Why did Maryland reward left campaigns?

July 31, 2018

Jonah ben Avraham analyzes last month’s primary victories for a number of progressive Democrats in Maryland — and looks at what they tell us about national trends.

ON THE same night as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York, Maryland Democrats from the progressive wing of their party were celebrating their own slew of upset victories.

In the race that received the most national attention, former NAACP leader Ben Jealous won the Democratic nomination for governor on a platform of Medicare for All and significant spending increases for Maryland’s broken public education system.

Though Jealous was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, he steered clear of the socialist label embraced by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. A former partner at the tech investment firm Kapor Capital, Jealous frequently declared on the campaign trail that Republicans will “call me a socialist, but I’m a venture capitalist.”

But Jealous ran a left campaign, including a proposal for tuition-free college funded by ending mass incarceration. He represented a clearly progressive alternative to his more centrist opponent Rushern Baker.

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous
Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

Jealous touted endorsements from Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party (WFP), as well as teachers’ and nurses’ unions, the environmental justice group 350.org and the immigrant advocacy organization CASA in Action — not to mention a Who’s Who of Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential race from around the country.

After the primary, a few dozen current and former Democratic officeholders announced their endorsement of Jealous’ Republican opponent, incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan.

These “Democrats for Hogan, who the Washington Post noted are “mostly older, mostly white and mostly male,” hail mainly, though not exclusively, from Republican-controlled areas of the state. It remains to be seen whether these right-wing Democrats will have in impact on the governor’s race.

WHILE JEALOUS’ primary victory got all the national attention, the bigger stories for grassroots activists might have taken place further down the ballot in the state legislative races.

Larry Hogan is a centrist Republican who is campaigning as a moderate, able to work well with the Democrats who run the state legislature. This claim is possible thanks to the state Democratic political machine run by Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker of the House Mike Busch.

These two make sure that nearly every vote allowed to come to the floor in the state Capitol has been carefully curated by the party establishment. In the 2018 legislative session alone, battles on migrant justice, criminal justice reform, climate justice and others were lost, thanks to the machinations of “the Mikes” and their supporters.

After the primary, though, this has all been shaken up.

In the Senate, four of Miller’s top lieutenants, including two committee chairs and the senate President pro tempore, have been unseated by younger challengers from the left.

Bobby Zirkin — another Miller collaborator and committee chair who activists have labeled a “barrier to racial justice in Maryland” — was able to win, but got a scare after his opponent climbed, just in a matter of weeks, from polling at 6 percent to getting almost 30 percent of the vote.

On the House side, results were more mixed, but Joe Vallario, a notoriously curmudgeonly Judiciary committee chair, was unseated.

The overhaul in the Maryland state Senate has the potential to put a serious dent in the Democratic machine’s stranglehold over politics in Annapolis. Policies that previously have been declared dead on arrival for the Democratic Party establishment, like greater protection for undocumented immigrants and a $15 an hour minimum wage, may have new life with so many establishment figures gone.

THESE PROGRESSIVE primary victories were made possible by the role played by unions and liberal organizations that are closely connected to, but distinct from, the Democratic Party itself.

The Senate upsets, for instance, would have been unthinkable without the Take a Hike Mike campaign launched by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500, which sought to unseat not only Senate President Miller, but each of his lieutenants across the state.

Jealous himself ran a campaign that disappointed many liberal supporters. He underperformed in debates and failed to show up for a number of Baltimore campaign appearances. But he was carried to victory almost entirely by the grassroots infrastructure of unions, the WFP and groups like CASA in Action.

Because of the absence of a credible grassroots left in Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, the organizations with the largest base are not mass grassroots organizations, but NGOs — which are tied, to a greater or lesser extent, to the Democratic Party’s electoral machine.

This is a dangerously weak foundation for anyone who wants to buils independent social power to hold the new legislatures accountable.

The Maryland state legislature is no stranger to “social justice” lawmakers who champion good bills, but almost invariably fall in line behind the old guard.

Such was the case earlier this year when a reactionary series of crime laws backed by Zirkin, which double down on harsh sentencing and mass incarceration, were passed with the support of prominent, self-identified reformers in the statehouse like Susan Lee, Will Smith and David Moon.

If the left learned anything from the experience of fighting the crime bill, it is that a politician’s progressive history and rhetoric can’t substitute for mass people power to fight the pressure that comes from party leaders — and donors — to go along.

MEANWHILE, THE Green Party in Baltimore City is positioning itself to wreak havoc on a Democratic Party establishment in crisis.

With more candidates for state legislative office than the party has run in over a decade, several with viable paths to victory, the Baltimore Greens have a realistic chance to become a political force not just in the realm of social movements, but also in official politics.

Green activists Glenn Ross and Andy Ellis, for example, could win their bids to unseat a pair of pro-corporate Democratic incumbents in the state House of Delegates. With Greens already pulling double-digit support from the district, and a delegate election system more hospitable to third-party challenges than most other seats, they are real contenders.

Joshua Harris, another Green candidate for state delegate, got 10 percent of the vote in the 2016 Baltimore mayoral election.

The encouraging strength of these independent campaigns, as well as the more prominent victories of progressives running on the Democratic Party ballot line, is creating alarm among the Democratic establishment — but hope for the socialist left.

The story in Maryland shows that while there are some unique features to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking primary victory in New York, her success is related to wider trends taking place across the country, with or without the involvement of socialist organizations and candidates.

Political polarization is causing a leftward shift among the Democratic Party base, which — after several years of fits and starts — may lead to a serious shakeup among Democratic officeholders, at least in this state.

Whether this shift translates into real reforms, however, clearly depends on the work of organizers outside the political establishment.

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