Tom Coale for Delegate in District 9B

5 minute read

Last Tuesday Tom Coale announced that he’s running for the open House of Delegates seat in the newly-created District 9B in (parts of) Ellicott City. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the fundraiser in which Tom announced his campaign. Equally unfortunately I won’t be able to vote for Tom; I live just north of the boundary line of District 9B, in “Bates-Miller” territory. However the least I can do is to publish a blog post commenting on Tom’s platform and campaign.

Although I don’t agree with Tom on every single issue, I’ve always admired the process by which he comes to his positions and justifies them publicly. I think his approach in this campaign exemplifies that process, as seen in his blog posts and on his campaign website.

First, he’s starting with a clear focus on the local problems of his potential constituency in Ellicott City: basically the things that anyone living here for any length of time would be aware of, including the economic health and environmental well-being of the historic downtown. The one thing I haven’t seen him comment on yet is the process and prospects for revitalizing and upgrading the Route 40 corridor. It’s a less glamorous issue than the fate of historic Ellicott City and also a harder one to crack, since the Route 40 strip by its nature will always be more of a place to drive through than to drive to. Nonetheless there’s been a lot of talk about Route 40 revitalization over the years, and I’d be interested in Tom’s thoughts on how he might work as a state delegate to further that process along.

Second, I like Tom’s crisp summation of the principles he thinks are important—good government, smart government, and your government—and I’d like to say little more about each one.

“Good government” is something we should be able to take for granted, but unfortunately cannot in many jurisdictions. Having government be free of corruption and not unduly influenced by special interests is especially important for the Democratic Party, traditionally thought of as the party of government. For the GOP wrongdoing by elected officials, even Republican elected officials, reinforces the argument that government is inevitably flawed and can accomplish nothing of importance compared to private enterprise. But for the Democratic Party official wrongdoing strikes at the very heart of the party’s presumed reason for being, namely to serve all people and not just the wealthy or politically connected.

With regard to “smart government”, Tom writes that “I honestly believe that when most people say they favor ‘small government’, they really mean ‘smart government’. If a program was effectively placing low income single mothers in gainful employment while offering reliable daycare, we would want that program to grow, serve more people, and change more lives.” I disagree a bit with Tom here. For one thing, there are a fair number of libertarians and others of similar opinion who object to government on principled grounds having to do with the morality of state coercion. There are also a fair number of people who object to particular forms of government spending for less principled reasons. For them the issue is not whether government spending is effective or not, but whether it goes to “those people” instead of “our people”. (I should also add that you can find this attitude on both sides of the party lines.)

Nevertheless Tom is correct that legislators should strive to do things that are effective in solving the problems that are supposedly at issue, and should pull back on or eliminate programs that lack such effectiveness. Again this is important in restoring and maintaining people’s trust in government and in a party that positions itself as supportive of government. It’s also important in restoring and maintaining the stature and status of government workers themselves. Every wasteful and ineffective government program makes it that much harder to justify providing adequate pay and benefits for those government employees responsible for implementing such programs.

Besides the points Tom has already made in his blog post and campaign materials, I’d be interested in seeing Tom’s take on the approach Jim Manzi and others have advocated of undertaking controlled experiments to measure the effectiveness of government programs and related interventions. (See for example Manzi’s book Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Government.) I don’t know that this approach would be politically palatable (for the same reasons that no one in a clinical trial wants to receive a placebo), but we do have a lot of local Maryland expertise in the relevant statistical and experimental disciplines, for example at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and other institutions, and I think this idea is worth at least some initial exploration.

Finally, I agree with Tom’s points regarding government being “your government”, including that the goal should not be just transparency but clarity, particularly including clarity about Tom’s own motives and actions as a delegate should he be elected. If he does end up in the House of Delegates, I think that will be an interesting landscape for Tom to navigate. As a member of the Columbia Association Board of Directors he was among a small group of relatively equal players. As a newly elected delegate, on the other hand, he would be expected to be a “team player” when it came to the legislative programs promoted by the House of Delegates leadership. What he himself might think is right may well be in conflict with the need to “go along to get along” when it comes to receiving desired committee assignments and acquiring some measure of influence within the legislature to advance the goals he thinks are important. I have faith in Tom’s principles, but neither he nor anyone else can forever avoid the inevitable conflicts between principle and expediency.

With that said, I look forward to seeing Tom’s campaign evolve as the 2014 races heat up. Not to take anything away from the other announced or potential candidates in District 9B, whether Democrats or Republicans, but as did Dennis Lane Tom plays a special and vital role in the local Howard County scene, and I think I can speak for others when I say that I’d be overjoyed to see him advance to a bigger role on a larger stage.