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Frank DeFilippo: Maryland’s Black and Blue Politics

Inside and around the Beltway, and far and wide across the country, scorekeepers and other soothsayers are quick to declaim Maryland as among the most redoubtable liberal and reliably Democratic states in America.

The answer is yes, and no.

Frank A. DeFilippo

So how did an anthropologically backwater state earn such a breakout reputation?

Fifty years ago this month, segregation took a day off in the mosaic that is America to mourn the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The respite was brief. It ended sharply with riots that left cities smoldering and sealed off by armed federalized troops.

Today, what was once among the most segregated states in America is now one of the most polychromatic, integrated and Democratic — deep blue in the words of the media cognoscenti.

The advance of civil rights and the ascent of Democrats in Maryland are tightly braided parallel lines.

For in truth, from the early 20th century through the 1960s, Republicans were the dominant liberal force in Maryland because of black allegiance to the party of Lincoln, the unionized miners and railroaders in Western Maryland and the socializing influence of the area’s Republican leader, David Lewis, later a Democratic convert and originator of the Social Security Act.

The hearty band of Republicans in Baltimore added to the GOP’s liberal credentials. Consider this: Barely 50 years ago, Maryland’s public accommodations were off limits to blacks; the nine Eastern Shore counties regularly exempted themselves from any effort to integrate Maryland’s public facilities; black legislators couldn’t stay in hotels or eat in restaurants in the state capital; blacks couldn’t try on clothes in department stores; rest rooms were segregated; riots flashed across the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge; State Police attack dogs snapped at college students demonstrating in Princess Anne because banks refused to process their checks; Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace came within 50,000 votes of defeating presidential proxy Sen. Daniel B. Brewster (D) in 1964, and, in 1972, Wallace even won the state’s presidential primary after being shot on a Laurel parking lot; perennial marplot George P. Mahoney won the 1966 Democratic primary for governor with the campaign slogan “Your home is your castle” — that was widely viewed as racist; no one but property owners could vote in Ocean City; Dunbar High School students were arrested for picketing segregated Chinese restaurants along Baltimore’s Park Ave.; Saturday afternoon drive-bys spotlighted Maryland internationally because restaurants along Route 40 refused to serve African diplomats traveling between Washington and the United Nations in New York; Sam Setta made segregation fashionable at his Easton motel, the Wishing Well, by running for Congress as an ally of George Wallace; and Spiro T. Agnew eased his way into the heart of Richard M. Nixon and the vice presidency by berating black leaders following the riots provoked by the assassination of Dr. King.

Then two historic events occurred.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the first Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Blacks were no longer bound to the party of Lincoln. (The Supreme Court has since eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, leaving states free to adopt their own requirements unless Congress revises and updates the formula for enforcing Title 5 of the Act.)

Maryland has always been among the first to feel the ripples of change because it is joined at the hip with the nation’s capital.

Though Maryland has always been predominately Democratic by heritage and tradition, if not conviction — there have been only four Republican governors since 1950, all except one a single term — the state voted twice for Dwight Eisenhower, once for Richard M. Nixon, and twice for Ronald Reagan, and its most ardently good-government county, Montgomery, where Democrats reign 2-1, has elected only three Democrats to Congress since 1960.

More Democratic than Massachusetts and California

But the velocity of history has an audacious message.

Today, the Maryland of 2018 is arguably among the most liberal and surely the most reliable Democratic states in America, scaling the charts past Irish-pol-cum-academic Massachusetts and mellowed-out California.

Democrats had controlled the State House for 36 consecutive years, and even in electing Republican Agnew in 1966, in a rare aberrational fluke helped by break-away Democrats, the remaining three statewide offices and the General Assembly remained steadfastly in Democratic control.

More recently, the state handed President Donald J. Trump a defeat by 26 points. And before that, George W. Bush lost by 17 points in 2000 and by 11 points in 2004. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama carried Maryland by about 26 points.

Even Maryland’s congressional delegation is divided 7-1, with Democrats on top.

