Josh Kurtz: What the Heck Just Happened?

Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings

The Maryland Democratic Establishment has taken it on the chin quite a few times in the last few months.

There was Benjamin T. Jealous’ victory over Rushern L. Baker III in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Three elder Baltimore City state senators, including the president pro tem and the chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, were retired by younger challengers in the primary. Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton was ousted by a political unknown named Arthur Ellis in Charles County. And a Democratic Socialist, Marc B. Elrich, is about to take over the state’s largest jurisdiction.

Add to that list the defeat of Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Kathleen Matthews Saturday at the hands of policy consultant and erstwhile gubernatorial contender Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.

Matthews just came off a pretty successful election cycle – stoking the party with campaign cash and a robust ground game for the first time in a long time. This resulted in victories most everywhere on the ballot, except for failing to get rid of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). Matthews lost her job anyway.

In retrospect, it’s hard to see how any Democrat could have beaten Hogan this year, considering his popularity and how skillfully he had positioned himself during his four years as governor. But Matthews paid the price. If ever there was any doubt that these party leadership positions are thankless chores, here it is.

Matthews also paid the price for a multitude of accumulated sins, real and imagined, from the entrenched Democratic leaders who installed her as party chairwoman two years ago. They are slowly seeing their grip on the party apparatus, and all of its governing institutions, loosening. In fact, this was the first truly contested battle for the party gavel that anyone can remember.

Which doesn’t mean that Matthews deserved her fate. She put the party machinery four-square behind Jealous. What she couldn’t do was make the party’s graybeards and moderates warm to a guy who plainly didn’t have much use for them.

That task was made all the harder because Hogan, unlike the white Republicans that the nation’s two other African-American Democratic gubernatorial nominees were facing, was a genial presence and not a local version of Donald Trump, the way Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemp were in Florida and Georgia, respectively. And face it, some leading Democrats in Annapolis and around the state are just going to be more comfortable with a guy like Larry Hogan than with an unknown quantity like Ben Jealous – especially after Republicans so artfully, through millions of dollars of unanswered advertising, cast Jealous as “The Other.”

It wasn’t surprising to see an insurgent challenge to Matthews, fueled by anger over the party establishment’s tepid response to Jealous and its overall unwillingness to let go. But Rockeymoore Cummings – with her Ph.D in political science, plainly politically ambitious, better known in Washington, D.C., than in Maryland and married to a congressman besides, seemed like an unlikely vehicle.

Young activists and party dissidents saw in Rockeymoore Cummings what they wanted to see – a fresh face, a different voice, a new direction. Yet she may prove to be more comfortable with the establishment than the insurgents bargained for.

“I’m planning to build on Kathleen’s legacy,” Rockeymoore Cummings told me in an interview last week.

Party activists had better hope that their new leader is every bit the fundraiser that their deposed leader was. Because money is still a vital building block in the political game – idealistic and highfalutin talk about inclusiveness and progressive ideals notwithstanding.

It’s also noteworthy that five of the eight members of the state party’s new executive board are millennials, led by state Sen.-elect Cory V. McCray of Baltimore City. McCray, ironically, was aligned with Matthews and not Rockeymoore Cummings in the leadership election. But it seems like his political instincts are flawless.

A week or so after Election Day, I wrote that Maryland politics, and by extension, the Democratic Party, was at an inflection point. Saturday’s leadership elections reinforce the narrative.

So a new breed of Democrat is about to take over the state party. They better take advantage of their opportunity. Because there’s no telling if, when and how the empire is going to strike back.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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