A political first? The Bay as a campaign issue!
Wonders never cease. As Maryland's primary election looms next week, candidates for local and statewide office are actually talking about the environment in their TV commercials and political mailings.
The latest, most visible example, is the ad from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that debuted on Facebook/YouTube on Sunday and will begin airing on local TV stations later this month. The 30-second spot, "Let's Get to Work," doesn't make any specific claims or promises, just flashes through a series of reasons why the Republican candidate says he's running - including the Bay.
The campaign issues Ehrlich has been hammering throughout the summer are mentioned, including fixing the state's budget woes, helping small businesses and ensuring excellent schools for all. But the brief litany ends with what appears to be a waterman saying "Protect the Bay - Finally."
The governor's race isn't the only one where the Bay or the environment are getting some attention. In the Baltimore County executive's race, Democratic Councilman Kevin Kamenetz is hitting his primary rival, Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, for votes he made years ago as a legislator on pesticides and bayfront develoment. Bartenfelder has responded with his own ad saying Kamenetz is misrepresenting his environmental record.
Such green-themed campaign ads are remarkable because polling routinely shows environmental issues aren't high on most voters' minds, whether in national, state or local races. Other than limited, targeted appeals to devoted greenies, candidates rarely bring up the environment on their own.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but did either Ehrlich or his Democratic opponent, Martin O'Malley, talk much about the Bay in campaign ads or literature four years ago? (UPDATE: Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell reminds me that one of the then-incumbent governor's commercials four years ago did indeed talk about the Bay, and the Bay Restoration Fund (aka flush fee) he backed to upgrade sewage plants.) This year, though, seems to be different.
"In general, it's being talked about more than normally," says Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
She thinks one reason the Bay is getting airtime now in the governor's race is because there's a lot of federal pressure to ratchet up bay cleanup efforts. "It's sort of topical," Schwartz says.
Whether from President Obama's executive order asserting federal leadership of the bay restoration, or the cleanup bill pending in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-MD, "there's been this sort of heightened rhetoric around 'we haven't done enough,'" she adds.
The heightened public attention to the Bay from the federal government gives Ehrlich a chance to suggest O'Malley hasn't done enough to fix the bay, to be sure. But it also begs the question: How would Ehrlich "protect the bay" better than or differently from his Democratic opponent?
Most veterans of the bay cleanup effort seem to think it's going to take a combination of more spending and more regulation, but neither candidate seems to be talking much about those. Indeed, O'Malley's spokespeople routinely hammer Ehrlich for raising fees. One of those was the "flush" fee that's raised hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade sewage treatment plants and to install less polluting household septic systems. Does O'Malley think that was a bad thing to do?
Speaking of the flush fee, that's a Bay issue both candidates ought to address squarely. The flush-fee supported "bay restoration fund" is about to run short of money in the next few years, as costly overhauls begin of the bay's two largest sewage treatment plants, Baltimore's Back River and Washington's Blue Plains facilities.
An advisory committee has said that to keep the fund from running dry, the state either needs to raise the $30 per household annual fee (by up to 100 percent) or make local governments shoulder more of the costs, or delay some plant upgrades for several years until the fund is replenished.
Raising the fee could be unpopular, while forcing local governments to pay more is just shifting the costs - and responsibility to raise fees. Delaying plant upgrades might sound like the only viable political option, but that could make it unlikely Maryland would have taken the needed bay-cleanup steps by 2025, much less by 2020, as O'Malley is pledging. It also seems likely to get Maryland in trouble with the federal government, which is planning to lock the bay states into a cleanup schedule by year's end that is meant to ensure that the states and federal government - after repeatedly missing earlier cleanup targets - will collectively do by 2025 what's needed to finally restore the bay.
Now there's something specific to talk about when it comes to protecting and restoring the Bay. Candidates?