David Nitkin on state politics issues

Bob, Mount Washington: [Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley] proclaims a drop of 40 percent in violent crime and progress in [the] school system, yet the murder rate [is] still quite high and it seems there is a weekly report of some financial or educational scandal in the school system. Since he said previous administrations "cooked the books" on crime, why isn't his record examined by an independent commission rather than accepting his word?

Nitkin: I asked Doug Donovan, one of our City Hall reporters, to answer this question and the next one.

From Donovan: Some people have asked for an independent audit of police statistics. The mayor's response has been that the records are publicly available to anyone who would like to review them. The city conducts its own audits routinely and has corrected their own numbers before. And the drop in crime is consistent with national trends.

Baltimore remains the second-most violent city, the same ranking it had six years ago, and that has raised eyebrows in context with the city's progress. But it is possible to make progress on crime and still be a very dangerous city, since the city started from such a low point.

Mary Beth, Baltimore: With recent TV coverage and outcries from the public on the Baltimore Police Department, when will there be an audit of the police department and its statistics? Wouldn't it be proper to include Peter O'Malley, brother of the mayor, and his apparent conflict of interest in setting up and running the system that compiles the city's statistics? Why isn't there more reporting on Peter O'Malley's connection to the police's statistics?

Again, from Donovan: Peter O'Malley has no connection to the system that examines police statistics. He worked for the city from June 2000 to June 2002 under an Abell Foundation grant of $77,000 that was requested by the mayor's office. His job was to help establish CitiStat, a pioneering system that measures the performance of city agencies by meticulously examining vital statistics from those departments on a biweekly basis and holding managers accountable.

The system that tracks police statistics, called ComStat, is an entirely separate system that predates the O'Malley administration and has had no connection to Peter O'Malley.

John A. Bell, Rosedale: If you put [Martin] O'Malley in [the governor's office], will the whole state be like Baltimore City?

Nitkin: Doug Duncan, the Montgomery County executive who is running against Martin O'Malley in the [Democratic] primary, as well as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., will certainly use the condition of Baltimore City as a campaign theme. The mayor will point to his accomplishments in the city, and say he can bring the same type of leadership to the state.

Joseph Guy, Waldorf: Why is the government into health care?

Nitkin: That's quite a broad question. Federal government health care programs date to the New Deal, and, later, the Great Society. The state is involved in Medicaid because the federal government provides a dollar for dollar match.

Many people believe that health care is a right, and, therefore, government programs are needed to protect it. Additionally, government has interest in keeping its citizens healthy through vaccinations and other public health programs. Healthy kids learn better and can grow to be productive citizens.

If you are asking more specifically about, say, the so-called Wal-Mart bill, and why the state of Maryland decided to tax large corporations that don't meet a minimal level of health care spending for employees, lawmakers agreed with labor unions and other businesses that Wal-Mart was shifting the burden of health care onto the public sector, and that private health care costs were rising as a consequence.

Mike Girouxor, Wheaton: Why isn't there a bill demanding a paper trail for votes? These Diebold machines are an outrage.

Nitkin: There has been legislation for several years -- and another bill was introduced this year -- to create paper records after votes are cast on electronic voting machines. I predict the legislation will pass this year, but a University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor who is studying the issue has said that it is virtually impossible for voting machines to be outfitted with a paper-producing system in time for the 2006 election.

Gary Colangelo, Silver Spring: Ehrlich congratulates himself on the current budget surplus, but I keep hearing about a structural deficit that will cause a $3 billion deficit next year. Is this smoke and mirrors?

Nitkin: Future projections show that within two years, government expenses will outstrip revenues, by more that $1 billion yearly. Maryland cannot run a deficit, so the gap between revenues and expenses must be closed through spending reductions, transfers, new revenues and other means. Ehrlich is the beneficiary of unexpected revenues that have created a surplus, along with some spending limitations he imposed. But the so-called structural deficit remains.

John, Elkton: I see a lot of talk about [the] teachers' pension system wanting 60 percent of their final average salary, but the teachers' retirement system only allows for 55 percent of the final average salary. My question is, what happens to the teacher in the old teachers' retirement system?

Nitkin: I asked State House reporter Andrew A. Green to answer this, and he found this on the Maryland State Teachers Association Web site:

"If, in 1980, you chose to stay in the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS), you will retain the attractive features of your current plan and increase your pension benefit to 60 percent after 30 years of service.

