David Nitkin on state politics issues

Eric T., Bel Air: Mr. Nitkin, in your Feb. 13, 2006, Q&A you briefly summarize The Sun's aggressive reporting on an aborted state land sale to a politically connected contractor (at the same price as the state initially paid). A few weeks ago, according to the Baltimore Business Journal and WBAL, "Barcoding Inc." purchased a city-owned building for $500,000 less than the city paid for it six years ago, and $750,000 less than its most-recent appraised value.

Now, there are some signs that the real estate market is slowing down, but something tells me that selling any property at 25 percent of value in this market is, at a minimum, incompetent. A search of the state political contributions database shows that a "Jay Steinmetz," which happens to be the same name as the CEO of Barcoding Inc., donated thousands of dollars to "Friends of [Baltimore Mayor] Martin O'Malley" over the last two-plus years.

Coincidentally (or not?), the Baltimore Development Corp. had been trying to strike a deal with Barcoding for about three years. Mr. Steinmetz was quoted as saying there was "huge risk" involved on their part because the building is in need of major renovations. Regardless of whether that's true or not, it's fairly certain that one of two things happened here ... either the city neglected the property and in turn lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity, or the business got one incredible sweetheart deal after making big donations to O'Malley.

Has The Sun done any aggressive investigative reporting on this story? I don't recall seeing any major articles. Did I miss the big story, or did those other news outfits get the facts wrong?

Nitkin: Eric, I don't yet know who, if anyone, on our staff is looking into or has looked into this real estate transaction. We haven't written much on Barcoding Inc. I found a 2005 reference to the company being ranked 11th on the Inner City 100, a listing of the 100 fastest-growing companies in urban areas, as compiled by the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Inc. magazine.

After receiving your question, I checked the state campaign finance database. You are correct: there is a Jay Steinmetz who contributed $4,400 to O'Malley between 2001 and 2005. It sounds like the transaction you describe is worth looking at. I'll make sure that happens within the paper. Thanks.

Frank Booth, Baltimore: I have a follow-up question to the one I asked a couple of weeks ago about the political shenanigans behind the Maryland Department of Planning move. While Jill Rosen's article was informative on the subject, I don't understand how such blatant political manipulation of running a government can be legal.

From what I hear of [the] Senate hearing on the move, it seems to me that the likes of Sen. [Ulysses] Currie should be in jail. Here is the chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, and he is supporting wasting $3.2 million on an unnecessary move of a state agency that would then cost $1 million a year thereafter for rent. The agency only pays $10,000 per year for rent now. The only reason for the move is the symbolism of a state agency in Currie's district. What gives?

Nitkin: Frank, as Rosen reported, about 80 percent of state agency headquarters are in Baltimore, and there are none in Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- the two most populous in the state. I recently had a discussion with a leading state delegate from Prince George's County, who, unprompted, expressed to me her strong desire -- for equity reasons -- to have the state planning department move to her county. She could not understand the opposition from the Baltimore area.

There appears to be a strong sentiment in Prince George's that politicians come to the county for votes during elections, and then do little to help afterward -- that deeds do not follow words. It does appear as if moving the agency will be a costly proposition, and legislative analysts expressed grave concerns with both the expense and the proposal to provide "retention bonuses" for workers, or payments for Baltimore-area employees to keep them working for the state if and when the department does move. I can't say whether the move is a good idea, but I can say that the concerns you are raising are being raised by many others.

Jim Mitchell, Essex: Current language in the Maryland critical [Chesapeake] Bay area laws only recommends a 300-foot setback for construction near tidal wetlands. Research from John's Hopkins [University] recommends 1,000 feet. Local jurisdiction[s] continually waive the 300-foot buffer for developers and allow much closer construction. It has been rumored, via legislative changes, [that] the Critical Area Commission wants to make the 300-foot setback mandatory. Can you confirm this?

Nitkin: Jim, I'm afraid I can't confirm this without doing some research, which I have not had a chance to do. I'll try to get the answer and get back to you.

Charles Shubow, Owings Mills: Now that both Ireland and England have banned smoking in bars and restaurants, do you support the nonsmokers of Maryland (85 percent of the population) in banning smoking in bars and restaurants to protect workers?

Nitkin: That's an interesting way to word the question, Charles. It really doesn't matter what I support. But last week, a bill to ban smoking in bars, restaurants and all other workplaces in Maryland was rejected by a legislative committee. It seems that despite what has happened in Ireland, England, New York and elsewhere, Maryland lawmakers are not ready to adopt a smoking ban for bars.

