As Goes Baltimore
An inorganic square city, nestled on organic coast line. A National Anthem born in its Harbor. It is a city that can count writers Poe and Fitzgerald, athletes Babe and Phelps, Chief Justice Marshall and Taney, Entertainers Tupac and Oprah, as its native sons. Tidy row houses line the city, yet rough neighborhoods scar it. Over the last century, Baltimore has seen the decline of its industries, the destruction of its harbor, and been perhaps the country’s defining example of racial geo-politics. Once the Nation’s third largest city, the city’s population has been on the decline for over fifty years. Endemic to this failure is Government at all levels, Federal housing policies segregated the city, corruption diverted needed local funds, the State promoted suburbanization at Baltimore’s expense. Baltimore County, directly outside the city, is now almost 50 percent more populous than Baltimore. The City’s population peaked at nearly one million in the 1950’s right around when its public transit system, a criss-cross of streetcars, was ripped out by GM. Citizens fled for the suburbs. A beating heart with no blood, the city now hosts 600,000 residents.
A year ago Governor Hogan decided that replenishing this blood with The Red Line, a 19 station transit line was too expensive. Leaving a billion Federal dollars on the table, the remaining 2 billions of funds, would instead be put to use building roads in rural Maryland. Economics was the given reason, but it was an excuse: “The amount of money the state is spending to save a minute of travel time on Route 404 is seven and a half times greater than the amount it refused to spend to save a minute of travel time in Baltimore.” For Hogan, the equation was simple: Baltimore did not turn out to vote. Neither for Hogan nor in general, while rural Maryland did. Electoral realities also made sure The Purple Line, running through wealthy suburban DC, was not shelved. The economic-soundness of constructing a transit line in Maryland’s only densely populated city, with a high vacancy rate and suffering from a traffic crisis did not matter. What mattered was votes.
Hogan ran as a Republican, and was “destined to lose” in Blue Maryland. Black, Iraq War hero, Lt Governor Brown was the Democratic candidate. He ran as a shoo-in; the aforementioned are all the reasons why. Yet when election day came, Hogan became Governor. “Abysmal turnout in the Democratic strongholds of Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., suburbs doomed Brown’s campaign and helped propel Republican Larry Hogan to a historic upset”. When running against “The Establishment,” you need three things to win; An apathetic electorate not seeing results, an opponent giving no credence to your challenge, and a concise and controlled message that people can get behind. In Hogan’s case this message was that Annapolis was overspending and under-delivering, and that he’d leave the state’s socially liberal sensibilities alone. It was a winning message.
There is no doubt that Brown showed apathy for his electorate, and O’Malley for governmental process. In the case of Brown’s election campaign, he didn’t even go through the motions of a properly ran campaign until the final weeks. Hubristically thinking The Party machine would crank without any input from him. This entire situation speaks to the core weakness of The Democratic Party, always needing to herd cats. The Party is a loose coalition of special interest groups, comprising The NIMBYs and The Environmentalists, The Champagne Socialists and The Union members, the one issue voters and the nerdy policy wonks. Elected Democrats tie these distinct groups together, to find a workable solution for the real world problems these groups attempt to address. Practical Democratic Leaders must parse out the emotive and the knee-jerk, to enact sensible and efficient Government policy that sticks long after it is enacted. They also must rally these interest groups around these policies to adopt them.
In Maryland, O’Malley fumbled the ball. Bold policy was a staple of O’Malley’s Governorship, but The Red Line was dragged on for inordinate amounts of time. Of course the entrenched lethargy of The State didn’t help. To be clear, O’Malley pushed a strong Democratic agenda. The state passed gay marriage by plebiscite. O’Malley repealed the death penalty. The state proposed the Red Line, and it successfully gained Federal funding, A strong environmental push was made to clean up the Bay, and during the economic crisis, O’Malley choose to raise taxes instead of cut spending, including taxes on gas, cigarettes, and high income earners. He even managed to protect Maryland’s fantastic Public University system. Earnestly, those tax raises perhaps meant hard choices weren’t made: “We were, in retrospect, a bit too aggressive in that department, said House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis.”
There were other failures of course. Fracking was allowed, O’Malley taking the time to pass it on his way out the door to a Republican Governor. He then tried to push an Environmentalist stance as part of his run for President. This isn’t an unfair position though, given that O’Malley was very environmental. The Fracking allowance was just inconsistent, and was time wasted not nailing down the one thing Hogan had guaranteed he’d fuck with. The Red Line. Hogan made it the center of his campaign, a year before the election.
The Red Line is a case study in Democratic failure. The Red Line would have served the large struggling City that always votes Democrat, it would have taken thousands of cars off the road, added transit access for poor communities, promoted development in vacant infested West Baltimore, all with substantial Federal subsidy. In addition, this subsidy would have brought Federal Oversight, a fact that possibly would have reduced the corruption of many State projects (wishful thinking). It was pro-environment, pro-inner city, pro-Baltimore, and pro-Union. A Democratic home run. Perhaps O’Malley presumed that no one would pass up a billion dollars in Federal funding. Yet it sat on the side table for years. The party assumed that Brown would win behind the collective strength of the aforementioned special interest groups who had always turned out in good ol’ Blue Maryland. Those people were never engaged, and so they did not show up. As a result, Roads will now receive the lion share of Maryland transport funding: 57 percent, to O’Malleys 45. Baltimore will be forgotten, literally...
