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The Accidental Pundit

Political science professor Matt Crenson didn't set out to be the guy reporters call first about regional politics. But no matter: These days, his phone is always ringing.

By Michael Anft
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

It's primary election day in Maryland, and Matthew A. Crenson, A&S '63, has already spent much of an overcast morning and afternoon stumping for his man — a Democrat running for a seat in the U.S. Congress — at a north Baltimore nursing home-cum-polling place. Participatory democracy has seen better days. A trickle of voters shows up, nearly all of them bypassing Crenson and the handful of literature he attempts to foist on them.

The utter lack of support for his candidate (who will go on to garner only 4 percent of the vote, district-wide) doesn't seem to bother him. "The real problem was that there were no voters — 47 in seven hours," Crenson says. "And here I am in The Washington Post saying there will be a large turnout."

Afterward, from his shaded suburban home north of Baltimore, Crenson shrugs off the prognostication. "By tomorrow morning, everyone will have forgotten I said it," he says. He'll spend the rest of today, September 12, participating further in Maryland's political machinations — sitting by the phone.

There, Crenson will dispense opinions on candidates' gaffes, office-holders' policies, voter tendencies, and other largely speculative matters to a bevy of quote-grabbing reporters. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins professor of political science who specializes in urban government and American political development, and a faculty member for 38 years, has never sold himself as an "expert." But you'd never know it by the regular and decade-long skein of Crenson quotes in regional newspapers, on radio, and on local television news shows.

Crenson, arguably the most-quoted academic authority on the rough-and-tumble, Byzantine nature of Baltimore politics, gets calls from reporters at the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Baltimore Sun, a batch of other Maryland media outlets, local papers from around the country, and — somewhat inexplicably — one in São Paulo, Brazil.

This time of year, Crenson's ringer gets a workout. It's common for him to get more than three calls per day from different news organizations. From July 1 to mid-September — the peak of Maryland's primary election season — Crenson's name popped up almost daily in print somewhere.

A rotund and self-deprecating guy who is a dead ringer for actor Wilfrid Brimley, minus the walrus-y whiskers, Crenson, 63, says that reporters seek him out for quotes that reflect the attention he pays to local races and politicos. "I read the polls very carefully when they come out. I read The Sun every day, I subscribe to the [Baltimore] Afro [American], and I read The Post," he says. "I google candidates, read their Web pages, look at what's been written about them in the past." He returns phone calls promptly, he says, because of the experiences his son, also named Matt, a science reporter with the Associated Press, has had with sources who aren't exactly forthcoming.

But when it comes to tapping his strengths as a political scientist — which, observers say, include an ability to teach and to write in depth about the historical sweep of politics — reporters miss the forest for the veneer, disguised as quick-and-dirty sound bites. Crenson has spent the bulk of his career doing scholarly research on policy issues. He has published well-reviewed books on neighborhood politics in Baltimore, the "prehistory" of the federal welfare program, and the effect of political elites on democracy (the latter with his Hopkins political-science-professor associate, Benjamin Ginsberg). Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, to be published in March by W.W. Norton and co-written by Ginsberg, clearly lays out a power grab by several administrations intent on making the executive branch much more powerful than the Constitution intended.

But few reporters want to hear about all that.

"They want to know who's going to win," Crenson says. "They want to know how something a candidate said will affect an election." They don't want to hear the long of it — only the short, he says. "They only keep you on the phone for five or 10 minutes, as a rule. I've devoted about 40 years to highly academic work, and the stuff I say off the top of my head and with 10 seconds of reflection is what they use. This interview now? It's the longest one I've ever had."

Sometimes, the demands are inane. Once, a television reporter came to his home and asked him the same question six times. When he wanted to know why she repeated herself, she said, "I want you to get your answer down to 15 seconds."

When it comes to sharing more of his knowledge, he's learned to be happy with a few small victories — thoughts of his that have little to do with the horse-race aspect of politics. After an ad by Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. averred that the governor, who is running for re-election, "will do whatever it takes" to improve the state's education, Crenson told a reporter, "'Whatever it takes' is not a plan." He adds, with some amazement: "And The Sun printed that. I usually get no questions about policy, but that's what I'm really interested in."