"The benefits of your higher contribution rate will remain evident in your plan through a better disability benefit, an earlier normal retirement age, and a much richer cost-of-living adjustment. If you are in the TRS and are making a 5 percent contribution, your COLA can rise to 5 percent; if you are making a 7 percent contribution, your COLA is unlimited. The COLA for members of the Teachers Pension System is capped at 3 percent.

"'MSTA believes that all educators deserve a 60 percent pension benefit so they can live decently in retirement,' said Pat Foerster, MSTA president. 'If you're in the TRS, MSTA's proposal increases the multiplier to 2 percent for you; at the same time we will protect your superior benefit features without higher contributions.

"'We feel strongly that the current pension benefit provided for educators in Maryland is woefully inadequate. The effects trickle down to recruitment and retention, teacher quality, student achievement and the status of teaching as a profession,' Foerster continued."

Frank, Baltimore: Is there any truth to what I hear about the Ehrlich administration trying to get rid of the remaining Smart Growth folks in state government via a Maryland Department of Planning office move from Baltimore to Prince George's County (over an hour away)? Supposedly, the move also has something to do with getting votes from P.G. County.

Nitkin: We've heard the rumor that the decision to move the state planning department to Prince George's County has political overtones, and that putting a state office there is some kind of payback to politicians in the area. There's no direct proof of that. But it's not an unusual thought.

When Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was running for governor, I recall her pledging that the next state office building would go to Prince George's County. If the governor wanted to eliminate Smart Growth -- and he has altered the signature program of his predecessor significantly since taking office -- I suppose he could eliminate funding outright. That's what he did a year ago for the state offices that oversee the prevailing wage and other wage disputes.

U.S. Senate
Jason Fraser, Washington, D.C.: Do you think that with [Joshua] Rales, [Dennis F.] Rasmussen, [Allan J.] Lichtman and [Benjamin L.] Cardin in the race that they will be splitting a significant amount of the "suburban" vote and this could leave Kweisi Mfume with a shot to win the primary?

Nitkin: That's the conventional thinking: that a growing number of white candidates will divide the white vote, increasing the chances that Mfume wins the primary. But Cardin's team still believes the congressman has the resources and the support needed to win the race. If Mfume got 80 to 85 percent of the African-American vote in the primary, he still needs about 1 in 4 white votes -- a significant challenge.

Victor, Baltimore: Why is Mfume not getting national attention for his candidacy for the U.S. Senate?

Nitkin: We're not sure. Right now, that attention is best mentioned by fundraising figures, and Mfume's have not been impressive. Whatever the reason, his national standing is not translating into financial support. But he performs well in polls.

Walter, Annapolis: Is [Lt. Gov.] Michael [S.] Steele qualified to be a senator? He has really yet to lead. He has only been Republican state chair and lieutenant governor. Has he proven himself as an effective leader?

Nitkin: That's for voters to decide. Lieutenant governors have no official job duties -- only what the governor gives to them. Steele has been put in charge of several commissions. The governor seems to appreciate the work he's done on minority business issues and a panel examining schools.

Democrats say Steele has accomplished little, and the commissions he has served have done little more than allow Steele to travel the state, raising his name recognition. He has been pretty quiet on issues since announcing his candidacy.

Vera McCullough, Ocean City: What kind of benefits do the legislators receive?

Nitkin: The helpful folks at the General Assembly's finance and human resources offices provided this information: Lawmakers are paid $43,500 yearly, and receive $18,265 to operate their district offices (a figure that includes salaries for aides). During the legislative session, lawmakers receive $39 per day for food and a $104 per night housing allowance. Legislators receive the same health care benefits available to all state employees, and can participate in an optional retirement system. After serving eight years, they can receive retiree health benefits if they are at least age 60. To receive the full state subsidy for retiree health benefits, they must have 16 years of service.

Justin, Washington, D.C.: Any chance that you will comment on the Maryland DNC prediction that the Frederick mayor race would be a bellwether?

Nitkin: I assume you are referring to the Maryland Democratic Party. I don't recall the prediction. Frederick is a growth county and city where Democrats and Republicans are locked in a fierce contest. The mayoral race was won by a Republican (after the Democratic incumbent lost in a primary).

Mayoral races are often decided on local issues. I wouldn't feel comfortable extrapolating statewide meaning from a Republican win in the Frederick mayor's race, just as it is not possible to discern national trends in the 2006 election from Democratic gubernatorial wins in Virginia and New Jersey last fall.

Editor's note: The next two questions are taken together.

