The past few months have not been inspiring for proponents of good government in Maryland.
Baltimore State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, was indicted on four federal charges. Gov. Larry Hogan’s former chief of staff and erstwhile Maryland Environmental Service CEO, Roy McGrath, is scheduled to go on trial this spring for charges of wire fraud, misconduct in office, and improper use of state funds. One-time Baltimore Mayor, Catherine Pugh, was released from prison early after serving time for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and two counts of tax evasion.
Last fall, Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Jonathan Newell killed himself to avoid arrest on charges of “sexual exploitation of a minor to produce child pornography.” Cambridge Mayor Andrew Bradshaw (who resigned recently) faces 50 counts of distributing “revenge pornography.”
This is a brief list that doesn’t include the senators, delegates and local officials that have gone to prison in past decades.
Baltimore County Inspector General Kelly Madigan just released a voluminous report detailing years of improper development fee waivers by former Baltimore County Director of Permits, Approvals, and Inspections Arnold Jablon. Despite the checkered history, the administration of County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr., continued the dispensation for the developer. A month after his chief administrative officer unilaterally approved extending the waiver, Olszewski formed a “Blue Ribbon Ethics and Accountability Commission,” a move that seems more about public relations than public integrity.
As evidenced by the examples above, the problem is not limited to any one jurisdiction, region, political party, branch, or level of government in Maryland. Things are bad all over.
The issue extends beyond state and local governments providing a marathon of “perp walks” and dispiriting headlines. Nonpartisan functions like public health and elections have become relentlessly partisan battlegrounds. Independent officials like the inspectors general of Baltimore City and Baltimore County have been the targets of recent political attempts to diminish their authority. The ranks of honorable and impartial public administrators have thinned. Maryland politics has become professional wrestling, though less honest and less entertaining.
Politics has always been a shabby and shady business. Mark Twain quipped, “…there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Another American humorist, Will Rogers, opined that, “The more you observe politics, the more you’ve got to admit that each party is worse than the other.” That those jokes are still funny is a testament to the comedic geniuses who wrote them and to the seemingly infinite ability of governments and politicians to behave badly.
That this is an old problem is beyond debate, but it does seem to be getting worse.
This state—like the nation—is bitterly divided. Incivility is endemic. Public hearings increasingly have a “Jerry Springer Show” quality. Appointed officials have been subjected to harassment and death threats. The “primary-is-the-election” phenomena has pushed candidates further right or left, a situation unlikely to change since both major political parties remain slavishly devoted to gerrymandering. Social media and the 24/7 news cycle have contributed to the dysfunction and toxicity.
There will always be politics in a representative democracy, but no government can maintain its legitimacy without free and fair elections, an abiding respect for the rule of law, and systems that hold public officials and private influence peddlers accountable for misconduct. For this to happen, there must be “de-partisanized zones,” government officials and agencies where party fealty does not matter.
In writing this, I dug out my miliary Oath of Enlistment from nearly 40 years ago. I took similar oaths as an appointed official in Maryland. The language is simple and compelling. The obligation to support and defend the Constitution applies to all fights, even—perhaps especially—those that seem impossible. The battle against rank partisanship in every corner of government certainly seems unwinnable.
The acerbic observations of Twain and Rogers are humorous because they tell uncomfortable truths and because we still live in a democracy where we can laugh about the failings our politicians and our government. Win or lose, preserving that—and restoring public faith in government for future generations—is a fight worth having.