And after that long dry spell, the GOP again seized the moment in another departure from tradition by installing Robert L. Ehrlich only the third Republican governor in 63 years, more by dint of the flawed candidacy of his opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, than any political shift.

And Ehrlich did it with a black understudy, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who provided little help in attracting black votes. (Ehrlich was rebuffed by the voters in 2010 in a comeback attempt to recapture the office he lost to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2006.)

Ditto Gov. Larry Hogan, another Republican who benefited from an inadequate Democratic opponent, Anthony Brown, who recovered and is now a member of Congress. Hogan is in a position to become the first Republican elected to a second term since Theodore R. McKeldin Jr. in 1950. McKeldin was also twice mayor of Baltimore.

Yet even with the election of Republican Hogan, as with Ehrlich and Agnew, the General Assembly and all other statewide offices as well as most major local governments remain nominally Democratic, although Republicans have increased their numbers in local governments as well as in the legislature and hope to multiply again this year.

And Republican cabinets and advisory boards usually have an ample scattering of Democrats. And face it, none can win without a hefty share of Democratic voters.

But registration of Democrats has flatlined at 2.1 million while independents have increased measurably to 704,106 and Republican to a tad above 1 million.

There are now 51 black members of the General Assembly (10 senators, 41 delegates) out of a total of 188, all now living and eating at the same accommodations as their white colleagues in Annapolis; the Maryland Court of Appeals had a black chief judge, the now-retired Robert Bell; a statue of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was once rejected by the University of Maryland Law School because he was black, stands on Lawyers’ Mall at the historic State House, while on the opposite side the statue of Justice Roger B. Taney has been removed; Cambridge is calm and integrated, the state’s anti-miscegenation law has been repealed; the Eastern Shore is now a grudging partner with the rest of Maryland; Prince George’s County is now host to the wealthiest black enclave in America, Mitchellville, as well as the largest minority population — 75.7 percent — in the state; and in 1964, Maryland’s hotels, restaurants, theaters, stores, beaches and other recreational facilities were fully desegregated by the unlikeliest of governors, J. Millard Tawes, of the Eastern Shore’s Somerset County, who had earlier ordered State Police to unleash their dogs on students in his own primeval bog of a county.

Tawes employed a simple stratagem. Under federal pressure, he summoned Eastern Shore lawmakers to his office, one by one, and told them that the U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy — father of Maryland’s former lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend – planned to install U.S. marshals in each of the nine counties unless they desegregated their public establishments.

The eminent pollster of the 1960s and 1970s, Joseph Napolitan, observed at the time that he had conducted polls in every state in the nation and “the Eastern Shore is the most conservative place I’ve seen in America.”

Democratic divisions

Liberal and Democrat are not necessarily interchangeable nouns. But they seem to fit Maryland as a whole, if not many of its independent parts. And as every political hobbyist knows, the new axis of what passes for liberalism in Maryland involves only three of its 24 subdivisions – Baltimore City (with its shrinking population) and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in the Maryland suburbs around the District of Columbia — homes to the bulk of the state’s black population, its army of government workers, many union members and the highest concentration of Ph.D.’s on the planet. Add parts of Howard County and the half of Baltimore County west of Towson and they complete the I-95 corridor’s grip on the state’s Democratic politics.

Put another way, Democrats control population and Republicans dominate geography.

And for good measure, the Maryland General Assembly is far more liberal than the people it represents. And therein lies the tale of Maryland’s evolution, from a benighted conservative state, schizophrenic from the competing tugs of southern traditions and northern allegiances to a progressively liberal Democratic thumb in the eye of Republicans and conservatives on its rural margins. And Democrats may be torn again between the party’s establishment wing and its progressive flank of leftovers from the 2016 presidential agenda of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But the journey owes not so much to street-warrior incendiaries such as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and Gloria Richardson as it does to Republican McKeldin, Lillie May Jackson, of the NAACP, the black pulpits, and, yes, even Baltimore’s legendary black entrepreneur William “Little Willie” Adams, one of the wealthiest blacks in America, who helped to educate promising young blacks and fought for black appointments to high government positions. And yes, a large degree of the transformation traces to the liberal Jews in the General Assembly and in Baltimore’s City Hall as well as the wealthy Jews outside of government who provided financial support to the NAACP in the fight for racial parity. The late political entrepreneur, Irv Kovens, for example, was an early honoree as NAACP man of the year for his checkbook support.

