April 1953, Washington, D.C.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Torture and our rights at home

If you have not already heard the tale of the Canadian sent by the US to Syria to be tortured, read Maher Arar’s op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Ripped from the Headlines

Matt Taibbi has an article on retired General Wesley Clark in The Nation that has a few funny riffs, though the insights in it seem of limited value. This should surprise no one familiar with his previous work, which includes the biting and frequently funny, but often disturbing and meaningless Exile, a Russia-based alternative newspaper that bordered on the disturbed.

The Daily Kos has a link to a Virginia poll which shows Dean ahead even there. This makes one think ahead to a shortlist for Vice Presidential nominees. Any thoughts? Although I feel like I read this somewhere else first, I thought you might be interested in Mark Shields’ thinking on NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer: “He has been the lone cop on the beat, the Sheriff of Wall Street.”

Speaking of Wall Street, I found the discussion of the marketing of tax shelters in Tom Paine to be somewhat boring, but probably necessary reading if you want to stay up on this. Seems that Sen. Carl Levin is interested in being deputized.

And finally, the Supreme Court today largely upheld the bipartisan campaign finance reform act, shocking some observers.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Stand up

As a former resident of Russia and someone who believes in democracy, I continue to be concerned with the authoritarian trend in Russia and the weakening of forces who disagree with President Putin, in part due to the use of government power to stifle them. It continues to surprise me how the same Russians who rose up against a corrupt and thoughtless monarchy in revolution, and then managed to take steps toward democracy and a mixed economic system, could now fold so compliantly before this former KGB agent. I worry about where this great nation that still has nuclear weapons, and vast human and natural resources, will go.

Although I have to admit ignorance of its contents, I cannot but be inspired by Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabbo, and their teams’ accord for peace in the Middle East. Regardless of the viability or usefulness of their agreement, and they have more than their share of doubters, their willingness to recognize that their national leaders and other partisans continue to fail to achieve the peace that so many yearn for, and to work for it, is inspiring. I have long believed that the United States should support peace and justice in the Middle East (and around the world), encourage democracy and cooperation, and still support allies. Supporting the Israeli government, right or wrong, is not getting us to those broad goals. Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are not getting their peoples to a decision, despite continued deaths, economic problems brought on by the conflict, and suffering. It is time for a change.

And how ‘bout that Gore endorsement? I know that something could still happen: Dean could stumble big or someone's ground operation could beat him in a few key states. But does anyone still wants to put even money on Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, Clark...?

Monday, December 08, 2003

All the news that's...

As you may be aware, there are questions about how secure electronic voting machines are. Many citizens and leaders are concerned enough that they are moving to have a paper record available of how people vote, for verification purposes. Sometimes this is harder than you might expect, as the Gazette reveals :
"An e-mail found in a collection of files apparently stolen from Diebold Elections Systems' internal database recommends charging Maryland "out the yin-yang" should the state require Diebold to add paper printouts to the $73 million voting system it purchased."

Anyone bemoaning the loss of zest and flamboyance in Congress should be excited by the news that Bob “B-1" Dornan is going to run for Congress from California again, whether he has a shot or not, as is the Angry Clam. For those who miss Dornan’s bombastic House floor speeches, he is coming out of radio talk-show land to attempt to beat conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher after losing his seat to Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

One of the sillier sets of regulations out there are those that govern how workers can decide whether to be represented by a union. Arcane, complex, and employer-favoring rules make it extremely difficult for workers to fight intimidation tactics intended to stop them from organizing, as the labor rules intend. Of course, a number of Democrats are sponsoring a bill to streamline the process so that workers’ intentions become fact, but we know how far that will go in today’s Congress...

In other news today, the Washington Post reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidated power in elections, the New York Times talked about the continued trade in human organs, Roll Call tells us about a photo on Yahoo that suggests something big about Dick Gephardt, and the Chicago Tribune went off the deep end by letting us know that "man fishing in Galveston Bay found a headless torso inside a floating suitcase and then spotted a plastic bag that contained a head..."