Ginsberg, who is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Hopkins, agrees that the Maryland media underutilize Crenson's talents, but adds that his colleague and co-author is made for the job. "He has the analytical strengths of a good political science professor, and he likes to talk about Baltimore and Maryland politics. Matt's the only one who knows anything about it," Ginsberg says.

Crenson's involvement in Democratic politics — in a state where the GOP has often been DOA — hasn't hurt him, though it makes the devout liberal an easy target for needling. Ginsberg, whose politics tilt to the right, says the two have often squared off over national issues. "We were doing a radio show in some town in the Midwest after our previous book came out [Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2002] and the interviewer asked us who's to blame for this mess. I put on my best Southern accent and said, 'I think it's the liberals.' Matt wouldn't talk to me for a week," Ginsberg says.

Fellow analysts can't imagine Crenson being quiet. "Matt's the pre-eminent guy on local politics," says Herb Smith, A&S '71 (MA), '77 (PhD), a former student of Crenson's and now a professor of political science at McDaniel College, in Westminster, Maryland. (Smith is also an oft-quoted political analyst and an occasional consultant to campaigns.) "He has a tremendous feel for the neighborhoods and politics of Baltimore — he's a pundit's pundit."

It hasn't hurt Crenson's career that he has spent endless hours memorizing minutiae-spewing guides on how to become a media expert, or that he took hours-long exams dreamed up by political reporters that test the intellectual mettle of the deepest academic thinkers, or that he learned to recite the names of U.S. presidents in reverse alphabetical order.

Actually, none of that is true. When it comes to anointing an "expert," reporters are more likely to throw the term around and see where it sticks. In the case of Crenson and others, a knack for creating a pithy quote, ever-ready availability, and a high academic standing seem to be the only criteria.

"The real problem was that there were no voters — 47 in seven hours, and here I am in The Washington Post saying there will be a large turnout.... By tomorrow morning, everyone will have forgotten I said it."

"In general, newspapers don't have a policy about whom they call an expert," says Michael Hoyt, executive editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, a well-regarded trade magazine. "You look for someone who knows the beat, someone who doesn't have a political ax to grind. But it's really a judgment call. I'm not sure if you could turn that into a policy."

News outlets don't have a firm grip on the concept of "expertness," but they should at least make sure that the academics and other authorities they call on are devoid of conflicts, adds Thomas Kunkel, dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Guys like Crenson who have ties to particular candidates need to be particularly candid with reporters about who their political bedfellows are. (Crenson says he is.) They should steer clear of commenting on races involving the candidates they are backing. (Crenson says he does.) And journalists should not present "experts" with political connections as if they were objective founts of ivory-tower analysis. (But they often do.)

Like Hoyt, Kunkel sees no rhyme or reason to the media's selection process. So-called experts get rung up because of what Kunkel calls Rolodex journalism. "They're quote machines, people who will say something. When they're used all the time, it's an example of lazy journalism," says Kunkel. "There are guys like Larry Sabato [director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics] who are quoted all the time. If I never see another quote from Larry Sabato, I'll live a very happy life."

Despite the pitfalls, the high pay that comes with punditry, along with the party invitations and the admiration of fellow academics and political groupies, makes the job worth the superficiality and occasional indignity.

Actually, none of that is true, either. Crenson and other Maryland pundits are not paid by news organizations. They aren't on the A-list for parties. Crenson receives an occasional invitation to speak to groups such as the Baltimore Jewish Council and the League of Women Voters — his RSVP opportunities are about as exciting as a concession speech. And angry e-mail stalkers are about as close as Crenson and his ilk get to groupies. Usually, guys like him just sit by the phone.

Some who see Crenson as Larry Sabato, Hopkins division, say he spends too much time there.

"I get almost zero insight from Crenson's ubiquitous quotes in The Sun and The Post," says Russ Smith, A&S '78, a conservative columnist whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Press, and Baltimore's City Paper. "I mostly ignore Crenson's comments, even if he has a handle on demographics, etc., and knowledge of past races, because they're short, devoid of disclosure of bias, and just used to fill a reporter's inch count or advance a reporter's own agenda."

And yet, the calls keep coming.

