Q&A: Rich Madaleno discusses his tenure in Annapolis, the $15 minimum wage fight and his campaign to be Maryland’s next governor

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Image courtesy of Madaleno for Maryland

Among the eight candidates running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this June, only state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County) and Del. Rushern Baker (D-Prince George’s County, from 1994-2003) have ever served in a state-level elected office. A resident of Kensington, an affluent suburb several miles north of the D.C.-Maryland border, Madaleno is now in his 16th year in Annapolis–a quality that he says makes him the most qualified contestant to beat Gov. Larry Hogan in the November election.

Madaleno identifies as a progressive, championing the $15 minimum statewide minimum wage as his cause in the State House, and pushing for single-payer health care system and criminal justice reforms such as treatment-focused sentencing for drug offenders. He was the first openly gay man elected to the Maryland Senate, and, if elected in November, would set the same milestone for the office of governor.

While he hasn’t represented Baltimore constituents directly, Madaleno says he has worked for a number of Baltimore-born officeholders in his career. Last month, he tapped local businesswoman and former O’Malley administration aide Luwanda Jenkins as his running mate.

Madaleno holds no punches when discussing Hogan–something we’ve seen prior to and during his campaign–and, in our interview, harped on both the similarities between Hogan and President Donald Trump and Hogan’s penchant for avoiding confrontation with Trump.

We took a few minutes this week to chat with the Montgomery County lawmaker about his campaign to challenge Hogan, his track record in Annapolis, his ideas fixing the funding gap for Baltimore City Public Schools and more. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation.

Baltimore Fishbowl: It’s a pretty crowded field of Democrats running for governor. What sets you apart?

My extensive record of accomplishments for the people of the state of Maryland. As a legislator, I’ve actually been working on the issues that our next governor is going to have to deal with, from education to transportation, the environment, workforce development, all of those issues, I alone have been immersed in for the last 16 years, of the candidates. I’m doing something a little bit different in both Maryland and American politics. I’m running for an office at a level of government where I’ve consistently served at for the last 16 years.

BFB: I’ve noted in other interviews with candidates that they have not served in political office. Beyond the given—that you have worked in politics—do you think there’s an additional quality from serving that has prepared you for this office?

In that time, I have developed the relationships, my own personal relationships, with the other people who most likely will continue to be in decision-making roles in the other branches of government, who you have to share governance with. I have a firsthand relationship and experience with the outside groups that you have to deal with, a degree of trust and credibility for when we sit down at a table. I’m not new to them, and they’re not new to me. I don’t need someone leading me around to give me the background on what needs to be done, how we’ve gotten to this point. I know the state government, I know the state agencies, I know why policies have been made over time.

I’ll give you one little tiny vignette. I was at an event in Howard County and I was talking about, you know, ‘We need to make sure we beat Bob Flanagan,’ the Republican delegate in the single-member district [9B] in Howard County. I was listing the Republican candidates that we need to beat in the next election, and somebody stood up and said to me, ‘Oh, you are really well-staffed that you have those names on the top of your tongue.’ And I was like, ‘I have those names, I know these people.’ So it’s that sort of unique, in-depth experience that I bring. And especially in a moment when we see what the Republican Party has done in pushing forward a complete outsider into the presidency, you can see what the lack of experience, the lack of relationships, all of those things have an impact.

Now, I would never compare any of the other people in this field to Donald Trump. But I think, as an example, it is very important to have these sorts of relationships, the experience. And that’s why over the last several cycles, you have seen it takes awhile for someone to learn how to be governor. I don’t think I’m going to have that learning curve because I’m immersed in the issues that will face our next governor. No one will be able to hit the ground running as fast as I will be when sworn in.

BFB: Governor Hogan has generally avoided criticizing or praising the Trump administration, kind of keeping his distance. Would you approach the job differently?

Absolutely. I would first point out that Larry Hogan had absolutely no problem criticizing Barack Obama. Just go back and look at the letter he sent to Obama when the whole issue of Syrian refugees came up. The Republican Party in general was trying to sow fear around Syrian refugees. He was more than happy to jump on the bandwagon and criticize and get involved in national policy when there was a Democrat in office. Now that it’s someone that can hurt him, he runs and hides, and that’s not the type of leadership the people of Maryland deserve.

