Frank DeFilippo: The Democrats’ Paradox

Here’s the Democrats’ paradox going into the general election: The party’s oligarchs set up the vote but the voters nominated the wrong candidate. They sent to the November ballot the constitutional amendment on education funding that was designed to produce an outpouring of parents, teachers and school administrators that would help create the “blue wave” configured to replace Republican Gov. Larry Hogan with a Democrat. The Democrat was supposed to be Rushern Baker, the term-limited executive of Prince George’s County and the Democratic establishment’s favorite son. Instead, they got Ben Jealous, a brash newcomer with bold, expensive ideas and an impressive introduction for a tenderfoot politician. Jealous won by 10 points and carried all but two counties. Besides, redistricting is a top priority immediately following the 2020 census, and the next governor will wield a strategic mouse at the computer when redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries. (The Supreme Court ducked the issue of partisan redistricting in Maryland and three other states during its recently concluded session.) Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden gave a full-throated endorsement to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Benjamin T. Jealous on Saturday evening. But other establishment Democrats may have mixed feelings about Jealous as their nominee. Photo by Genevieve Kurtz  Now the conundrum is, who’d be the better working partner – a new Democrat who represents growing minority populations, or the entrenched Republican, who might try to place Maryland in the hands of three or four like-minded Andy Harrises (the extreme conservative, Rep. Andy Harris, who’s comfortable representing that primeval bog, known as the Eastern Shore of Maryland.) So, the question is: Can the mainstream Democrats who supported Baker coexist for the next four months (and perhaps beyond) with Jealous, an avowed progressive and partisan of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and whose campaign is underwritten by wealthy lefties and labor unions that advocate drastic social change at a time when unions are nearly powerless and are rapidly being decertified by the courts and the Trump administration? The shorthand answer is, of course, that a surface accommodation will be very much in evidence. Jealous is the new titular head of the Democratic Party, after all, with a 10-point victory margin as his calling card, and his understudy, Susan Turnbull, is the party’s former chairwoman. Already, though, another partial answer is in the margins, a short-list of sclerotic Democrats – whose last names should be “Who?” to a new generation – has given its imprimatur to Hogan. Anybody remember former Lite Gov. Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg? Or Former House Speaker Clayton R. Mitchell? The primary election results are a literal example of what that flank of the party can deliver for its designated crown prince. But behind the placid façade, the intensity of support and the depth of commitment just might fall short of true and permanent romance. Many of the issues near and dear to Jealous’ heart, i.e., the $15 minimum wage, have been through the State House sausage grinder numerous times and are no more appealing upon return and another crank of the machine. It’s also a matter of legislative fact that issues such as those Jealous is proposing tend to become, upon repetition and reintroduction, more mainstream ideas than radical invention. And much of what Jealous is talking up has been around for a couple of elections cycles and has caught a tailwind going into the 2019 General Assembly session, though they seem more suited to national action. Even Hogan is agreeable to limited free college tuition. Consider the alternative. Hogan’s been around for a full term and is very much a given quantity. He’s an affable fellow who gets along with everyone, and he has an approval rating in the 70s to underline the point. (Remember, former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. enjoyed a 55 percent approval rating and lost in 2006 nonetheless.) But the nonsense you’ll be hearing about bipartisanship over the next few months is baloney. Hogan has proven to be a nimble politician. He’s bipartisan when it serves his purposes and he’s as partisan as any Republican hack when he chooses to be. For example, the number of his vetoes that have been overridden is staggering. Recall, too, that Hogan initially won the governorship by attacking Democrats and high taxes. And already he’s repeating the refrain against former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and taxes. It is no mystery that comings-and-goings alter the appropriation of power in the State House. Right now, the two Mikes – Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) – rule the roost under a Republican governor. Do they have any less power than they did under Democrat O’Malley? Yes, and no. With Hogan in the governor’s seat, Mike and Mike pretty much call the shots and set the agenda. Under O’Malley, for example, the tone and the tactic were directed from the governor’s office. So, if it weren’t for the pesky issue of redistricting, arrangements and comfort levels might continue to exist just as they are, all under cover of bipartisanship, of course.  Frank A. DeFilippo  Demography is destiny. There’s also an abundance of speculation that Miller’s effectiveness and control were blunted by the loss of many loyalists from his leadership team. Their replacements are young Turks who’re the products of generational and geographic change. The legislative process has a way of dealing with arrivals and departures, too. Countless upstarts have arrived in the State House, determined to upend its traditions and remake the hallowed system. Miller is a skilled chessmaster at applying the lubricants that come with his job as well as the humbling moves that offenders display like dunce caps. There has also been revolutionary talk about challenging Miller’s leadership role. As they say in Annapolis, anyone with an idea about shooting the king had best make sure they don’t miss. The last person to challenge Miller was former Sen. Thomas Bromwell (D), of Baltimore County, who spent the rest of his career in an isolation tank. As for the House, Mike Busch’s leadership team is nearly intact and the House has undergone only routine turnover. He lost mainly the crusty veteran, Del. Joseph Vallario, chairman of the Judiciary Committee from Prince George’s County. The Busch method is to absorb nearly every member into the leadership to one degree or another. Titles of different rank and degrees of removal are dispensed, creating an abundance of assistants, assistants-to and deputies. Hogan has proven to be a resilient politician and campaigner. Already he has branded Jealous as a candidate with little on his mind but high taxes. And the Maryland Republican Party sent out an email just after the primary election warning of a “socialist” takeover of the state if Jealous is elected. And Jealous, for his part, must execute a delicate dance to satisfy both his progressive followers as well as trenchermen and the mainstream base of the Democratic Party and the overall electorate. He must moderate his rhetoric without compromising his views if he is to broaden his appeal beyond the blue streak called I-95. The so-called blue wave is a figure of speech for a massive turnout of Democratic voters. Whether it materializes is anybody’s guess. The two elements of any election that polls can’t project are weather and the size of the voter turnout. No question that voters have a stark choice – a Republican who survives by understanding that the best way to beat Democrats is to act like one, and the former head of the NAACP who represents the Democratic Party and whose agenda signifies the changing face of America. They are itching for a fight. The November turnout – the size, coloration and degree of outrage – may have as much to do with the nefarious goings-on in Washington and the Trump administration and the spill-over into Maryland as any issue riling the state. Will the right intention help the wrong candidate?

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

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