A Howard County Democrat looks at Ed Priola

14 minute read

As I’ve written before, I don’t plan to urge people to vote for or against particular candidates, and I don’t plan to publicize who I vote for or against. So why I am doing a post about Ed Priola, given that he’s not of my party (I’m a registered Democrat) and I don’t live in his district? Put simply, because a number of people in the Howard County blogosphere whom I like and respect have mentioned Priola in favorable terms and in some cases formally endorsed him, because he has some proposals I found interesting and wanted to comment on, and because I thought it would be fun to write about someone elsewhere on the political spectrum.

This isn’t intended as a comprehensive profile; it’s basically some semi-random comments from some time spent on Google. So without further ado, here’s my quick take on Ed Priola:

  • Ed Priola is a conservative Republican focused primarily on fiscal issues, whose position on social issues is downplayed but is apparently consistent with the national Republican party platform.

  • Ed Priola’s primary background is as a professional political activist, with stints both in conservative advocacy groups and in government-funded organizations promoting democracy and private enterprise in other countries.

  • Ed Priola is an ideas guy with a strong interest in government reforms such as term limits, special tax and regulatory regimes for small businesses, and measures to improve government transparency and accountability.

To expand on each of these points:

Ed Priola is a conservative Republican, self-described as being in the tradition of Ronald Reagan (whom he acknowledges in a Red Maryland interview as his main ideological influence). This includes the traditional Reaganite focus on fiscal conservatism, limited government, free enterprise, and so on.

Of course, claiming that you’re acting in the spirit of Ronald Reagan is practically a cliche with today’s Republican politicians. Besides the policy issues, the other things I’d expect to see in a true disciple of Reagan include optimism about America and its future, a patriotism that’s potentially inclusive of all Americans, a certain pragmatism deployed when needed, and vigorous partisanship that’s not contaminated by the politics of vitriol or resentment. (Not that Ronald Reagan himself embodied all these characteristics at all times; however I think it’s fair to say that these are part of the ideal of Reagan for many people.)

Based on my (admittedly superficial) investigation Priola seems to come closer this to ideal than many candidates. In particular, while he’s happy to inveigh in true Reaganesque fashion about tax and spend policies and dinosaurs in Annapolis, he seems to avoid using the word liberal as an all-purpose insult or talking about socialists and communists outside the proper historical context—overall, he’s a breath of fresh air in that respect. (As I discuss below, Ed Priola has actually worked in former Soviet bloc countries, which may be one reason he doesn’t use the word communist lightly.)

Another trait Priola appears to share with Reagan is a focus on fiscal conservatism first and foremost, and social conservatism secondarily. For example, in his Old Line Elephant interview Priola doesn’t stray from a traditional Republican pro-life line (I favor the protection of life at all stages) but it’s not clear how enthusiastic he is about using constitutional amendments to enforce that position. I couldn’t find any comments from Priola on same-sex marriage or other hot-button social issues; as with abortion, I suspect he’d take a pretty standard Republican position, but again I doubt he’d be a full-throated participant in the culture wars.1

Before I get off social issues, I should note that Ed Priola is apparently also a firm supporter of gun rights, and has been endorsed by all the relevant Maryland pro-gun organizations. (Though that’s also an orthodox Republican position, I consider it more of a libertarian position than a socially conservative position per se.)

Ed Priola’s primary background is as a professional political activist, not as a businessperson or elected officeholder. I think it’s fair to say that he’s a movement conservative, with experience in such organizations as the National Taxpayers Union and U.S. Term Limits. Based on his full LinkedIn profile he’s also had stints with the International Republican Institute (along with the National Democratic Institute, one of two U.S. government-funded sister organizations promoting democracy and political development around the world), the Center for International Private Enterprise (another government-funded organization working internationally, this one focusing on promotion of private enterprise and market-oriented reforms), the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and as a political, communications, and PR consultant.

I think what a person does in their career both impacts and reflects their personal beliefs (this was certainly the case for me), so it’s worth taking a minute to comment on Ed Priola’s resume.

First, it’s worth noting that the National Taxpayers Union was run for a while by Grover Norquist, most recently known for threatening to excommunicate Indiana governor Mitch Daniels from the Republican Party for daring to mention even the possibility of incorporating tax increases into an overall deficit reduction plan. After his departure from NTU Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform, an organization which opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle.