The key lessons here are classics: Don’t assume something HAS to happen, and make projects as cheap as possible. The Red Line was given Federal fast track. However, It had to be resubmitted with lower Federal funding to be competitive with other projects. It had O’Malleys blessing, it had Rawling-Blake’s blessing, it just wasn’t planned to move fast enough. Indeed, if the resubmit wasn’t needed, perhaps the project could have been started six months before the election instead of six months after. The Democratic party should not just stand for Government. Given recent Republican tactics to just slash and burn any liberal program it is too easy to react by just throwing things at the wall. The Party must resist this urge, it represents a diverse set of centrist to liberal interest groups and voters as a whole and thus must strive for Good Government in the things we care about, including transit, not just Government. Good Government is fast, efficient and precise. Good Government wins Democrats elections. Good Governors also know when Election Day is.
Transit is becoming a crucial part of the Party’s modern identity on the national level. Major cities are almost exclusively Democratic, and public transport spending has been a staple of bringing bacon home for constituents since the crisis. Transit takes a long time to build and needs a stable, long-term governmental buy-in to complete. A quick run down the projects list at the DOT includes 15 projects in blue California, a handful of projects in the increasingly Democratic Research Triangle, a litany of projects in Seattle, improvements in the DC area, and a sundry of works in Minnesota. The Green Line, the Twin Cities’ new light rail line, has shattered expectations, and helped keep Democratic local and state politicians polling high. Public transit is a unique opportunity to hit all the talking points of The Democratic Party at once. From Racial Justice to Environmentalism public transport is about as down the middle liberal as it gets. We must publicize these projects, they are excellent policy in a country suffering from congestion, hollowed out cities, climate change, and segregation. Their physical nature also gives concrete proof of Democratic success.
But policy needs execution. It is no coincidence that the DOT list includes 15 California projects. Governor Jerry “Jerr-Bear” Brown is a strong transportation advocate, and incumbent Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sees it as necessary for his city’s future. Nearly everywhere the Democratic party is polling well has a project in the works. From progressive Seattle to the nascent centrist-Democrat takeover of Virginia politics, wherever the Democrats are doing well there is a project. Even in deeply-Republican Texas, Dallas’s Democratic city council and mayoralty, in continuation of the efforts of the outgoing Republican Mayor Tom Leppert, have built the nation’s largest light rail service, and recently finished extending service to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. It makes sense that Democratic governments are winning most Federal transit grants, since transit hits every Democratic policy tick box. The grants are competitive though, and only the most effective projects will win the funding.
Obama will leave office with massive internal Party approval ratings, and systems like DOT’s block grants is why. Obama has shown love for systems that include competition, they achieve policy goals, and speed up the process of getting things done. Non-competitive systems breed the complacency and ineffectiveness that Maryland’s Governor allowed to fester in executing The Red Line project. It is important to note competition does not preclude working together. Obama favors policies that bring parties together, forcing compromise and consensus that leave everyone better off. In this case, competition is to achieve policy goals efficiently, and force groups to fight for their convictions. Obama describes politics as football, “a lot of specialization, a lot of hitting, a lot of attrition… but every once in a while you see a hole, and then there is open field.” This almost perfectly describes the rough and tumble world of special interest groups in the Democratic Party and Government. The open field comes when a single policy makes those factions all better off.
When isolated Obama policy can look like pandering to special interest groups, for instance car emission standards were for the environmentalists, The GM bailout for union workers, Cash For Clunkers for the poor. Yet that ignores the temporal aspect of these reforms, they were all passed at the same time, leaving each interest group in question with not everything they wanted, and much they didn’t, but overall better off. For instance Environmentalists should have no love for continued subsidy of car travel, but the net effect of the aforementioned policies will be less emissions. Union Workers did not like the onerous terms of contract negotiation that came out of the crisis, but they kept their jobs and got some temporary juicing of demand for their skills during the crisis from Cash For Clunkers. Cash for Clunkers offset the increased cost of more environmentally friendly cars for a while, and genuinely transferred funds to the poorest demographic. By tying these reforms together Obama left everyone a bit better off, while pushing his goals of a more environmentally friendly and less unequal society.
It is this sort of action that the Democrats should focus on. Policies with broad buy-in keeps the base happy and advocating for change, and makes sure policy goals are met. Deals that attempt to satiate one interest group alone often fail, as buy-in is not as substantial, and reform easier to stall and reverse. Obama found this out the hardy way with The TPP. In addition, Cronyism and corruption become more rampant when no interest group is giving as well as receiving. Most of all though, the Democrats must remember who votes for them: people. Larry Hogan remembered this and acted on it, getting his voters what they wanted, rural roads, and making a case for it that made them show up to the polls. People will only vote for incumbent Democrats if Government is effective, and its benefits to voters and their communities advertised. Voters can not be taken for granted.
Hogan also serves as a reminder why a Republican candidate rarely gives a Democrat what they want, reneging on his social issue promise by calling for the blocking of Syrian Refugees (a power he does not have), canceling The Red Line, and generally trying to give poorer Baltimore less than its fair share. After the Red Line axing, a bus replacement was suggested, but despite the 2 billion “saved” there was “no money left”, Hogan’s administration insists: “We care about Baltimore. We want Baltimore to be successful”. This is the singular failure of the Two Party system, one electoral loss leaves the entire Democratic coalition, or worse a city, out in the cold. An unresponsive Democrat is only replaceable with a Republican. The solution is dangerously simple, no complacent or ineffective Democrats. The party must rule efficiently and competently, not taking 10 years to even start a project that benefits almost every faction WITHIN the party, let alone in the state it resides in. Will Rogers once said: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” Democratic leaders need to organize it.