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By Mark Newgent
The Howard County Public School System’s redistricting process has certainly engendered a great deal of angst and turmoil in our community. The prevailing media narrative surrounding redistricting is a Manichean frame pitting social justice advocates fighting for equity (however ill-defined they use the term) against wealthy parents who do not want their children moved out of their community schools. However, there is another framework at play, one that explains the real coalitions and motivations at play: Bootleggers and Baptists.
The Bootleggers and Baptists theory developed by Clemson University economist Bruce Yandle explains the contours of government policymaking and the unusual coalitions that form to achieve certain policy outcomes. The theory uses the example of “blue light laws” that outlaw the sale, but not the consumption of alcohol on Sunday.
With the blue laws the Baptists get demon rum off the streets for a day. With the liquor stores closed, the Bootleggers have their opportunity to sell their product without competition—and at a tidy profit. The Baptists like the blue laws because it fulfills their sense of virtue, while the Bootleggers (who pay off the politicians) like them because it’s a rent-seeking advantage they could not achieve in the open market.
Once you know who and what to look for, the Bootleggers and Baptists involved in Howard County school redistricting become crystal clear.
Who they are
The Bootleggers are Howard County developers with significant financial stakes in housing projects within the geographic areas slated to receive an influx of high achieving students under Superintendent Martirano’s redistricting plan. The Baptists are the progressive, social justice advocates, who like their prohibitionist forebears, are proselytizing tenets of faith more so than a debatable policy prescription.
This unusual coalition is reflected in the Howard County Housing Affordability Coalition, a who’s who of developers, housing and education equity advocates. The coalition’s stated goal is to “achieve community understanding, policy-making and regulatory decisions that will lead to an increase in and equitable access to Howard County housing affordability.”
Looking down the roster of the coalition membership you will find the same corporate and activists backers of Superintendent Martirano’s redistricting plan, including members of the his Attendance Committee that served as advisors in the development of his proposal, and a Murderer’s Row of county developers.
Another indicator that Bootleggers and Baptists are at play is the presence of Center Maryland. Center Maryland is a faux “news” website, a creation of KO (Kearney-O’Doherty) Public Affairs.
KO is a politically connected public relations shop run by members of former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s political operation. Their business model is quite simple: use their friends in government to provide their clients what they cannot obtain in the marketplace. Center Maryland ran campaigns to increase the state gas tax and expand casino gambling in Maryland.
In the week leading up to the release of, and in the months after the superintendent released his proposal, Center Maryland launched a Facebook ad campaign in support of the proposal, housing policies supported by the Howard County Housing Coalition, and articles critical of a bill before the Howard County Council that raised impact fees on developers.
Center Maryland also sponsored an “Educational Equity and Housing Affordability Conference” held in early September to generate support for Martirano’s plan and the preferred housing policies it would support. Not coincidentally, the first ad for the conference appeared the same day Martirano submitted his plan to the Board of Education. According to Facebook’s Ad Library, since May 2019, Center Maryland spent nearly $5,000 on ads.
Center Maryland/KO Public Affairs doesn’t work for free. It takes a well-funded organization to procure their services. Their presence advocating for the superintendent’s plan indicates a well funded, and closely coordinated campaign entailing the very “media, coalition building and grassroots organizing,” KO Public Affairs brags about on their website.
Progressive social justice advocates finding common cause with opportunistic developers is quintessential Bootleggers and Baptists and it’s at work in Howard County.
Mark Newgent lives in Ellicott City and formerly was Gov. Larry Hogan’s Liaison to the Board of Public Works. He has children in the Howard County Public School system.