Media Coverage on Term Limits

It has been good to see that the term limit extension has been getting some media coverage. Yours truly was interviewed for a Laurel Leader/Baltimore Sun piece this past week. The Gazette ran a while back a similar story  on the topic.

In my view, the most interesting stories have been about the struggle at the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee whether to endorse the term limit extension. The topic was so contentious that it was tabled at the first meeting. In the second meeting,  the Central Committee relented after debate and decided to endorse the term limit extension on the party’s “official” sample ballots.

It will be interesting to see if the sample ballot endorsements will be enough to take the term limit extension over the finish line. Knowing the power of our sample ballots, I am worried.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 2

When politicians propose changes that provide significant benefits to themselves, they often try to convince voters that the proposed changes somehow make the system better. For example, when politicians vote themselves a pay increase, they argue that the raise will help attract qualified candidates. However, such arguments sound hollow if a politician himself or herself benefits from the change. To avoid the appearance of a proposal being self-serving, such changes are often made applicable only to future elected officials—not the politicians making the change.

When it comes to the current proposal to extend term limits for the Prince George’s County Council members and the County Executive, our politicians made no effort to make the change only apply to future Council members and County Executives. Thus, the term limit extension proposal is a blatantly self-serving move.

When I also consider the Council’s recent proposal to give itself—and the County Executive—hefty raises, I’m starting to think one term is all this crop of politicians deserve.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 1

The Prince George’s County Council is putting forward a ballot question in the November election to extend the term limits for County Council members and the County Executive from the current two terms to three terms. This is a terrible idea for a multitude of reasons, and I will be posting about those reasons in the coming days and weeks.

My biggest problem with the term limit extension stems from my well-documented concern regarding the undue influence incumbent politicians and party insiders have on our elections. This whole blog was born out my frustration with the Maryland system of “elections.”

In all democratic systems, incumbent politicians have many built-in advantages. That is why it is not easy to beat an incumbent anywhere. However, in Maryland this incumbency protection is nearly bulletproof thanks to our system of candidate slates and “sample ballot” advertisements. As long as an elected official gets along with his/her fellow incumbents well enough to appear on the joint sample ballot, it is nearly impossible for an incumbent to lose in a primary. And, in a one-party county such as Prince George’s, winning the primary guarantees victory in the general election.

When we have this type of extreme incumbency protection built into the system, term limits are the only avenue for getting new blood and new ideas into the political system. If we extend the term limits and eventually get rid of them (as is the stated objective of those pushing for the term limit extension), our system becomes completely closed and dominated by a handful of long-term incumbents.

I Was Right

Prince George’s County Council’s proposal to extend term limits for its own members and the County Executive is pulling me back to this blog after a summer hiatus. But, before I get to that topic, I feel the need to gloat a bit about my District 9 Board of Education primary race prediction.

Once we knew that Sonya Williams was going to be the chosen candidate of the incumbent elected officials and her name was going to appear on the “sample ballot” advertisements being mailed to District 9 voters, I knew the BOE primary race was over. These June primary election results, as reported by the Maryland State Board of Elections, prove I was right:

  • Sonya Williams: 5,383 votes (42.3%)
  • Domonique Flowers: 4,502 votes (35.4%)
  • Denise Joseph: 1,826 votes (14.4%)
  • Johnnie Isaac: 1,010 (7.9%)

For me, the only surprise was that the race was as close as it was. I know that Mr. Flowers had prepared for his campaign for a long time and worked very hard, and that obviously shows in the results. But it still wasn’t enough to overcome the advantage provided by incumbent endorsements and their sample ballots.

It is important to note that this BOE race is not over. The top two vote getters from the primary—Williams and Flowers—will appear on the November general election ballot. When it comes to that election, I will stick with my prediction: Incumbent support and those sample ballots will carry Williams to victory.

David Craig Gets My Republican Endorsement

As a Democrat, I really don’t have much business weighing in on the Republican gubernatorial candidates. But, I did approach all the Republicans in the race, and the candidates themselves made it very easy for me to pick my favorite among them. Only one of them bothered to answer my questions, and that candidate happens to agree with me on all of my three priority issues. Thus, my endorsement goes to David Craig.

As I pointed out in my Mizeur endorsement post, I think it does tell something about a politician when they respond to a citizen activist like me. If a politician doesn’t care about my views during the election season, how can I expect him or her to care about me after the election?

I realize that no Republican is likely to care about my endorsement in their gubernatorial primary. However, I want to point out that my election reform advocacy is very much non-partisan in nature. In reality, due to the Democratic dominance in Maryland politics, my efforts are mostly aimed at reducing the power of Democratic incumbents and party insiders. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that Maryland Republicans have not been hopping on the good governance bandwagon in greater numbers. It is one of the issues that could help them find a way out of the political wilderness.

