04.20.14 Politics: Ends and means

Posted April 20, 2014 by Keith Berner
Categories: Politics

I have been a political activist in one form or another since I was a child. Until I moved to Takoma Park, Maryland in 2000, my involvement was at a remove. That is, I tended to be in high-level campaigns where I would never meet the key players. I was but one cog among dozens, hundreds, or thousands.

When I arrived in Takoma Park, I became interested in local/county/state politics for the first time. I also served — for a while — as a Democratic precinct captain. I got to know candidates, political consultants, and elected officials close up and personal. It has been exhilarating to feel like I was making a real difference, to see the direct impact of my activity. It has been gratifying to be on a first-name basis with movers and shakers to the extent that I have become — albeit in very limited fashion — one of them.

My deep involvement has also been disillusioning. When looking at national politics, it is distressing enough to see bad guys and be unable to do anything about them or policy disasters that are utterly irrational, yet utterly irreparable. What I have learned is that the same phenomena exist at the very bottom of “retail” politics.

I have spent the past couple of weeks trying to sort out good guys from bad guys in a particularly convoluted local race (specifics forthcoming in one or more future posts). One candidate doesn’t even live in the district (he’s promised to move here by election day — all that’s required by law). He’s just been endorsed by a completely devious former elected official partly for racial reasons and mostly because she plans to use him to grow her own political power. This candidate’s campaign manager was recently found in another candidate’s office, taking pictures late in the night. The victim of that episode is described by everyone I’ve talked to as a bully. His dirty campaign tactics, whispered smears, harsh condemnations of opponent’s backers, are now legendary. When confronted, he plays the victim, accusing his opponents of smear campaigns. Another candidate has hired a political consultant whose past includes producing flyers with Nazi boxcars and implications of Muslim terrorism against an opponent. This same candidate has claimed endorsements from other politicos that he didn’t actually get.

We’re not talking Karl Rove or a presidential campaign, folks. This is right here at home. It’s the guys who will be knocking on your door this evening or appearing for a meet-and-greet at your next-door neighbor’s.

What strikes me is that every single one of these politicos — nearly all of whom you are likely to support when it comes to actual policy — believes that winning is everything. Ends justify means, all other considerations be damned. It is one thing if you are running against Karl Rove or the Koch Brothers. But this area is so progressive that nearly all these candidates agree on nearly everything.

My involvement in politics is about ideals. These ideals must ultimately be realized in policies passed and implemented. And one must win to get there. But, is it too much to ask for the tactics used to be above board, clean, uplifting — at least when you’re not running against Attila the Hun?

So what is an idealist to do? Should I choose the bully in order to stop the carpetbagger and his empire-seeking mentor? Should I go with the guy my heart first settled on, even after I discover that his hands are dirty, too? Should I give up in disgust, stop following politics, and start casting protest votes for “Mickey Mouse”? My attempts to settle on a course that matches my ideals have left me dizzy.

Do you check your ideals at the door of the voting booth, dear reader? I don’t have the answer. But I’m sick of feeling dizzy.

©2014 Keith Berner




04.19.14 “This thing is working” (or, why you need to write a check to the Democrats now)

Posted April 19, 2014 by Keith Berner
Categories: Politics

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President Obama was spot on when he said this week that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is working. Eight-million enrolled. Thirty-five percent of them under 35 years old. Millions with health insurance who wouldn’t have it, otherwise. Millions more who will be covered in coming years, people whom our convoluted health care system would have left to die impoverished. It’s hard to be more successful than that.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow noted today that the president’s words came across as more defensive than triumphant.  Indeed. And the president and Democrats are largely to blame. Obama’s lies (yes, that’s what they were) about no one’s having to change plans,  and nearly incomprehensible mismanagement of the site’s rollout, took the country’s mind off of the GOP government shutdown last October and directed it back to the screaming “death panel” liars on the right. No matter that the ACA is now working — the majority of the country still opposes it and the GOP have staked their entire campaign on portraying its (made up) horrors. (Note that the GOP, as usual, has neither proposed any alternative to the ACA nor positive plans to fix any other problem the country faces.)