Victor Arca, Mount Airy: Who was the delegate who stated, "I read the Bible ... " during his explanation of his vote to bring HB 48 (Maryland Marriage Amendment) to the floor for debate Feb 3? And who was the delegate who tried to stop him from speaking on this issue? They refused to journalize the session, and I really wanted to know who these delegates were.

Nitkin: Victor, I was not in the House chambers for that debate, but after getting your question, I listened to the portion you are talking about. You can, too, if you have Internet access. Go to this link, and then select the House session for Feb. 3. I fast-forwarded to the part you are talking about.

The delegate who referenced the Bible, to my semi-trained but often faulty ear, sounds like he has an eastern Baltimore County or northern Anne Arundel County or Harford County accent. I'm not entirely sure who it is (Richard K. Impallaria? Patrick L. McDonough? Robert A. Costa? Perhaps someone could help me out with this.) I'm pretty sure that the lawmaker who interrupted (and whose interruption was waved off by [House Speaker Michael E.] Busch) was Del. Neil Quinter, a Howard County Democrat.

John Brohawn, Catonsville: I want to know if [U.S. Rep. Elijah E.] Cummings practices what he preaches on diversity. His constituency is 35 percent white. Is his staff the same? He won't answer; nor will his staff.

Nitkin: John, I will try to get the answer for you. Watch this space for a response.

Joe McMonagle, Baltimore: When will The Sun look at where the Baltimore City school money went to? I am surprised that it has faded away. As a resident of Baltimore, I am disturbed that you don't pursue the matter. Is it because you don't want to reveal the truth about city finances and what disarray they have been [in] for the past 10 to 15 years?

Nitkin: We do a lot of extensive reporting on city schools, and wrote quite a bit about the fiscal crisis of 2003-2004 that led to the city providing the school system with a $42 million bailout. In January, we had a front-page story about a legislative audit of city school finances that chronicled how dead employees were being paid, workers were allowed to use sick time when they hadn't earned it, and transportation companies were being paid even when they didn't pick up pupils.

The paper also covered legislative hearings to discuss the audit findings. Keeping track of how taxpayer money is being spent is one of our primary tasks as a newspaper.

Crime statistics
Stuart, Baltimore: Will [O'Malley's] lying about the crime statistics in Maryland cost him the Democrat primary? The investigative reports by [WBAL's] Jayne Miller on TV have been very eye-opening. It has definitely opened my eyes. I was also amazed to learn that Baltimore is now the second-most-dangerous major city in the country. We even passed [Washington], D.C.

Nitkin: There's no evidence that the mayor has lied about crime statistics in Baltimore. Critics have raised questions about whether it is fair to compare audited and upwardly revised 1999 numbers to the 2005 or later figures, and Miller has raised questions through anecdotes about whether all crimes in Baltimore are being reported.

O'Malley ran for office saying he would bring the homicide number in Baltimore to below 175, and he has not done so. He now claims that Baltimore has had the largest drop in violent crime of any big city in America. As we've reported, if the violent crime drop were based on raw, unaudited 1999 numbers, the city would have the sixth-largest drop in crime. The veracity and validity of Baltimore crime statistics are certainly a current topic in the governor's race.

Kelly Sanford, Cockeysville: [On] the scandal developing on crime statistics in Baltimore, didn't this all start with O'Malley's campaign in 1999 and his audit of the police department then, rather than news and television reports now?

Nitkin: We've reported that the mayor had the city's 1999 crime statistics audited. As a candidate for mayor, he claimed that crime was being underreported in Baltimore. The audit resulted in an upward revision of the figures, meaning that the reductions since then are a greater percentage than they would be as compared to the original, unaudited numbers.

The mayor says that the reporting since then is accurate, because the audit created higher standards for tabulating numbers. Critics say that to truly judge the city's crime figures, the latest numbers must be audited as well.

Kelly Sanford, Cockeysville: When are you going to ask the candidates for governor the tough questions? Such as:

  • Would you veto or sign a bill calling for a constitutional amendment defining marriage?

  • Would you veto or sign a bill, like the Wal-Mart bill, which puts the threshold for companies at 10,000 to 1,000? [Would you] veto or sign a bill that puts it at 1,000 to 100? [At] 100 to 10?

