The Trimmer

The Calvert Institute’s George Liebmann Preaches The Common Sense Of Thinking Locally And Acting Locally

Frank Klein

Baltimore has its own conservative think tank, but don’t confuse it with the Heritage Foundation. There’s no sign-in book, no large glass door, and no view of Dupont Circle. The Calvert Institute for Policy Research is discreetly tucked away on easy-to-miss West Hamilton street, a few blocks north of City Hall. After a few knocks, executive director George Liebmann–an affable, soft-spoken attorney who looks pretty much like the 68-year-old business lawyer he is–opens the door. In the corner is a small crate of The Trimmer’s Almanac: Ten Years of the Calvert Institute: 1996-2006, a recently published history of the organization edited by Liebmann and Orbie Shively. Otherwise, it’s his law office.

Liebmann, executive director of the institute since 2001, sits back in his chair behind his desk, which is cluttered with legal briefs. The Calvert, which was founded by local anesthesiologist and author Ronald Dworkin, has a 12-member board, a budget of $20,000, and, Liebmann says, gets most of its financial support from “about 50 individual contributors.”

Now that some of the more ambitious Washington think tanks are hard at work figuring ways out of the foreign policy disasters they helped create, the fact that the Calvert focuses largely on state and local government is a point of pride for Liebmann.

In the era of neocons, he says, the Calvert Institute drifted away from the mainstream Republican party. “It started out as more of an orthodox conservative organization,” he says. “The first executive director, Doug Munro, had ties to the Heritage [Foundation]. But since then, most of the fundraising, and the focus, has been local.”

That may be a reflection of Liebmann himself, who grew up in New York but moved to Baltimore in 1963 after earning his law degree. Most of his professional life has been in business law, but he’s also served as executive assistant for Gov. Harry Hughes’ administration in 1979-’80. He’s been a registered Republican for only about 16 years, but the last Democrat he voted for president–four years after graduating from Dartmouth College–was Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 2004 Liebmann didn’t vote for George W. Bush. When pressed, he admits he voted for him in 2000, but says that “like many others in my party, I’ve come to regret it deeply.” His criticism of the president is fairly straightforward: Bush has politicized the domestic and foreign-policy bureaucracies and violated the law in the process. But he’s not much kinder to Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, whose government he criticizes for offering tax incentives to developers while leaving the education system in disarray. Briefly stated, George Liebmann and the Calvert Institute don’t take sides. He’s a trimmer.

“Trimmer” is the term coined by British statesman Lord Halifax (aka George Savile) to describe the role of a political moderate who resists the temptations of partisan debate. Halifax himself earned his reputation as a middle-of-the-roader as he tried to reconcile Catholic and Protestant factions in late-17th-century Britain. Liebmann hopes the Calvert Institute can at least influence the political dialogue in Baltimore to the point where it can come up with practical solutions to practical problems.

The Trimmer’s Almanac includes articles and a number of low-key symposiums, wherein officials and public servants hash out policy problems and often move toward solutions. Liebmann remarks, a little wryly, that the participants in the various discussions aren’t quite pillars of the right wing. Then again, they’re not lefties, either. The drug policy discussion group in Chapter 3, for instance, includes Alan Friedman, former assistant to Gov. Robert Ehrlich for drug policy; Gary Johnson, former Republican governor of New Mexico; Donald Santarelli, associate deputy attorney general and head of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration during the Nixon administration; and Jerome Jaffe and Robert DuPont, drug czars during the Nixon administration.

The Nixon administration “was really the last reforming administration,” Liebmann says–not necessary a reflection of Richard Nixon, whom Liebmann calls “quite intelligent about everything except himself.” But it was a government less defined by political alliances than administrations are now.

If there’s a unifying thread to these dialogues, and to much of what the Calvert Institute discusses, it’s that local problems need practical solutions. It’s a focus that Liebmann has been keeping for decades, and which he articulates in his 1995 book The Little Platoons, which sings the praises of “sub-local” government. Instead of just electing leaders who articulate their political views, Liebmann says that citizens must participate in solving problems that affect them.

