Josh Kurtz: Party on the Left, Party on the Right

Speaker Michael E. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Democratic lawmakers -- and their leadership agenda. File photo

A few minutes after Maryland’s Democratic legislators unveiled a very robust liberal agenda for this year’s General Assembly session on Tuesday, a veteran progressive lawmaker couldn’t contain his excitement – or his amazement.

“I’ve been saying these things for years,” he said. “Just not while standing next to Mike Miller.”

That would be a reference to the state Senate president, the deal-making Southern Maryland gentleman who is not now, nor has he ever been, in his 49 years in public office, anyone’s idea of a full-throated progressive.

But there Miller was, alongside dozens of senators and delegates, vowing to pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and a statewide ban on Styrofoam products, and to create a board to keep prescription drug prices low.

“This is a very progressive package, and we’re going to move people forward,” he said.

The devil is in the details, of course, and there’s no guarantee that liberals will get everything they want when the final versions of these bills start to move. All three measures failed just a year ago.

But if Miller says they’re going to pass, and if House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) says they’re going to pass, they’re going to pass. And Democrats have the votes to override any veto from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

“Guess what – he’s going to have to compromise on working people’s issues,” Miller said of the popular governor.

Pow! We are witnessing, in real time, the transformation of the Maryland General Assembly.

Miller and Busch, the long-serving presiding officers, are nothing if not institutionalists – and moderating forces in their caucuses. They’ve still got their hands on the tiller. And corporate lobbyists still hold plenty of power in the State House. But there’s only one way to steer the ship when the political winds are pulling you portside.

In Miller’s Senate, all but one of the 14 new Democrats are more progressive than their predecessors. In the House, Democrats picked up eight seats, and while most of the newcomers in those districts are moderates, Busch’s caucus overall is younger, more progressive, and more aggressive.

Thus, we have nine sweeping policy priorities for the Democrats, laid out the day before Hogan’s State of the State address – and it’s Day 21 of the legislative session. Busch and Miller held out the possibility that their leadership teams could embrace additional measures as the session progresses – never mind that for rank-and-file Democrats, it’s still full-speed ahead for clean energy mandates, health care reform, more rights for immigrants, legalized marijuana, and greater spending for public schools.

Where it all shakes out is anybody’s guess.

Hogan will outline his top priorities in his speech Wednesday – and he hinted in a national PBS broadcast taped Monday night that his agenda will include an unspecified tax cut, something he has longed to offer Marylanders since he took office four years ago. Any tax cut proposal will no doubt be cheered lustily by Republican lawmakers – and remember, the House GOP last week proposed a one-quarter percent reduction in the state income tax.

But while the loudest cheers for Hogan are certain to come from the Republican legislators crowded into the House chamber Wednesday afternoon, the relationship between Hogan and the rest of the GOP is undeniably changing.

The very fact that House Republicans put out their own agenda, before Hogan released his – one that probably won’t entirely be in sync with his – was significant. So is the fact that – based on the record he amassed in his first term and rhetoric he employed on the campaign trail and since – Hogan has proven to be far more moderate than his Republican brethren. Now that he’s out on a limb as critic of President Trump and has staked his national reputation on preaching bipartisanship, he isn’t likely to shift back to the right.

Some Republicans are privately wondering whether Hogan will risk any of his substantial political capital to advance any conservative causes. And what do they think about Hogan’s flirtation with a presidential bid, however ephemeral and possibly manufactured by others it may be?

More than three-quarters of Maryland Republicans approved of the job Trump is doing in the latest Gonzales poll, taken Dec. 28-Jan. 4. So that puts Hogan squarely at odds with the base of his party.

In unveiling the House GOP agenda last week, Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said Republican lawmakers were “in awe” of Hogan’s election in 2014 and “joyful” that he had won a second term. But is Hogan returning the love?

Asked, during the PBS broadcast, in which he was interviewed with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), whether there has ever been internecine warfare within the Maryland GOP, Hogan joked that the party here is too small for there to be any kind of internal debate.

“I just argue with myself,” he said.

That may have just been a snappy line for a national TV audience. But it suggests that Hogan, as he turns his attention to his upcoming gig as chairman of the National Governors Association and to any shadow presidential politicking he may want to do, isn’t thinking too much about his Republican friends back home in Annapolis.

As Maryland Matters reported the other day, Republicans are already planning ahead for the next Hogan-free elections. So the political terrain, in both parties, is shifting before our very eyes – with profound policy implications for the future. It will first play out over the next 69 days of this legislative session.

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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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