    Nitkin: Kelly, these are just the kinds of questions we will ask the candidates for governor and many others as the 2006 campaign unfolds. And we'll try to make sure they don't duck them.

    Let me refine your questions a little, however. Governors cannot veto or sign a constitutional amendment authorization; a gay marriage amendment would go on the ballot if three-fifths of both chambers of the General Assembly passed it; the governor has no say in the process.

    So, while we could ask them how they would vote on such an amendment in the polling place, or if they support it (and politicians often try to wiggle out of "hypothetical" questions), it's illogical to ask them whether they would sign or veto the amendment -- because they would never get the chance.

    Both O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have said they support the so-called Wal-Mart bill. The question of lowering the threshold would probably fall in that "hypothetical" category, and I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for a concrete reply to that. But we'll try.

    Amar, Baltimore: Does [Baltimore City Council President] Sheila Dixon have what it takes to be mayor if O'Malley wins the State House? Also, who are the early contenders for the top jobs at City Hall in 2007 if O'Malley wins this fall and if he doesn't?

    Nitkin: If O'Malley is elected governor, Dixon will become mayor because she is council president. She will then have an opportunity to demonstrate whether she has what it takes to lead the city, and voters can decide on their own a year later.

    If and when O'Malley is either out of office or decides not to run again, the list of contenders for the top City Hall jobs (mayor and council president) includes Dixon; council members Keiffer Mitchell and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; Comptroller Joan Pratt; and, as we reported in October, Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr.; Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a former council president who ran for mayor in 1995; State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy; and Kweisi Mfume, a former U.S. representative from Baltimore, if he falls short in his bid for the U.S. Senate.

    Carroll Kehne, Stevensville: How much damage can be done to both O'Malley and Duncan while each spread negatives on each other? Will this strengthen or weaken the [Democratic] Party in Maryland?

    Nitkin: I'm a firm believer that campaigns matter and are important and offer clues about a candidate's abilities and governing style. Many Democrats fear that an extended primary between O'Malley and Duncan will be a negative affair filled with attacks that will damage both candidates and leave the winner damaged and cash-poor. But Duncan said to me recently, commenting on criticism he is receiving for questioning the mayor's crime figures, that if O'Malley can't answer these questions now, how will he be able to answer them from [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] (not that Duncan was conceding that he would lose the primary -- he was just offering an example).

    I think the primary winner will be battle-hardened and prepared.

    Brandon, Rockville: I love the format of your politics Web page. Hey, do you think Maryland will still be primarily a "blue" state in 20 years? Nitkin, you rock!

    Nitkin: Hey Brandon -- thanks for the kind words. It certainly helps balance out many of the other comments I get from my, er, friends online. Twenty years is a hard timeframe to predict, and the Democratic and Republican parties will probably change greatly over the next two decades, as will socioeconomic trends.

    The answer to your question depends on which party is more successful in bringing ethnic minorities such as Hispanics and Asians into the fold, what happens with union membership, how high the price of gasoline rises, and whether federal entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Social Security can be made sustainable.

    Steve, Fells Point: Not a political question, but I hope you'll still answer. Regarding the incident of [Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's] terrible behavior, The Sun published the name of the young woman who was the subject of his ogling. Why publish her name? She was just doing her job. Was publishing her name central to the story?

    If I were her, I'd rather my name be left out. Bad enough to have the old man leering at me; worse that everyone would know it. Thanks.

    Nitkin: Steve, these are the types of conversations that happen among very smart and experienced people in newsrooms all the time, and the conversation did occur with this episode. But frankly, this was a pretty easy decision to make.

    The woman is a state employee, on the public payroll, working for the most prominent elected official in the state. The incident happened in a public meeting. All of those conditions would point toward publishing the name -- not withholding it. Newspapers are in the business of providing information, and the identity of the woman was central to the story -- it was made even more vital by the fact that the video of the incident was broadcast on CNN and other national programs.

    If we were going to protect the identity (and, by the way, the governor's office would not provide it -- we had to obtain it on our own), we would have asked ourselves these questions: Is the life or the health of the young woman threatened by having her identity disclosed? Would her job be in danger? The answer to those questions, in this case, was no.

    I'm glad we published her name, and I'm glad our reporters made an effort to contact her and her family. The quotes from [Elizabeth] Krum's father -- along the lines of "everything is fun and games until it's your daughter in the crosshairs" -- were powerful and important.