We have an enormous economic dependency on the federal government. The federal government isn’t just an abstract thing to the people of Maryland; the federal government is our single largest employer. The governor of Maryland should be actively engaged in pushing and prodding Congress on federal appropriations, just like the governor is willing to go out on a limb and talk about any job effort that would bring 10 or 20 jobs to the state. The federal government brings hundreds of thousands of jobs, and our governor hides. Right there, any governor should be involved, any year. This isn’t about necessarily Hogan or Trump, this is just what a smart governor should be doing. I think just because it’s Trump and because Hogan’s only priority is to get himself re-elected, he’s hiding from all of these responsibilities.

I would be aggressive at advocating for the interests of the people of the state of Maryland. That means looking out for all of the federal employees who call Maryland home, the federal agencies who are based in Maryland. That means standing up to Donald Trump when he’s weakening the fabric of our nation, whether it’s the programs that people depend on, like Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security, or it’s talking about why our norms of governance are so important.

I guess the important thing to say is that I’m not afraid of Donald Trump, personally or politically. And I would point out to you, if you’ve spent any time looking at it, Larry Hogan shares a lot in common with the president, both having been real estate developers. There’s a great quote that the governor’s spokesperson gave a few months ago about, you know, ‘Larry Hogan, he’s always negotiating, everything is a negotiation, always negotiating,’ just like Donald Trump. And I don’t know if you saw the article that Maryland Matters put out about two weeks ago that detailed the governor’s continued active engagement in his real estate holdings.

BFB: You’ve made minimum wage a policy priority. How would you address naysayers’ concerns about regional economic effects of a $15 minimum wage, such as how people say businesses will move to states with lower wage requirements?

Because this is fundamental to the American style of governance and federalism, that when the federal government fails to act, states push the agenda by moving forward. And you need states like Maryland to be pushing up their minimum wage to put more and more pressure on the federal government to catch up. We need to push forward with that. The Economic Policy Institute put out a study that [showed] wage growth has been strongest for the average workers in states that have moved forward with the minimum wage.

I love how the conversation is always around, ‘Oh, this is bad, this will harm business,’ and no one looks at all the workers it will benefit. Look at the fact that you’ll be able to actually work a full-time job and not live in poverty in the state of Maryland if you have a $15 minimum wage.

It is, understandably, business interests that have a louder bullhorn when it comes to these sorts of issues. I am keenly aware of that when it comes to one aspect of my legislation, which is to phase out the tipped-worker exclusion to make sure that tipped workers get an opportunity to also be paid a minimum wage, especially when the Trump administration is trying to weaken protections for tipped workers. Tipped workers are so rarely organized, there’s almost no one speaking up for them. And understandably, I can’t criticize them, because this is what the restaurant association is supposed to do, right, is to look out for the interests of their members or the restaurant owners. And that means looking out for maximizing their profits however they can. That’s how the system works. I get it, but who’s looking out for the little person?

BFB: What would you do to address crime and policing reform in Baltimore, in whatever capacity the governor’s office can?

I think it’s helping to make sure the state remains a partner with the city in doing whatever reforms are necessary to help fight against the conditions that cause crime in the short term, and in the long term. I think it is everything from making sure that the city has the resources necessary to be able to support and train their police force in a way that’s going to help them build trust with the community where it’s been damaged; to making sure that there are resources available to give young people alternatives to getting caught up in crime, whether that’s investing in libraries and community centers or upgrading the schools; that’s having robust after-school programs and summer school programs; that’s making sure people have access to health care; that means helping make sure the city has resources to provide the programs that some of the other communities and around the country are able to provide.

We have to figure out how we move the city as a whole forward, because Maryland will not succeed unless and until Baltimore succeeds. There’s no model of a successful state with its center city in distress.

Working on improving outcomes in the city is essential for the entire state of Maryland. And that’s what you have with me, is someone with deep experience in working with those programs, and of understanding over the last 30 years—even in my experience before I was an elected official—how these programs work. I’ve been fortunate early in my career to work for a number of elected officials from Baltimore. I have an understanding of why we’ve gotten to the place that we have, and recognize that it’s nothing new.

I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see this interesting book that came out a few months ago by Matthew Henson–he’s a professor at Hopkins–called “Baltimore: A Political History.” It is interesting to see that some of these problems in the dynamic between the state and the city go back centuries. It’s time for us to start making progress on changing that dynamic. And I think I’m the person best situated to get that done.