It’s not clear to me whether the National Taxpayers Union was or is as doctrinaire on tax issues as Americans for Tax Reform, but in any case Ed Priola has publicly committed to ATR’s agenda, including formally signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, committing to oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes. For the record, I consider the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to be for the most part an unserious political gimmick. Taken literally (and Republicans seem to be pretty literal about this) it would mean, for example, that in the event of an extreme state fiscal crisis Priola would vote against a budget-balancing initiative that contained major spending cuts if it contained even a single small tax increase. However I don’t consider the Taxpayer Protection Pledge as pernicious as the Taxpayer Protection Initiative, since the pledge binds only candidates who sign it while the TPI would have permanently altered the Howard County government’s ability to tax. (I can’t find any public information about Ed Priola’s position on the TPI.)2

Priola’s time with U.S. Term Limits obviously accounts for his interest in term limits. Since I’m discussing that below I’ll skip ahead to his work with NRI and CIPE, which apparently he inititally did as a volunteer, and which is addressed in a bit more detail in his campaign biography. I must confess that Priola’s work in countries like Romania, Albania, and others was one of the things I found interesting and noteworthy about him.

As I’ll discuss in a series of post-election blog posts (when I have time to finish them), I strongly believe that America’s long-term security depends on our ability to promote the growth of an economically secure global middle class that will be the key constituency for political freedom, democracy, and the rule of law worldwide. Since security in the broad sense is one of the most important exports of this region, I think the future of Howard County is closely intertwined with that process of global economic and political transformation. I therefore believe it’s important that our state and even county politicians have experience of the world outside the U.S., and I count Priola’s work with IRI and CIPE as a definite plus in that regard.

Ed Priola is an ideas guy, with a strong interest in reforms related to government structures and processes. The idea he’s promoting most heavily is that of term limits for Maryland state legislators, an issue whose importance to him clearly dates back to his days working with U.S. Term Limits.

Speaking personally, I consider term limits to be neither a disaster nor a panacea. The major argument against term limits (raised in a recent Second Opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun) is that they suck expertise and experience out of a state legislature. While that may be true of some term limit proposals I don’t think it’s true of Priola’s, which doesn’t limit the maximum number of terms a legislator may serve but rather requires them to sit out a term after serving two consecutive terms. (This is the same term limits restriction that currently applies to Maryland governors.) All in all I’d be supportive of this particular term limits scheme.3

On the other hand I don’t think term limits by themselves will realize their proponents’ vision of making the dinosaurs extinct and continually bringing in fresh groups of true citizen-legislators. In particular, I think there are two associated reforms that would likely be necessary. The first is to severely restrict the role of seniority in handing out committee assignments and other prize legislative plums. For example, if we did adopt Priola’s proposals then I can see the legislature allowing legislators to count cumulative time in office when computing seniority. This favors legislators who don’t really return to private life after two terms but rather stick around Annapolis (perhaps as lobbyists) and then come back to pick up more dinosaur points on their way to positions of true power and influence.

Another reform that may be needed to supplement term limits is some sort of redistricting reform, e.g., the use of nonpartisan (or at least less partisan) redistricting commissions. Otherwise parties will be motivated to exert even more influence over the redistricting process, in an effort to maximize the chances that a term-limited legislator is replaced by someone who’s ideologically indistinguishable from their predecessor. Priola acknowledges the problems posed by redistricting and other structural factors that advantage incumbents, but doesn’t appear to propose any solutions beyond term limits.4

Another of Priola’s proposals is to introduce so-called zero-based budgeting. This is an idea that’s now being championed by many conservatives, e.g., by the Ronald Reagan Conservative Society: Governmental budgets should be based on zero-based budgeting, all departments should have to provide yearly justifications rather than receive an annual increase to their budget. As it happens, zero-based budgeting was originally promoted in a state government context by Jimmy Carter (as governor of Georgia), and then later introduced by him into the Federal government as President. It proved to be somewhat complicated and politically difficult to implement, and apparently once Ronald Reagan took office he abandoned zero-based budgeting in favor of an alternative approach. (The present-day Republican governor of Georgia recently angered Tea Party members by rejecting zero-based budgeting as a Carter-era failure.)

It’s unclear whether Ed Priola has thought deeply about how zero-based budgeting might work in the context of Maryland state government. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Priola’s and others’ promotion of zero-based budgeting is simply another way for politicians to avoid talking about actual identified spending cuts—similar to the perennial call to cut waste and fraud in government or Obama’s bipartisan debt commission.

Moving on, Priola has advanced some ideas about ways that state government can help small businesses get started and grow. For example, in discussing his top three priorities he’s mentioned having an incubation period for newly-formed small businesses. It’s not exactly clear what Priola is proposing for this incubation period, except perhaps for some kind of simplified tax regime, but it’s an idea worth exploring in my opinion.