Thursday, December 04, 2003

In Maryland

Talk about a waste of time, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) has decided to put effort into contesting Maryland's 8th, a liberal bastion taking up a large part of Montgomery and part of Prince George's counties in the DC suburbs, according to the Montgomery County Sentinel. They put out a press release against his vote on the Medicare bill in an effort to soften him up.

While it is true that the incumbent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, is in his first term and that he beat a long-time Republican Member, Rep. Connie Morella, this seems like a doubtful proposition. I guess we'll see if the new NRCC chair (Tom Davis finished his two terms in the fall) has any brains or if he'll put his money where his mouth is.

Even if the Gazette gives lots of space to a Republican opponent, I think this isn't going to happen. Look at the district's demographics and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

A child learns he has to "cep my mouf shut"

You know that a candidate in a safe district has a real chance of going under when s/he has, in addition to credible primary challengers, weak fundraising, and repeated bad articles from the only daily in the district, two challengers from the other party. Rep. Karen McCarthy of Kansas City (D-MO) is one such incumbent, as articles in the Kansas City Star and The Hill illustrate.

In other news today, I was alarmed to see that a 7 year-old in Louisiana learned that he had to keep quiet to classmates about the fact that he has two mothers. On D1 of today's New York Times there is an interesting article about chocolate. And, of course, National Journal's CongressDailyPM reminds me that I have not mentioned the many recent articles on potential Administration steps toward weakening clean air standards.

I don’t read the Economist on a regular basis anymore because, despite the good information and depth it presents particularly on issues that other publications sometimes miss, it has a clear bias in articles as well as op-ed pieces. That said, was worth some of my time today : This week's law-making may have helped George Bush win next year's election——providing voters don't do the sums

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Head of What?

I remember reading years ago about how some democracies that separated the duties of the top leader had an advantage over the American system. The essay posited that by separating the duties of the head of state, such as a king, queen, or president, from those of the head of government, like a prime minister, leadership could be more effective. This would consist of the head of state being responsible for communicating and perhaps influencing the broad outlines of national goals and beliefs, largely through ceremonial, charitable, diplomatic and symbolic work, while the head of government would manage the cabinet and the daily business of administering the nation.

Please do not misunderstand: I am not advocating for a monarchy, nor do I necessarily support having a leader who is not elected nationwide. I am merely seeing that there might be some efficiency in having a leader who can really focus on making the important decisions. In the U.S., it seems that an effective President must spend all too much time speaking to the people and to leaders of organizations and other nations, participating in ceremonies and meetings, and campaigning. When do they find time to make reasoned, informed decisions on policy?

It seems that, deliberately or otherwise, we are experimenting with such a system now. Love them or hate them, the method of governance (as opposed to their policies) in the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush cannot be more different. Clinton, in addition to being a regular communicator, was apparently a micro-manager. In the various memoirs of the Clinton White House, one learns that he was interested and involved in the minutiae of policy and politics. Although it is still early, one gets the impression that while Bush sets the broad policy and political framework and is said to make all key decisions, he is not quite so involved with the details.

I strongly believe that there should be someone whose job it is to bring together all of the pieces of the policy pie, and the advice of the various factions in and around government. And we have little reason to believe that the need for leaders to communicate with the public will decrease in the foreseeable future. Is it reasonable to expect one person to do both?


Restaurant review: I had a really good crawfish etouffee at the New Orleans Café at 2412 18th St. NW in Adams Morgan, and the other food was good as well. So if you want a zesty taste of Cajun at a very reasonable price and in a good atmosphere, check them out.

And of course this week’s big political news is the rejection of re-redistricting in Colorado by that state’s Supreme Court: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25091-2003Dec1.html While it is an open question as to whether this decision will change anything in Texas or nationwide, it is surely a decision of interest to all those watching 2004 elections. Few really see a Democratic takeover of the House as possible, but the new maps in Colorado and Texas push that possibility even farther out.