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Are Marylanders ready for Josh Rales' brand of reform?

November 30, 1999|By BOB MAGINNIS

Toward the end of an hour-long interview with U.S. Senate candidate Josh Rales, he admits that although he has thought a great deal about the nation's problems, he does not assume that his proposed solutions can't be improved upon.

"If you have an idea about how we can do something, tell me. Together we can make it better," Rales said.

This could be dismissed as an experienced politician's attempt to flatter an interviewer, except that the 48-year-old Democrat is not a veteran of anything but a property-management business and a foundation that works to improve the reading skills of students in Montgomery County, Md.

"I don't have a political pedigree and I think that's an advantage," he said.

When I note that two of his primary opponents ? Kweisi Mfume, a former national president of the NAACP who served five terms as a Maryland congressman and Rep. Benjamin Cardin, who served 18 years, have a big edge in experience, Rales said that their long tenure is part of the problem.

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"I think they're both very fine people, but they're the system and the system is broken," Rales said.

Rales said his list of items that need to be fixed includes the increasing budget deficits and the national debt, the health-care system, U.S. dependence on foreign oil and a military equipped with weapons that are better for factories in congressional districts than they are for the nation's defense.

On spending, Rales said that the current administration has been "the most reckless, financially, in history."

Rales said that "if we don't get serious about getting our finances in order, we're going to be in trouble."

Last year alone the nation paid $184 million in interest alone on the national debt, Rales said, adding that that's money that could be better spent for things such as improved teacher pay.

"The education issue is at the top of my list," Rales said.

For Rales, the solution is good teachers who can inspire their students. He notes that in Montgomery County, 85 percent of the teachers have been rated "highly qualified" under the definition in the No Child Left Behind Act.

To improve education and health care, several years ago Rales and his wife Debra set up the RFI Foundation. And, in partnership with the county school system, they created the Ruth Rales Comcast Kids Reading Network.

The network pairs hundreds of adult volunteers with second-graders who need help learning to read.

"They (volunteers) spend an hour a week for 30 weeks. The kids pick up a whole grade level," he said.

On the budget, Rales said he would like to balance it in five years, starting with reviving a law that forced Congress to be disciplined in its spending.

"The Budget Enforcement Act had pay-go rues. You couldn't cut taxes without cutting spending somewhere," he said.

Rales wouldn't extend the Bush tax cuts in the top three income brackets and wouldn't renew dividend and capital gains cuts.

"It's not going to please everyone, but the wealthiest segment can afford to carry a little more water," he said.

He would also cut expenditures for what he called "Cold War weapons" and agricultural subsidies that go mostly to large agribusiness companies instead of family farmers.

On energy, Rales said he would cut oil imports by mandating that U.S. cars get 45 miles per gallon.

"We have the technology to get there," he said, adding that new type tires and motor oil will also improve mileage.

For the long term, Rales said he would encourage the production of ethanol, which he said doesn't have the emission problems of gasoline. He also backs research to turn coal into diesel fuel.

On Iraq, Rales advocates development of a realistic strategy for getting out and refocusing the Defense Department on fighting terror, as opposed to producing more Cold War weaponry.

"We're making more nuclear submarines. We already have 52. I don't know how many times we can blow up the world," he said.

"I'm a polite guy, but I'm not afraid to say 'Why are we doing it this way?'" Rales said.

My two cents: Reformers have a way of getting ground down by the system or being transformed into what they once opposed. Rales makes sense, especially on the budget, but it remains to be seen whether voters are as upset as he seems to be with business as usual.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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