As Blow points out, this vapid GOP tactic should fail. Why might it not? Because the spineless, inarticulate Democrats are refusing utterly to shout (or even gently mention) the truth: THIS THING IS WORKING. Even without Obama’s help, the Democratic Party has a long history of trying to seem Republican, because they are t0o scared or too bought off by corporate power to stand for a fucking thing. GODDAM IT, YOU LOSERS: STAND UP AND BE COUNTED!

Midterm elections following a president’s reelection always go badly for that president’s party. The deck is further stacked against the Democrats by a supreme court that is deeply hostile to democracy. If someone doesn’t stand up and fight, “badly” will end up being “disastrously,” making 2010 look pretty. GET THIS, YOU STUPID DEMS: YOU COULD LOSE THE SENATE!

I have written plenty about Obama’s flaws. This is hardly the first time I have characterized the Democrats as misguided losers. My disgust with the president and his party is overwhelming. (It is not by accident that I am not referring to the Dems as “us” in this post.) If you are a progressive civil libertarian and support economic justice, you no doubt agree with at least part of my critique. But, here’s the thing we can’t forget: we may be critics, but we are critics from the left. The Koch brothers are real. The Supreme Court’s persistent evisceration of democracy is real. There is unmitigated evil on the right and it must be stopped.

I gave up on the Democratic Party, per se,  years ago. But, this is the year to choke back moral queasiness and write a check to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. There isn’t a chance in hell the Dems will take back the House in 2014, so forget about it. But we must, must, must stop the Koch brothers and company from owning the Senate. Even though Democratic elected officials are failing to do their job — hell, because they are failing to do their job — we must stop the right-wing behemoth by any means necessary, including by writing checks to a bunch of losers whose only redeeming characteristic is being less evil than the other guys.

PS. For readers in Montgomery County, Maryland: Don’t forget that Hans Riemer is a liar. Do not reelect him to County Council. (Just as Gail Collins in the NYT reminded us in nearly every 2012 column that Mitt Romney once strapped his dog to the roof of the car on a trip to Canada, I will proudly remind voters in every post between now and the June primary about Mr. Riemer’s persistent problem of pretending that he has done things he hasn’t and is something he isn’t. We owe it to future generations to stop Riemer’s political career here and now.)

©2014 Keith Berner


02.02.14 SodaStream: The shame of Scarlett Johansson

Posted February 2, 2014 by Keith Berner
Categories: Bigotry, International Affairs

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For those who have been asleep the past week, this is about that popular at-home beverage maker SodaStream, which happens to be manufactured on land Israel stole from Palestinians. The Ma’ale Adumim settlement, described by The Jewish Daily Forward as “loathed by Israeli peace activists,” was taken from five Palestinian towns in the 1970s, as part of a “mass expropriation.” Foreign Policy describes it as “the settlement that broke the two-state solution” by making a contiguous state nearly impossible to achieve and cutting off Palestinian access to the Dead Sea and Jordan valley.

This is also about movie star Scarlett Johansson, who has represented the anti-hunger and pro- human rights organization Oxfam for eight years (six as “ambassador”), until this week. Johansson is to appear in a Super Bowl ad for SodaStream today, a paid gig that is part of her agreement to be a “brand ambassador” for the company. Well, it turns out that Oxfam considers the two ambassadorships to be incompatible:

Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements, further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support. Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

So, Johansson has had to choose between global charitable work and cold, hard cash to add to her Hollywood-fueled fortune. Cash won out. We now know who Johansson is and can rest easy at night with the assurance that she’ll scrape enough together to send her kids to college or buy a yacht. What a relief.

I’m a seltzer addict. I have had two SodaStreams (one for at home and one for at work) for a couple of years now. I love the constant, convenient access to my favorite beverage at a fraction of grocery-store cost. I love even more that I am no longer buying and tossing (recycling, actually) hundreds of plastic bottles a year. Indeed, a major market for SodaStream is environmentalists like me.

Though my two soda machines are paid for, I have continued sending my dollars to the Israeli owners of the company every time I swap one of their proprietary CO2 canisters for a replacement. Since I learned of the product’s origin a couple of weeks ago, I have been searching for alternatives.