One of the challenges in this area is figuring out exactly what sorts of issues are worth addressing. For example, there are lots of reports that rank states according to business friendliness and related qualities, focusing variously on tax considerations (the State Business Tax Climate Index from the Tax Foundation and the Small Business Survival Index from the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council), CEO perceptions (Chief Executive magazine’s Best and Worst States for Business), entrepreneurial opportunities (the State New Economy Index from the Kauffman Foundation), and a grab-bag of economic and other metrics (CNBC’s ratings of business-friendly states).

However none of these seem to focus specifically and primarily on regulatory barriers faced by business. On the international scene the World Bank for some time now has produced reports detailing the ease of doing business in various countries. (In case anyone is curious, the U.S. currently ranks number 4, after Singapore, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.) The methodology used to compile these rankings incorporates a lot of measures around government regulations and associated compliance efforts, and it might be possible and appropriate to apply a variant of this methodology at the state government level. Given Ed Priola’s experience in other countries promoting local political and economic reforms, it would be interesting to see if he had any thoughts on this topic.

Finally, another Ed Priola priority is to bring full transparency and accountability to Maryland government. The particular idea Priola is pushing here is to provide comprehensive television coverage of state legislative activities. I very much share Priola’s interest in more transparency and accountability, which is really an issue that cuts across (or at least should cut across) party lines.

However speaking personally I’d put less priority on a C-SPAN for Maryland and more priority on making raw data available about state government activities, in a form which can be easily searched and used. (This appears to be one of Warren Miller’s priorities too, for which I applaud him—although his campaign site is silent on this point.) Such release of data should in my opinion include not only contract awards and legislative and regulatory actions, but really any data that Maryland state government collects and maintains at taxpayer expense and which can be made available to the public without compromising personal privacy or business proprietary information. This includes making such data available at no charge online, and not relying on commercial companies to be gatekeepers for government information.

I really think Ed Priola and others are thinking too small here, and are also looking at 20th century solutions when they could be looking at 21st century ones. To some degree it’s been overhyped, but I think the overall set of ideas encompassed in the term Government 2.0 is well worth looking at, and could potentially match up much better with the ways in which we’ll create and consume information in the future, (Compare, for example, Priola’s MD-SPAN idea, which is based on a traditional broadcast television model, with Mark Drapeau’s somewhat fanciful but intriguing vision of always-on-the-record government.)

Much of this activity has been spearheaded by liberal Democrats like Beth Noveck, who heads Obama’s open government initiative, or Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation. However there’s no reason that conservative Republicans can’t get in on the fun, and I invite them to do so. This is especially true since one of the key tenets of the Government 2.0 movement is not to create massive new government bureaucracies, but rather to make a core set of government data and online services freely available and then leverage as much as possible the work of private enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and even individual citizens who can add value to the data and create new and useful information and services.

And on that bipartisan note I’ll add this post. I’m sorry I didn’t have the time and energy to do this sort of deep-dive on other local candidates, both Democratic and Republican. To add to what I said above, focusing on Ed Priola wasn’t meant as a slight on anyone else, it’s just the way things worked out. If I haven’t burned out on Howard County blogging by 2012 perhaps I’ll do a broader set of profiles in that election cycle.

  1. As an aside, the Republican party has become even more socially conservative since Reagan’s time; for example, I can’t imagine any present-day Republican with aspirations to national office taking the kinds of political risks Reagan took in opposing the Briggs Initiative. So in today’s GOP I think the best we can expect of a candidate is that they take the approach espoused by Allan Kittleman and others and stick to an economic agenda as much as possible.) 

  2. Note that Allan Kittleman is the opposite of Ed Priola in this respect: Although he promoted the Taxpayer Protection Initiative, I can’t find any indication that he’s signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. However several other local Republican incumbents and challengers have signed the state version of the pledge, including Gail Bates, Warren Miller, Kyle Lorton, and Jeff Robinson. 

  3. The article Arguments for and against term limits by Mayraj Fahim contains exactly that, and is a good summary of the term limits debate. Besides being a good example of a pro-term limits position, the article Real Term Limits: Now More Than Ever by Doug Bandow provides a fascinating picture of the fissures that the term limits issue caused within the Republican party in the mid 1990s (apparently the period during which Ed Priola was professionally engaged in term limits advocacy). 

  4. For more on redistricting reform see the pages maintained by various organizations including Americans for Redistricting Reform, Common Cause, the Democratic Leadership Council, FairVote, and the League of Women Voters. See also the academic paper The Effects of Nonpartisan Redistricting Boards and Commissions on Competition in Congressional Elections, which attempts to measure the effectiveness of redistricting reforms in practice.