Monday, October 19, 2009

Fed Up in the Free State

Progressive Maryland and Common Cause are using the results of a recent poll to press their case for campaign finance reform. They certainly have some useful ammunition as the poll shows majority support for public financing. But the poll shows something else: a deep cynicism towards government. And more than that, it shows that the Democratic rank-and-file is extraordinarily suspicious of a state government run by their own party.

Consider the responses to the following questions divided by party affiliation.

“I am worried that large political contributions will prevent lawmakers in Annapolis from tackling the important issues facing Maryland today, like the recession, rising energy costs, reforming health care, and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.”

Percentage agreeing, strongly or somewhat:

Democrats: 78.2%
Republicans: 74.0%
Independents: 78.2%
Total: 76.9%

“Right now, would you say elected officials in Maryland are looking out for the needs of everyone, or are mostly concerned with the needs of those who pay for their campaigns?”

Percentage answering those who pay for their campaigns:

Democrats: 51.5%
Republicans: 66.4%
Independents: 54.5%

“Do you agree or disagree that lawmakers in Annapolis are more likely to vote the way their political contributors want them to vote, not how their constituents want them to vote?”

Percentage agreeing, strongly or somewhat, that lawmakers are more likely to vote for contributors:

Democrats: 64.2%
Republicans: 78.1%
Independents: 81.8%

“Do you agree or disagree that big campaign contributions have a corrupting influence on state lawmakers in Annapolis?”

Percentage agreeing, strongly or somewhat:

Democrats: 76.0%
Republicans: 81.5%
Independents: 72.8%

While Republicans and Independents may be more disillusioned than Democrats, the significant majorities of the latter who condemn a government controlled by their own party is striking. The poll’s advocates argue that campaign finance issues are a reason for that, and they are undoubtedly right. But such deep feelings are not explained by that reason alone.

Consider the following:

In Baltimore City, the headlines are regularly dominated by the coming corruption trials of Mayor Sheila Dixon and City Council Member Beverly Holton.

In Prince George’s County, senior Senators Ulysses Currie and Nathaniel Exum are targets of investigation. County Executive Jack Johnson has had a number of ethical and performance issues.

The residents of both Baltimore City and Prince George’s County have been victimized by poor schools and out-of-control crime for many years.

This blog has chronicled the problems of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission over and over.

Only weeks ago, Montgomery College had to oust its President for dubious credit card practices and an outstanding arrest warrant.

Baltimore County Council Member Sam Moxley was recently arrested for DUI after being involved in a four-car accident. Fellow County Council Member Kenneth Oliver plead guilty to campaign finance violations. Neither plans to resign.

Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold has not shaken repeated scandals. (Leopold is the only Republican on this list.)

And who can forget Delegate Jon Cardin’s water-logged marriage proposal?

The one thing all of the above politicians share is that they are still in office. None of them has faced any real consequences. In fact, Senator Currie still chairs the powerful Senate and Budget Taxation Committee despite the fact that the Senate President himself accused him of not adhering to the ethics law. Mayor Dixon was treated like a conquering hero by Democrats at MACO. Politicians cling to perks like free E-ZPasses and squawk when the Post discusses whether or not they will return pay to the state. And while many insiders dismissed MACO as a non-story, roughly 20,000 page viewers swarmed into this blog to look at the pictures of the Governor’s staff carousing drunkenly at a supposedly “sober” event. (Until recently, this blog did not break 20,000 visitors over the course of an entire month.) That is a sign of growing discontent with government that is fed by the unethical, and sometimes criminal, behavior of its leaders.

The Democrats probably will not lose control of the statehouse or Government House over these issues. Their registration advantage is too great, the Republicans are too inept to compete and most voters blame not their own local representatives but rather “the system” instead. But the chances that voters will support structural limitations that chain up their government, including tax caps and term limits, are soaring. That is a terrible threat to the state. Consider the performance of Prince George’s County, which has both a tax cap and term limits, or of California, which has even more restrictions. That could be the future of Maryland and the legacy of today’s political leadership.

And what of Montgomery County? We are not immune to the roiling unhappiness of the masses. Robin Ficker is currently collecting signatures for a new charter amendment that would impose term limits on the County Executive and County Council. In this climate, it could very well pass with lots of support from the Democratic rank-and-file.