The landscape is bleak. Global Exchange has a post on alternatives, but they consist mostly of very expensive single-use carbonators, which will litter land just like the plastic bottles. A couple of fledgling competitors to SodaStream have gone out of business. I found sites for DIYers who want to make their own CO2 from dry ice or chemical reactions. (None of this sounds dangerous, just a giant pain in the ass.)

For those of us who already own a SodaStream, the only viable alternative seems to be to purchase CO2 canisters used for paintball, use an adapter to make them fit SodaStream, and then have them refilled at a paintball center, sporting goods store, or welding supply store. Some online research will show you where the closest ones are to you. It’s so much easier to exchange my SodaStream canisters at the hardware store around the corner, but I conclude it’s worth driving a few miles to one of these other sources in order to live my values.

Back the controversy. When I posted a call on neighborhood listservs for SodaStream alternatives, a neighbor posted a link to a Gawker article making the same claim as Johansson and SodaStream’s owners: that the factory is a place for Palestinian-Israel camaraderie and that the Palestinian workers are paid better and treated better than if they had no jobs or were employed by other Palestinians.

I‘m not the least surprised that Palestinian employees of SodaStream are supporting their employer, especially when they are quoted by name (as in the Gawker article). These individuals pay the family bills with the money they earn at the plant. By asking them what they think, we are demanding them to choose between their personal self-interest (which I do not blame them for!) and the larger struggle for justice.

It’s not only Gawker. An internet search on “palestinian views sodastream” reveals more articles and posts where Palestinians and others praise SodaStream as an employer and the economic benefits of working there. (That Fox News is one highly ranked source of this view in Google’s search results does not – by itself – discredit the argument, but it does give some perspective on who is lining up on which side.)

Contrary views come include those of Truth-Out (“Scarlett Johansson, There’s a line between Israel and Palestine and SodaStream is Over the Line”) and The Jewish Daily Forward (“Love Israel. Oppose BDS. Reject SodaStream”). A boycott of trade with settlements is also endorsed by Peace Now (the the Israeli peace movement).

This entire issue is fraught with moral ambiguity. How ought seltzer lovers weigh their environmental obligations against their humanitarian ones? How ought humanitarians weigh their concern for the well being of the families who depend on income from SodaStream against those who suffer under the Israel occupation?

I suggest we look for guidance from the moral greats. I ask myself, what would Gandhi, Mandela, and King say about trading with oppressors?

I examine the “neighborhoods” of each position. Do I feel more comfortable living next door to the self-interested arguments of SodaStream and Johansson or Oxfam’s ideals-based approach? As a US peace movement veteran, is my moral abode closer to Fox News or Peace Now?

It is not my right to make moral and ethical decisions for others. But, as a dedicated humanist, it is my duty to struggle with the issues and justify my conclusion. I am choosing to side against the horrific Israeli theft of and occupation of Palestinian lands, not to mention the daily humiliation and oppression the occupation metes out. I take this stand even while I acknowledge that individual Palestinians may indeed benefit from their oppressor’s presence.

Another listserv contributor has just weighed in, calling “picking on Israel” anti-Semitic. I am Jewish. I was raised without the religion, but with a deep-seated belief in the obligation of my oppressed people to oppose oppression everywhere. It was as Jews that my family  joined the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and marched on Washington to end the Vietnam War (my first visits to DC, when I was a kid).

There is a huge danger for Jews in  my-Israel-right-or-wrong mentality and the declaration that to criticize Israel is equivalent to hating Jews. Telling the world that Israel equals Jewish is to invite and incite the anti-Semitism. The bigots who hate Jews, people of color, homosexuals, and so many others are going to keep hating. They need no justification. But what about humanists the world over? Do Jews really want to make the argument that they can’t oppose Israel without hating all of us?

Moral thickets abound, rendering black-white arguments more gray. One fact is clear in the current imbroglio, however: Scarlett Johansson is a loathsome profiteer whose pretense of support for the downtrodden has been exposed as just that: a pretense. When push came to shove, she chose profit over humanity.

©2014 Keith Berner

01.21.14 When does campaign outreach become harassment?

Posted January 21, 2014 by Keith Berner
Categories: Maryland, Montgomery County

Tags: ,

Heather Mizeur’s campaign for Maryland governor has been calling me about once a week now for a couple of months. I’m not sure whether they’re calling for volunteers or money, but after the first call, I have gently informed them every time them that I am undecided in the race and have asked that I be removed from the call list. Yet, the calls keep coming. I support completely the right of political campaigns — especially those that do not have millions of dollars in the bank — to use all means necessary to reach the public. However, I also believe in the right of prospective voters to say, “No more!”