BFB: We, along with other outlets around town, were covering some of the horrible conditions that students were facing in City Schools this winter with the extreme cold. How would you help to address the long-term capital funding gap for City Schools as governor?

I’m the only one in the field who, again, has a record on this issue. I’d encourage you to go back and check with some of the people who played a pivotal role in the passage of the 21st Century Schools Act, which is the innovative state program that is helping to rebuild 25 schools across Baltimore. I played a pivotal role in making sure that that plan went forward, because even though I’m a legislator from Montgomery County, I fully believe that the state of Maryland and my constituents, all of them, the entire people of the state, benefit from having a well-functioning city school system. And essentially, that means good facilities. That’s why I made sure when other people walked away from that plan, that I put in the work to make sure we had a solution to get it done. And those schools now have taken longer than anyone had anticipated, but the first two of those schools opened this year, and another five are going to open shortly.

I think there are ways that we have to change the state’s approach to public school construction. We need to have a system that looks at not just Baltimore City, but the big jurisdictions, waste a lot of time with the duplication and effort between the local jurisdiction and the state. The state needs to get out of the way of the big jurisdictions making progress.

There’s got to be a value-added proposition to any of these relationships between the state and the local governments. And for the small jurisdictions that might build one or two schools a decade—I mean, Somerset County only has 10 schools in the entire jurisdiction—the state public school construction [program] provides a lot of value because the state has experts on its staff who can provide direction to a local school system so that they don’t have to duplicate that effort. Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Howard County, we all have the staff in the school systems. Then the state comes along and becomes yet another unhelpful bureaucratic barrier to getting things done. Nowhere does that problem show up more than with the Baltimore City Public Schools. It delays projects unnecessarily. The state should be there to help get things done, not make it more difficult.

There’s no interest in the Hogan administration to help the city—to be fair, not just the city. Larry Hogan isn’t interested in helping any jurisdiction where he can’t pick up votes. You have a highly politicized approach to state government that needs to come to an end. I want to see a state government that actually helps get things done. We have given the city funding, and the city has been unable to use the funding because our rules get in the way, and that needs to stop.

The governor of the state of Maryland is the most powerful governor in the country. I’m not talking about Larry Hogan. Our state constitution reserves more power, more authority, more responsibility for our governor than any other state constitution. The governor sets the budget. All the legislature can do is make line-item reductions in it, which is why you have this huge conversation and fight about mandates, because the only thing the legislature can do is mandate it in law, which the governor has to agree to. You’ve got, by far, the most extreme budgetary authority. Only the attorney general and the comptroller are elected; everyone else is appointed by the governor. State school board, the local school board–incredible authority that way. The governor’s executive branch sets all the regulations. He can change the public school regulations tomorrow if he wanted to. So over and over, we have a governorship that is primed to get things done for the people, if you have a governor who wants to do it. And with Larry Hogan, we’ve got a governor who just doesn’t care.

BFB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received for campaigning and going for the governor’s office?

Don’t make any assumptions about the voters. There’s support to be had everywhere. Larry Hogan’s only path to victory is by convincing the Democrats that he’s unbeatable, because in poll after poll, while people say they like him and approve of the job he’s doing, they are not sold on his re-election. They are waiting for a more positive, more progressive vision for the future, and the governor who will actually get things done. If the definition of success is that he hasn’t royally screwed up anything—because we in the legislature, with me often front and center, have stopped him from implementing the bad policies he’s wanted to do, and he’s had to govern like a Democrat as a result. He’s been willing to hide his true self in order to get a second term. But make no mistake: We can’t afford to have a politically un-tethered governor when we have an unhinged president in the White House.

BFB: Do you have a favorite spot in Baltimore?

Sadly, with The Hippo closing—and having been closed for awhile now, I don’t know if people would even know what that is [laughs]—many of the places where as a young adult, I hung out in, have all gone away. So, as of late, my family has really enjoyed going out to R. House. My son, who’s 11, every time we go to Baltimore, ‘Can we have dinner there? Can we have lunch there?’

BFB: If you didn’t get the nomination, is there someone else you would back to run against the governor?

Well, I am committed to supporting whoever the Democratic nominee is.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Rushern Baker served in the House of Delegates from 1994 to 2003, and that Madaleno is not the only candidate to have served in a state-level elected office. We regret the error.

Ethan McLeod
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