    Alex, Baltimore: Looking at a young woman, fine. Commenting to her about her looking nice, cool. Beckoning her back to him just to ask her to walk away in front of an audience ... that's just not right. I don't understand how some folks can say it's OK and just a little joke.

    Nitkin: Alex, there are very few people -- judging from the letters to the editor we print, the calls and messages we receive and the feedback on talk radio -- who say that this incident is just a little joke. The vast majority of people seem to believe that Schaefer's words and actions were highly inappropriate.

    Linda, Baltimore: What makes Schaefer think he can say whatever he wants to whomever he wants to say it? I myself think his opinions and thoughts have been ignored way too long.

    Nitkin: For decades, Schaefer has been known for sometimes outrageous behavior, which has prodded his fiercely loyal staff and many business leaders to help him accomplish what he wanted to in Baltimore and the state. He has had a long and distinguished public service career.

    As comptroller, he has far less authority than he used to. For the past several years, he has used controlled outbursts on the state Board of Public Works to get his point of view across. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening basically ignored him. Ehrlich has cultivated a relationship with Schaefer, to the point of having his wife deliver him cakes on his birthday and including him in self-promoting television commercials for EZPass.

    No one tells Schaefer what to say and what not to say. Even if they did, he wouldn't listen.

    Lena, Baltimore: Oh, come on people! If all of you who think this is so disgusting and wrong would use some of that energy to make Baltimore City a safer, cleaner and smarter city (as he has done and continues to do), maybe the city would not be so disgusting. Give it a break and focus on the schools, which are disgusting, and crime and the trash and leave that man to admire a pretty girl.

    ... He did nothing that all of us have done a time or two. At least he tries to make a difference, instead of sitting in front of the computer passing judgment and nothing more. Get a grip and do something more productive with your life.

    Nitkin: I'll let Lena's views stand on their own. There's not really a question in there, but I'm sure there are people who share her view.

    Sun coverage
    Kelly Sanford, Cockeysville: Why doesn't The Sun send a reporter to other states to cover the campaign managers for O'Malley and Duncan like it did for Ehrlich's?

    Nitkin: The reason reporter Andrew A. Green went to Georgia to find out more about Bo Harmon, the political director for Ehrlich's re-election campaign, was because of the newsworthiness of his role in the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss versus incumbent Max Cleland. Cleland lost after campaign commercials questioned his patriotism, and many found the commercials to be in bad taste. It's unclear just how much Harmon was responsible for the ads, but he played a key role in Chambliss' campaign.

    It's unusual for campaign managers to warrant news coverage. Most try to avoid the spotlight -- they want the candidates to get the attention. This was a rare example of a manager whose background was newsworthy enough to warrant a fuller story.

    David Keelan, Ellicott City: David, why haven't I seen any coverage on the rejection in the House Economic Matters Committee of Del. Warren Miller's proposed HB 127? I thought this was a good bill for consumers, and very timely considering gas prices. Will we see The Sun cover this issue?

    Nitkin: David, as you know, there are thousands of bills introduced in the Assembly each year, and we only cover a small fraction of them in depth. The Miller bill to which you refer would have lifted Maryland's prohibition on companies from selling gasoline below its wholesale cost. The prohibition has the support of petroleum dealers, who fear being undercut by discount giants such as Costco, which use gasoline as a loss-leader -- a way to get customers in the door.

    Miller's bill was voted down by the House Economic Matters Committee on Feb. 20, according to the General Assembly Web site. Miller has acknowledged that his legislation had little chance of passing (and it turns out he was right!), but he has said he wanted to focus attention on the issue. A conservative Republican, Miller is opposed to government intervening in the marketplace -- either by setting floors or setting ceilings on prices.

    Kelly Sanford, Cockeysville: Why haven't you asked O'Malley directly about the city schools scandals like dead employees being paid [and] the Studio curriculum and its $2 million cost? How can he say he saved the school system at the same time that no middle school in the city met proficiency on standardized tests?

    Nitkin: Kelly, I'll reply in the same way I did to your previous, very similar question on this. It's a long campaign, and we'll certainly be asking a lot of these kinds of questions to the candidates as the campaign unfolds.

    George Gibson, Baltimore: Would you please find out if [Vice President Dick Cheney] assumed the financial impact of his carelessness in the shooting? Medicare should not have to pay.

    Nitkin: This is beyond my field of expertise, but I would imagine that a wealthy Texas lawyer and prominent GOP contributor such as Harry Wittington has private health insurance.
  • Advertisement