So, either Mizeur’s campaign is so disorganized that there is no single database of targets where opt-outs are recorded or the campaign just doesn’t care. (Geez, even if I hadn’t opted out, how can the Mizeur campaign think that weekly calls would be seen as anything other than harassment?) Neither interpretation bodes well for a Mizeur administration.

(I remain undecided in the race. Given the poor quality of the field — see my post on this — I may end up voting for Mizeur, if not endorsing her.)

The previous record-holder for me in terms of harassment was Fred Evans’s unsuccessful school board bid last year. His energetic, if misguided, campaign chair managed to find all six of my email addresses and every time I opted out from campaign communication at one address, they got me again at the next one.

Asking for support is one thing. Doing it over and over again when people say “no” is incompetent or insane.

©2014 Keith Berner

12.15.13 Hans Riemer: Embellishments and lies

Posted December 15, 2013 by Keith Berner
Categories: DC, Maryland, Montgomery County, Uncategorized

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Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer (At-Large) has been embellishing his record ever since he declared for council in 2006 (before the paint was dry in his first-ever Maryland domicile). He came to us with specious claims about his importance as a savior of Social Security as we know it. More recently, he tied himself closely to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign victory even though he had disappeared from the campaign many months earlier, without an explanation. Riemer’s colleagues on County Council complain behind closed doors that he regularly tries to take credit for others’ work.

All of this is distasteful, creating a general impression of sleazy self-service. But has this been outright dishonest? Not clear. Now, however, Riemer has crossed the line.

Hans Riemer is lying about his support for the minimum wage bill that just passed in Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties.

Marc Elrich (At-Large) led the effort to get a decent minimum wage ($11.50/hour) on the books and to reach it in a reasonable amount of time (2016). He put together an agreement with PG and DC legislators to pass equivalent measures, so that the employment impact of higher wages in our county would be mitigated. When I began following the issue closely a few weeks ago, I was delighted to see that Elrich had support from George Leventhal (At-Large), Nancy Navarro (D-2), and Valerie Ervin (D-5): four of the necessary five votes on the nine-member council.

I reached out to Phil Andrews (D-1; disclosure: he is a personal friend) and Riemer to see if I could help move either to be that fifth vote. Andrews confirmed his opposition (and, indeed, he was the lone dissenter when the final bill passed 8-1 on November 26). You can count on Andrews to own his positions and be honest about them, even when you may disagree with him.

Not the case with Riemer. What ensued in response to my inquiry were several rounds of squirrely emails in which he kept claiming credit for being philosophically in favor of a better minimum wage and leading the effort to get a bill passed:

• “I came out very clearly for an increase in the minimum wage weeks ago” (Riemer, 11/18/13).

• “. . . my support for raising the wage is bringing other council members along” (Riemer, 11/19/13).

Meanwhile, Riemer’s real position was that any new minimum wage not be enacted until the state took action, be substantially lower than Elrich’s bill (even lower than $10, depending on what Maryland ended up doing), and take much longer to implement (as late as 2020) – see Riemer’s blog.

Because of Riemer’s opposition to the progressive bill, Elrich and his cohort eventually had to settle for a one-year extension on full implementation, to 2017, but they beat back Riemer’s attempt to gut the wage itself – the final bill included the $11.50 rate. Notwithstanding Riemer’s argument that Elrich’s measure should be opposed because PG and DC wouldn’t pass such a progressive bill, PG did indeed pass a nearly identical measure the following week and as of this writing, the DC council appears poised to pass it unanimously.

Here’s the comical part: If you watch the final vote on the bill (30 seconds), you can see five hands go up immediately. Riemer (on the far left [ironically]) is so opposed to the measure that he is the waits to raise his hand  until he sees that he can’t stop it. Then, he jumps on the speeding bandwagon just in time to claim that he was the one driving it all along.