For readers used to watching people dish out talking points on cable news networks and Sunday morning talk shows, the approach may sound a little dry. The Trimmer’s Almanac, a 657-page bright blue paperback, plunges into discussions between public figures whose names don’t necessarily ring bells. Liebmann’s own discursive tone is lawyerly: precise, crafted sentences, without much dumbing down. But then, Liebmann hopes, a listener may realize that he’s talking about specific problems that Baltimoreans have been complaining about for years without really searching for realistic solutions.

Liebmann isn’t one for small talk, and when he starts to discuss, say, the use of minimum sentences to target small-time drug dealers, the answer almost comes out as a miniature op-ed–and Liebmann has written a number of those over the years for The Sun and, more recently, The Examiner. But the result can catch you off guard. Without fireworks, he links the President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” to the “Stop Snitching” campaign.

“The worst thing O’Malley’s done since becoming governor is vetoing the effort to relax the mandatory minimum [for drug dealing],” he says. “The penalty for drug dealing as a theoretical matter exceeds the penalty for murder. If somebody’s arrested for the third time for even small-time drug dealers, the mandatory minimum is astronomical, maybe 20 years. And that’s easy to prove, using photographs–whereas proving homicide is a whole lot harder. The risks of slaughtering witnesses are less than the risks of being convicted of small-time drug dealing.”

When coming up with a solution, Liebmann is straightforward. “If penalties [for small drug dealing] are reduced below six months, the cases can be tried in the district court without a jury trial,” he says. “And you can get people in treatment programs. Whereas now you have these theoretically high penalties, and the cases all get plea-bargained and people get off scot-free.”

But just when he sounds like he’s leaning to the left, or at least to that territory claimed by libertarians, he shifts balance. Liebmann supports decriminalization of marijuana, but he opposes legalizing it. “It demotivates people,” he says. “We’ve had a few presidential elections when it’s generally understood that there’s reason to think that both major candidates had been in a generally spaced-out condition during their undergraduate years.”

At other points, he shifts rightward. He speaks admiringly of the aggressive stop-and-frisk program during Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral reign as something that Baltimore might consider, “just so the message got out,” and supports drug testing for welfare applicants and high-school students. It’s common sense, he says. “There’s a general understanding that it’s hard to get a job with a large organization when you flunk the drug test,” he says. “That’s why drug testing in the military was a great success story. The message got out that it’s not a great career builder. It’s not about throwing them in the clink.”

For decades, Liebmann has also been involved in education law, and his response to Baltimore’s school problems is based in the passionately held belief that if the city wants to shore up its middle class, it needs to improve its schools. And that involves smaller districts and “platoons” of community-based leaders. If that sounds a little fanciful, he believes it’s not.

“Britain did it,” he says, “with their education act of 1988, saying that each individual school receiving federal money had to have its own citizen board.” That kind of reform would “bring into the public school system a host of people who haven’t been indoctrinated” by the school system’s status quo, including higher-education and business leaders.

“You’d need a good system of audits if you decentralize that way,” he acknowledges, and as he concludes the little oration, a spark of passion surfaces. “It’s common sense. Now you have an educational system which almost puts a premium on not taking risks and getting things done.”

When discussing local issues like these, Liebmann is careful to add that he’s not speaking for the Calvert Institute–which represents a number of views. But he does speak for its approach to problems: Think a problem through, come up with a solution on the local level, and explain carefully how you arrived at it. And in his soft-spoken way, Liebmann is telling us exactly what’s missing in today’s political universe. That may not endear him to members of the City Council or the General Assembly, but he hopes his straight talk will remind them why those bodies exist.

“People are just trying to intelligently discuss what needs to be done,” he says. “And there isn’t enough of that.”

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