David Nitkin, state editor at The Sun, says that's because Crenson is right more often than most pundits. Although Crenson's "ubiquitous quotes" tend to appear most often in print in The Sun, Nitkin sees no problem with hauling Crenson out regularly for comment. "We look for people with academic backgrounds who are from area schools and who are knowledgeable, eloquent, and aware across a range of issues. And Crenson certainly fits that bill," Nitkin says. "He hits the nail on the head every time."

Nitkin says he has given other political science professors in Baltimore a chance to comment, often at the behest of the public relations departments of local universities, and the paper has used a handful of them. (Crenson says reporters contacted him on their own early on, but since then Hopkins' Office of News and Information has reminded news organizations when he is available for comment.) Some other experts fall flat. "Quite frankly, they don't have much insight," Nitkin says. Russ Smith believes that Crenson should be given an intermittent slot on the paper's op-ed page, so his liberal bias and observations could be more fairly appraised and so his analytical take won't be overrepresented in the paper's news columns. Nitkin, however, doesn't exactly worry that there's such a thing as too much Crenson. "Sometimes, we don't use him because another reporter here has used him that day," he says.

Crenson's ties to Hopkins add to his value, Nitkin says. "It's the pre-eminent private institution of higher education in the region, so there's a cachet to the name," says Nitkin, a Harvard alum. "It adds to the appeal for readers to see a Hopkins professor's thoughts."

Those thoughts, while sought out by journalists for only the last 10 years, have been more than 50 years in the making. Crenson's earliest memory of politics goes back to his childhood days in Govans, a working-class neighborhood in north Baltimore that is one of the few Baltimore enclaves nondescript enough not to be memorialized by Barry Levinson, H.L. Mencken, David Simon, or John Waters. Despite some compelling racial politics centered around the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision — politics that Crenson says he will soon write a book about — the neighborhood lived in the otherwise misty, largely apolitical haze of the 1950s.

As a fourth-grader, Crenson was called on to play Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson Jr. in a mock election campaign. "I made a stump speech to the PTA arguing that since Stevenson's grandfather had been vice president under Grover Cleveland that he had good family experience for the job," Crenson recalls. "I didn't win."

It wasn't until 1959, when Crenson entered Hopkins as an undergrad, that his political jones took hold of him. Intrigued with the local scene, he wrote a paper about the political functions of crab feasts and bull roasts in Baltimore County, and another about Democratic clubs in Baltimore City, which was then a bastion of I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine patronage.

Meanwhile, Crenson was honing his politics practicum during summers. While interning at age 19 in the Division of Program Analysis at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, where his mother worked, Crenson wrote a speech promoting Medicare for the agency's assistant commissioner on the "lump sum death benefit." In the course of helping the agency push for the first Medicare bill in 1962, he saw it shot down on the Senate floor.

"Even though the bill was lost, I saw this was a place where big things happened," Crenson says. "I was intrigued by being where the action was. I saw that politics was more than a game."

Within the next year, he was chauffeuring around a local Democratic fixer for whom Baltimore politics was merely a game, plus a way to put friends in high places — places where licenses, parking tickets, and permits were all magically taken care of. The late Vincent "Murph" Lanasa, the scion of a Baltimore banana-importing family, would fill Crenson's father's car with cigar smoke as he and Crenson traveled from business to business, neighborhood to neighborhood, to do favors and receive a few in return. For Lanasa, high-minded policy was a waste of time. "His eyes would glaze over if I talked about how Social Security should be done," Crenson recalls.

Lanasa, an inspector of city-owned markets, would take Crenson along with him to check up on the various produce and meat stalls crammed into century-old buildings. "The inspection usually consisted of eating a couple of chili dogs," Crenson says.

The realpolitik of the Democratic party — Crenson remembers a local lumber magnate peeling off $250 in bills for "the boys" and Alene, Crenson's future wife, all of whom were young poll workers from Hopkins and elsewhere — held a fascination for a young man desperate to understand political machines.

But the patronage system had already begun to die, and Crenson saw he would have to re-evaluate his plan for studying politics. After earning his bachelor's degree at Hopkins in 1963, Crenson disappointed Lanasa by spurning his mentor's entreaties to get a law degree and run for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates.

