Rainy Day

The most surprising result on Tuesday by most accounts was Larry Hogan’s convincing win over Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in the Maryland gubernatorial contest. This wasn’t supposed to happen, we were told, in Blue Maryland. But I dunno: when I saw the returns rolling in I thought immediately of Bobby Ehrlich’s shocking victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend–also the designated successor to an incumbent rapidly losing popularity and running a lackluster campaign in a bad year–in 2002.

At TNR today Alec MacGillis provides us with a good look at the Brown campaign in context, and makes the case that the outcome can’t be explained by the “fundamentals” or the GOP “wave.”

Aside from a general sense of Demo-fatigue after eight years of Martin O’Malley (exacerbated by the sense that he was off running for president instead of focusing on Maryland), and a Brown campaign that never articulated any positive vision or agenda, MacGillis notes the ubiquity of one of those small “issues” that mestastasizes into a symbol, the “rain tax:”

The rain tax is a “stormwater management fee” signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley in 2012 that requires the state’s nine largest counties, plus Baltimore city, to help fund the reduction of pollution in Chesapeake Bay caused by stormwater runoff. The tax is hardly draconian—in Baltimore County, homeowners pay a flat fee that can range from $21 to $39, while commercial property owners are assessed based on the proportion of impervious surfaces (parking lots, roofs, etc.) on their land.

Yet everyone I spoke with cited it as the crowning example of the nickel-and-diming taxing regime under O’Malley that also includes the $60-per-year “flush tax” to upgrade sewage treatment plants and higher taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, and gas. “The rain tax was the last straw,” said Mike Eline, 64, who does pest control at the University of Maryland campus in Baltimore. “How many taxes can there possibly be?” “It seems any reason they can, they say, ‘let’s tax the people,’” said Daniel, a 63-year-old African-American warehouse worker. “What really upsets me is the rain tax. Rain is something natural that’s just given to us. Nobody has to work for it. But they say, ‘let’s tax it.’”

Washington-area political animals of a certain age will hear another echo of the not-so-distant past, beyond the 2002 Maryland governor’s race. In next-door Virginia, in 1997, Republican Jim Gilmore rolled to victory in that state’s gubernatorial contest by exploiting an inexplicably powerful hostility to “the car tax” (a personal property tax paid on automobiles). For a while there it seemed every Republican statewide candidate in the country (at least in those states with a similar tax structure) was running a cookie-cutter “No Car Tax!” campaign, until the mania quickly burned out. As we speak, there are probably political consultants paying their entry-level staffers and interns to scour state tax codes to find equivalent targets to the Maryland “rain tax.” Because you know what? Although smart people do understand that campaigns are usually won and lost because of “fundamentals,” political people dream of the “silver bullet” that comes out of nowhere and changes elections–and in this case, pours cold water on somebody’s long-shot presidential campaign.

I welcome Marylanders to offer their observations on the Brown/Hogan race in the comment thread.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.