Rick, Reisterstown: David, you say that you are pursuing MD4Bush, but it took you several weeks to even publish the departure of the executive director of the state Democratic Party and your paper has only briefly reported on Ryan O'Doherty. Can you explain the disparity in your words and actions? Thank you.

Shirley, Upper Marlboro: Who is MD4Bush? Is he currently working for [Martin] O'Malley?

Nitkin: These questions most frequently come from within the Republican Party of Maryland. The state Republican Party is offering the theory that the former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, Josh White, left his post because of some connection to MD4Bush, the Internet identity of a person or persons who engaged former gubernatorial aide Joseph F. Steffen Jr. into talking about how rumors about Martin O'Malley's personal life had been spread. There's no evidence to back this up. White may have landed a new position, but he has not yet confirmed for us his new employer.

Ryan O'Doherty is a former Democratic Party worker who has ties to people close to Martin O'Malley, and whose e-mail address from the state party appears as a registration identification on the freerepublic Web site -- as an identity for the MD4Bush identity. It's tantalizing evidence. And we've reported it. O'Doherty and the Democratic Party say they won't speak to the authenticity of the registration.

I continue to want to be able to answer the "So what?" question:

Let's hypothesize that O'Doherty is or knows intimately who MD4Bush is. Let's assume that the MD4Bush identity was created by someone close to Martin O'Malley for the sole purpose of trying to engage Steffen (a regular freerepublic poster) to talk about how O'Malley rumors had been spread. If that's the case, the strategy worked: Steffen did discuss the rumors, and when his identity was leaked to the Washington Post, he offered to resign, and the governor said he fired him.

After that, talk about the O'Malley rumors subsided greatly. Given that set of supposed facts, did the person who created the MD4Bush identity do wrong? Was it just as wrong as what Steffen did? These are open questions, and I think activists on both sides of the political aisle will continue to disagree on the answer.

Jen C., Jarrettsville: When will you stop your bias against Ehrlich and his administration. I do not recall seeing where Steffen acknowledged being the "governor's dirty tricks agent for years." I only remember him apologizing to [Martin] O'Malley after he was lured into a conversation about the mayor's alleged infidelity by MD4Bush. If you recall, Steffen during this conversation instructed MD4Bush to stick to the issues and not engage in this type of political mudslinging involving the mayor's personal life.

What is missing here is the timing of the mayor's announcement with his wife concerning the rumors. If I recall, this announcement came after the mayor decided to once again compare President Bush to al-Qaida, to the dismay of those in his own party. Please, Mr. Nitkin, report all the facts. By the way, it is proper etiquette to refer to the governor by his title.

Nitkin: Jen, you seem to have a good memory for Steffen e-mails posted on, but not such a good memory for other statements by Steffen. Here's where Steffen acknowledged about his history, in a passage from my Oct. 31, 2005, article.

"Ehrlich's political opponents say it was Steffen who was behind deceptive fliers, smear campaigns and other tricks while he worked for Ehrlich. He now says he regrets many of the hardball political tactics he employed over the years.

"He harbors no ill will, he said, that those same tactics were turned against him. An Internet poster using the handle MD4Bush engaged Steffen, who wrote under the name NCPAC on the Web site, in a discussion about O'Malley. After the postings appeared in news articles, MD4Bush disappeared.

"Although one of Steffen's Internet messages referred to 'a few people' spreading the rumors, Steffen maintains he acted alone and was not part of a coordinated GOP effort to disparage O'Malley.

"'I'm not going to get into specifics, but I did a lot of things I'm not proud of to this day. I would apologize to a lot of people right now,' he said. 'To a great degree, I got what I had coming.'"

(Jen, I've asked him several times to elaborate. He has declined.)

On first reference in articles and here, we refer to the governor by his full name and title. On second and subsequent references, we use his last name. That's Associated Press style, which we follow. In one story of mine about a year ago, an editing error removed the first reference to the governor's full name and title. No disrespect was intended.

Thais Carter, Baltimore: What gives the states the right to decide who I should fall in love with and why is it a big ideal who I decide to marry?

Nitkin: The gay marriage issue is working its way through Maryland and many other states. Many people feel as you do: that marriage is none of the government's business. Others strongly believe that marriage between a man and a woman is a fundamental family and societal unit that must be protected by the government.

There could be some financial arguments about Social Security, insurance, pensions, etc., that could be made about the impact of gay marriage and why government should be involved in the decision. But typically, these arguments are only a small part of the debate. It's safe to say this: few minds have probably been changed by the debate over gay marriage that has embroiled the General Assembly for the past week.