Instead, Crenson began graduate school at the University of Chicago and joined a housing campaign founded by Martin Luther King Jr. There, he came to appreciate the uniqueness of Baltimore's politics. The machine run by Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago was a hierarchical powerhouse that thwarted reform, while Baltimore remained, by comparison, "Byzantine, subtle, and familial," Crenson says. He worked on his PhD in political science while King's campaign to open up racist housing practices burned along with parts of the city in a 1966 riot.

"Some people don't like the fact that I'm involved with politics, but I'm not going to give up politics in order to remain a commentator. People expect a political scientist to be objective, some kind of political eunuch."

Upon leaving Chicago, Crenson taught at MIT for a year while finishing up his dissertation at the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank. He came to Hopkins as an assistant professor in 1969. Smith, the McDaniel professor and political pundit, says that Crenson's hiring created some excitement. "There was a lot of talk among graduates that Hopkins had hired one of its own," Smith recounts. "And he was a Baltimore guy. Everyone thought he was special. He was certainly a wonderful classroom teacher. He had a seamless way of combining the scholar and teacher models. There are aspects of his Urban Government seminar that I still use in my classes."

Within a few years, Crenson was being hailed as one of the most popular professors on campus. "We chose him as the marshal for our graduating class," says Nelson Block, A&S '73, now an attorney in Houston. "I remember him as a fine mentor. He'd often tell his students what they should expect from themselves as young people."

As part of his Urban Politics course, Crenson began talking about "Rocco Hennessey," a pseudonym for Lanasa, when teaching Baltimore machine politics. He got his students to make videos about Baltimore's woeful mass transit system. He wrote books that put him on the national academic map. He and Alene raised two boys.

After Hopkins student Rex Chao was murdered in 1996, the phone began to ring. Reporters wanted to know whether Crenson thought Robert Harwood, Chao's murderer, should be allowed to graduate. He thought not. City Hall reporters from The Sun started calling too, asking Crenson what he thought of the chances of various candidates. Eventually, other news operations saw his lean quotes and started dialing. In time, they began to ask about statewide races and candidates for federal office.

A pundit was born.

Since then, Crenson has made a few enemies. He gets calls from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's people when they're angry with him over something they see in print. Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon often blasts him for bringing up things she did on the floor of the City Council nearly two decades ago, or for his remaining a commentator on races involving Dixon, despite his campaign contributions to and consultation for Carl Stokes, a frequent Dixon opponent.

"I have no problem with media outlets seeking commentary from local experts to add context to their stories," says Dixon. "But when people like Matthew Crenson [and others] are consulted for their political expertise, the public has a right to know that while they may be offering an informed opinion, it may not necessarily be a neutral, unbiased one."

On this, Dixon and Crenson might agree. Crenson says he tells reporters of his party affiliation and avoids making comments on races where he is backing candidates. Still, his bias can creep into his analysis, he says. Such was the case with this year's primary turnout in Maryland. "I saw the races this year as fascinating, so I thought for sure the turnout would be high. What I was doing was projecting my own interest on to the electorate," Crenson says. "I typically work hard not to do that."

He says he may "recuse" himself from the 2007 mayoral race because of plans to introduce a course in which the students will analyze the candidates, dissect the strategies of the parties, and monitor the election. "I doubt that people would speak to me if they had to worry about seeing their comments the next day in the newspaper," Crenson says.

But for all that, he doesn't believe that being a pundit with his own politics renders him incapable of clear, objective political thought. Party members can be as hard on candidates and strategists from their party as they are on others, he says.

As primary day winds down, Crenson prepares to return calls to reporters who tried to reach him while he was out leafleting at the polls. He girds himself for an onslaught of late-night callers asking for analysis of the election results. While he waits for the phone to ring off the hook, he ponders my questions: What makes an expert? And is he unattached politically enough to qualify as one? Crenson laughs, then says that, absent any set of guidelines, news operations likely appreciate the fact that he keeps up on both the issues and the horse race aspect of politics.

"This is more like a hobby than a job," Crenson says. "Some people don't like the fact that I'm involved with politics, but I'm not going to give up politics in order to remain a commentator. People expect a political scientist to be objective, some kind of political eunuch. But most of us got into politics because we love them."

Freelancer Michael Anft writes from Baltimore. This is his first story for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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