Hans Riemer worked hard to kill a decent minimum wage in Montgomery County, but that didn’t stop him from claiming credit for its passage. This is from his self-congratulatory blast email on November 27:

“I am proud that I helped deliver an 8-1 council vote for this hugely important progressive priority. . . . I worked hard to strengthen the county proposal. My work fighting to protect Social Security taught me that the broadest policies have the best impact.”

So, Social Security’s Savior was a fighter for the workers of Montgomery County? Give me a break. Propaganda is far more important to Hans Riemer than progress. He can call himself “progressive” from now ‘til kingdom come, but the word is utterly meaningless when he utters it.

I have been a harsh critic of Riemer ever since he magically appeared in our county claiming to be our next progressive hero, without ever having done a shred of work in the region and without having even bothered to hold a single conversation with our real, live progressive fighters.

I have tried the past couple of years to go easy on the poor lad, hoping that he would ditch the false claims and fulfill his progressive promises. I don’t maintain that he’s always wrong or dishonest. But this recent bit is just too much.

Everyone paying attention to local politics gets this. And we have between now and the June 24th primary to educate everyone else.

PS. It’s typical that Riemer has endorsed White House Darling Will Jawando for the open state delegate seat in D-20, whom – as I have written – is clearly the worst candidate in the race. Maybe Riemer hopes to create an empty-ambition caucus.

©2013 Keith Berner

12.07.13 Madiba: Our loss

Posted December 7, 2013 by Keith Berner
Categories: Bigotry, International Affairs, Politics

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Yesterday, Freedom House (the remarkable human rights organization I work for) published comments from our South Africa staff. Here is my letter back to them.

To My South Africa Colleagues:

Thanks for sharing your words with us. You know better than any of us here can how much Nelson Mandela meant to your country. You may not know how much he meant to many of us.

I grew up in the US Civil Rights Movement. But Martin Luther King was murdered when I was only eight years old. His memory shines, but Madiba was much more real, more present for me. Like some of you, even though I knew he would die soon, when I heard the news yesterday, I burst into tears.

The New York Times got it wrong today, with the headline “Mandela’s Death Leaves South Africa Without Its Moral Center.” No, his death leaves humanity without its moral center. Surely, Mandela stood astride your nation and its struggle, but he actually belongs to all of us. His vision and leadership gave him a stature like few people in history (perhaps Gandhi had equivalent stature).

We must all now yearn for statesmen and –women who can truly lead us to justice, not in the petty ways so many lesser politicians do, but with the transcendence that is now lost. May humanity have another such beacon soon!

My heart goes out to all of you.


I mentioned Gandhi in my letter. Who are the other visionary leaders who have transformed human history in such a positive way? Conservatives will cite Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But we must never forget how  they both actively opposed the sanctions movement (the latter vetoed a sanctions bill in 1985 and launched in his fall 1980 campaign for president in Philadelphia, MS, the infamous site of 1964 civil rights murders). Most Americans will rightly cite Martin Luther King, Jr.; however, his profound influence was largely limited to our nation.

When we scan the globe in search of visionary leadership, we come up empty. Surely South Africa’s subsequent leaders insult Mandiba’s memory: Thabo Mbeki, the petty squabbler whose most significant legacy is his perpetration of a hoax that AIDS was an imperialist plot and set back the cause of fighting it by a generation and Jakob Zuma, the serial rapist turned president.

As for US leaders, Barak Obama seems to disappear into an insignificance when the mind’s eye beholds him next to Mandela. Our latter day civil rights leaders? Sharpton and Jackson in comparison to King and Nelson? Please!

Our country and world are devastated by injustice, venal conflicts, and oppression. We desperately need visionaries who can stand above momentary self-interest, petty profit, and zero-sum vengeance, leading us – all of us – to a better place. I am not a religious man, but if I were, that would be my prayer this holiday season.

©2013 Keith Berner

11.26.13 Nobody for governor?

Posted November 26, 2013 by Keith Berner
Categories: Maryland, Takoma Park

Tags: , , , ,

We  Takoma Park lefties should be jumping for joy over our own Heather Mizeur’s run to be the first female, first gay governor in Maryland history. And, in case you haven’t noticed, she’ll be happy to let you know how progressive she is. Local heroes, Progressive Neighbors (PN) have endorsed her, seven months before ballots are to be cast.