Fifty years ago, the black population of Maryland was 17 percent. Today it is upwards of 29 percent and climbing, the largest black population of any state outside the Deep South. Baltimore City’s black population is 69 percent, due largely to white (as well as middle class black) flight to the surrounding counties. In Prince George’s County, the black population is 74 percent, ever increasing because of the outward movement of blacks from the gentrifying District and employment opportunities with the federal government.

Even xenophobic Montgomery County, tightly zoned in the 1930s to prevent it from developing into the same asphalt meta-maze as neighboring Prince George’s, now has a black population of 18 percent, more than double that of a decade ago. Montgomery’s total minority population is about 50 percent, and the county contains half the state’s Asian (14 percent) and Latino (18 percent) populations. Baltimore County, once one of the most segregated counties in Maryland, contains the largest growth in black population of any non-black county in the nation.

But from Towson east, Baltimore County is Democrat in name only; it votes Republican. Tiny Garrett County, abutting the western flank of Pennsylvania, five decades ago had only six black residents. Today, Garrett’s black population is 1.6 percent.

New arrivals favor Democrats

In 1960, Maryland’s population was 3.6 million. Today, the state’s total population is nearly double that at 6 million, and in addition to Maryland’s high-side of 29 percent black population, 5 percent of its residents are Asian and 8 percent are Hispanic – the fastest growing group in America.

Simply put, the new arrivals tend to favor Democrats, and color is no longer an open issue in mosaic Maryland. It’s a tautology that blacks are fiercely Democratic. So consider it a toothsome twist that the party of Lincoln is now the party of Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton (Bill, not Hillary) and Obama.

Yet it was the cohort of white Maryland Republicans who were under the flag of “Rockefeller Republicans” and were the true civil rights liberals of the era while Democrats had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the movement by federal marshals and legal threats.

Superimpose on the growing black population with its Democratic loyalties the huge government establishment in Maryland. Fully 20 percent – or 472,000 workers – of the total Maryland workforce of 2.4 million are employed by some level of government – federal (225,000), state or local. To eat right, they vote right.

And because Democrats control government in Maryland pretty much across the board, the workforce reflects the political inclinations of the one-party employer. Government employees come in two flavors – civil service or political appointee. The synchronicity tends to be Democratic.

Montgomery County reflects another political anomaly – glandular politics. Because of the Hatch Act, the male of the species who worked for the federal government was prevented from engaging in overt political activity. So the women of the county, both Republican and Democrat, organized and ran county politics while the men were downtown in the District bringing home the pork chop.

Thus, the county has had as many women as men in government at all levels. And the powerhouse in Montgomery County politics was not a mannerly, smoke-free back room but the Women’s Democratic Club.

Finally, while union membership across the country is down measurably, membership is up and growing in service sector unions, especially AFSCME and other government-related unions. Statewide membership in the AFL-CIO is about 350,000, with roughly another 50,000 card-carriers in unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Teachers’ unions remain a force, and one reason Democrats insisted on a “lock-box” constitutional amendment on the November ballot is to draw out a huge vote from unions, teachers, PTAs and friends and supporters of education as part of their anticipated “blue wave” to defeat Hogan.

And through it all, Maryland has been under one-party rule, giving Democrats the power to perpetuate themselves through patronage, redistricting, liberal legislation and total domination of the processes of government.

Maryland is a fairly state — fairly Democratic, and fairly liberal.

And whether the highly touted “blue wave” of Democrats can toss Republican Hogan out of office in November depends on the one question polls can’t determine — voter turnout.


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Frank DeFilippo: Maryland’s Black and Blue Politics