Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The MACO Moment (Updated)

Blog traffic is burning up over the party-time photos from last week’s Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) meeting. This is turning into one hot August.

First of all, let’s make one thing clear: schmoozing and networking are legitimate parts of both the political and lobbying professions. That is how relationships are established, information is exchanged and compromises are worked out. MACO, and other events of its kind, serves to lubricate the gears of governance. The problem is that in this case there may have been a little too much lubrication.

The politicians in the early photos are guilty of doing little more than socializing with each other. None of them participated in the shot-splattered barbarity of the later photos. Through sheer bad luck, pictures of their harmless socializing wound up in the same Facebook album with the frathouse frolicking of the Governor’s staff. They have legitimate cause for grievance with the Governor’s failure to control his camera-happy, drunken underlings.

And that failure is spreading across the state like wildfire. Monday was the sixth-most-visited day in the history of MPW and Tuesday was the seventh-most visited day. That was primarily because every corner of the state piled into that booze-soaked blog post. That’s remarkable given that August is usually our worst month. It’s also noteworthy because not a single mainstream media source or conservative blog(!) has yet covered the story.

This presents two problems for the Governor and the Democratic Party.

The Governor’s press people have worked hard to control how the mainstream media has covered the MACO conference and the next round of budget cuts. He persuaded both the Post and the Sun to write about his poring over thousands of residents’ suggestions for budget cuts. That deftly shifted the coverage away from devastating cuts and towards the Governor’s practice of grass-roots democracy. The Post also wrote articles describing MACO as “low key” and “sober.” The uniform message was that the Governor, his staff and his allies were serious-minded policy-makers undertaking the difficult work of government at the direction of the citizenry.

The MACO imagery shows otherwise. It depicts the leadership of the Democratic Party preening in full plumage right before announcing a half-billion dollars in cuts for services that go mostly towards working-class and poor people. It also shows that the Governor’s staff, far from being “frugal” while studiously viewing the people’s budget suggestions, were instead much more interested in viewing the bottoms of shot glasses and liquor bottles.

Budget cuts won’t kill the Democrats. Hypocrisy might.

Tax Money
Most of the events at MACO were sponsored and financed by lobbyists. But we hear that many county officials may have used public money to pay for registration and rooms. At least one local leader also brought a security detail.

Earlier this month, we reported that Montgomery County Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg used county money to pay part of the cost of a three-week training she attended at Harvard. Upon her return, she declared, “We’ll have to tighten our belts, and we cannot wait until next May to do so.” (A lot of public employees have seen that blog post.) Some politicians defend their right to use public money so they can attend “trainings.” But let’s be honest – no one ever voted for a candidate while thinking, “He might be a pretty good public servant if only he took a couple more classes.”

Appearances matter a lot in tough times like these. Politicians at all levels are telling the voters that every cent of public spending must be scrutinized, and they are right. But they must start with their own offices’ expenditures if they are to have any credibility in making that argument. The publicly-funded trainings, trips and junkets must end until the budget crisis is over. And in this atmosphere, anything resembling Delegate Jon Cardin's incredible blunder is especially crippling. Remember, hypocrisy kills.

The silver lining is that all of this could have been worse. We hear that one prominent state leader traveled to MACO with an entourage of leggy twenty-something females. If any photos had been released of what one source calls “the hoochie-mama harem,” well... you get the picture.

Update: That silver lining is looking tarnished. O'Malley Watch has linked to the story. We recommend that all politicians read the comments on their post.