My Choice: Mizeur for Governor

When I started this blog last fall to advocate for electoral reforms, my intention was not to endorse any gubernatorial candidates. My only goal was to bring my priority issues—slates, sample ballots, and gerrymandering—into the political discussion during this election season.

However, as I kept at it, it became clear to me that in good conscience I can only support one of the candidates in my own party. That candidate is Heather Mizeur.

First of all, of the three major Democrats in the race—Mizeur, Anthony Brown, and Doug Gansler—Mizeur was the only one who had the courtesy of responding to my questions. I had three simple, relevant questions for the candidates. Despite repeated contacts, the Brown and Gansler camps never bothered to answer my inquiries in any way—not even to say “No comment.” It is not very promising when a candidate is that unresponsive during a time when they are supposedly fighting for every vote.

Second, Mizeur agrees with me on two of my three questions. She supports outlawing candidate slates and reforming our redistricting process. Even though she is not supportive of outlawing sample ballot advertisements, I suspect that getting rid of candidate slates would greatly diminish the use of such advertisements. I will even give it to Mizeur that there could be constitutional challenges outlawing sample ballots.

I also must give Mizeur credit for highlighting the issue of gerrymandering and need for redistricting reform during the campaign. Again, nothing from the Brown and Gansler camps. Thus, there is only one candidate I can count on to advance good governance reforms and to challenge entrenched Democratic party insiders. In a state controlled by one party (my own party), that is a quality I consider to be very important.

Stench of Backroom Dealing Discourages Candidates and Activists

In Maryland, this is a time when many local organizations host forums to vet candidates for various political offices. As someone who attends these events, I would like to think that the candidates who present us with the best vision and work hardest knocking on doors will emerge winners in the June primary election. In reality, however, many of our lower ballot races are decided by a secretive shadow primary involving only a few select individuals well before any actual votes are cast.

As most registered Maryland voters know, in the last couple weeks before the primary you will receive a nice glossy “sample ballot” advertisement in the mail touting the incumbent candidates. The flyer is paid for by a political slate consisting of those local incumbents. Whenever there is an open seat with no incumbent, the local officials decide which candidate to endorse and include on the sample ballot.

On the surface, this is all well and good. Politicians have every right to endorse candidates in other races. I have heard that many voters like the sample ballots since they make voting easy.  Unfortunately, few people seem to stop and think how these slates and their sample ballot advertisements impact our political process.

In a lower ballot race, such as a Board of Education or County Council race, it is very difficult for a candidate to raise large amounts of money. When an incumbent slate picks its favorite in such a low-budget race, it tilts the race heavily in favor of that candidate. Surely it is possible to beat a candidate endorsed by the incumbent slate, but it is very unlikely. As a result, if a candidate wants to win in one of these lower ballot races, the most important thing for one to to do is gain favor with the incumbent politicians in the area.

The system of slates is very dispiriting for potential candidates and political activists. One person who was interested in running for office flatly stated that she was not going to jump in unless she knew beforehand that she would receive the incumbent slate’s endorsement. Why waste her time and effort in a hopeless cause? The same applies to activists like me who are inclined to volunteer for local campaigns. Why pour my limited time and money into a race that is decided by a handful of incumbent politicians?

Prince George’s County, where I live, has made great progress in reshaping its image in the last few years. However, much work remains to be done, and the stench of backroom insider dealing to determine winners in our elections is particularly harmful for our county. Thus, reforming our election system by getting rid of candidate slates should be a high priority for our elected officials. Sadly, that is not the case. Incumbent politicians are beneficiaries of the current system, and they are not inclined to reform the system unless we—the voters—make the issue a priority and demand change.

This piece was originally submitted to the Washington Post’s “Local Opinions” page, but never published. Thus, I am posting it here on my blog.

District 9 BOE Race Is Over

Since I was not explicit in my earlier post, I want to make the announcement clear: The race for the District 9 seat on the Prince George’s County Board of Education is over. Now, more than a month before the June 24 primary, we know who will win that election and the November general election. As I predicted last fall, the person who receives the endorsement of our local incumbent politicians will win the race. According to my knowledgeable sources, the winner of the incumbent endorsement—and thus the race—is Sonya Williams.

It is a sad reflection on our supposedly democratic election system that a handful—in this case only one—incumbent politicians get to decide our lower ballot elections for us.

With regards to the District 9 BOE race, the silver lining is that Mrs. Williams is a good, capable person that I am happy to have as my representative on the BOE.