Here’s the problem for those who have paid attention: Mizeur has been running for the next or the next-next higher office ever since she set foot in Takoma Park and declared for city council in 2003. She won, of course. And quit halfway through a measly two-year term, so that she could run for the Democratic National Committee and then state delegate, representing District 20 (“D20” ­– Takoma Park and Silver Spring). Yeah, she’ll say she resigned the city council early because she and her wife had found their dream house in another ward. Still, Mizeur abandoned her seat and was more absent than present towards the end of her brief tenure.

And now, after two terms as a back-bench Maryland delegate, Mizeur isn’t content in the shadows. So, without having run anything much larger than a one-staff delegate’s office, she declares herself tanned, rested, and ready to be in charge of the whole damn state. Who doubts that her first move should a miracle occur would be to form a White House exploratory committee?

I get that most politicians are ambitious. The same drive that makes them run for class president in sixth grade (guilty as charged, says your blogger) has them gazing longingly at the next office up the line. But really, Mizeur’s rush towards glory is in a special class.

It’s an open topic of conversation in Mizeur’s neighborhood that she hasn’t even been living in that dream house on the corner of Maple and Tulip Avenues recently, but rather in an apparently dreamier place on the Eastern Shore (not exactly next door to D20). Political insiders tell me that she has stopped attending district events, now that she has her eyes on a bigger prize. Reminds me of those Takoma Park City Council days.

Yes, I agree with Mizeur’s positions the overwhelming amount of the time. But, when a vortex of ambition like her declares to the Washington Post that if she doesn’t win this race, she’ll “be done with politics,” the disingenuousness overwhelms the good she says she wants to do. Mizeur can’t possibly think she’ll win this race. This is all practice for when she does it for real, next time.

Mizeur is smart and capable, for sure. But she has no background in running organizations, nonetheless a state. One might have thought she would balance her ticket with experience, but instead she went even greener (as in “not ready”) by selecting pastor Delman Coates to be her running mate.

I wish PN had not endorsed Mizeur, at least not this early (it’s only November!). But I get why they did: (1) supporting Mizeur pulls the whole debate left; (2) Anthony Brown couldn’t be bothered returning their questionnaire; (3) Doug Gansler is out of the question.

Speaking of whom, I was surprised that the Beach Week antics had such legs for frat boy Gansler. I found much more disturbing “trooper-gate,” in which this one-man traffic hazard abused ethics, his drivers, and the law. A man this arrogant would be a distinct danger to the public good in an executive position. As governor, Gansler could – and evidently would – do whatever the hell he wanted. Impunity, anyone?

Gansler’s character flaws have done the candidate a favor by obscuring his policy flaws. He’s long-time death-penalty advocate and touts corporate tax cuts as a major platform plank. He’s been attacking Martin O’Malley for raising revenues at all (which the state sorely needed) and ranting against recent gasoline tax increases that are win-win for our budget and environment. Who needs Republicans when you have this crap coming from Dems?

In three weeks of conversations with elected officials and political activists, I can’t find a single one who knows why Anthony Brown is running or what he stands for. I’m told he refuses to take a stand on issues like fracking, because his main priority is winning endorsements, not taking positions. I have been looking to Brown to stop Gansler. But can I really mark my ballot for someone who doesn’t give me any reason to? And I am indeed offended by his brush-off to Progressive Neighbors. None of this bodes well.

So, we’re back to Mizeur. I may well vote for her, because at least she stands for something positive, if not as authentically as one might hope. But if I thought she could actually win the nomination, there’s no way I could pull the proverbial lever. Not only do I doubt her readiness for the job,  but – here’s the scary part – that very fact would make her vulnerable to a GOP challenge in November. (Can you say, “KKT”?*)

Bottom line: Vote for Brown to stop Gansler. Vote for Brown to stop Mizeur. Can’t think of any other reason to vote for Brown.

The best one can say about the Maryland gubernatorial campaign is that at least it’s not quite as distasteful as Virginia’s contest between a 13th-century Taliban and a slimy political operator. Or is it?

*KKT = Kathleen Kennedy Townsend whose incompetence as the Democratic nominee in 2002 led to a Robert Ehrlich victory, first for the GOP since Spiro Agnew.

©2013  Keith Berner


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