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Government & Politics

Progressive Group Maryland Working Families Is Retooling

Jay Hutchins, the outgoing director of Maryland Working Families.

Maryland Working Families, the offshoot of the national Working Families Party, which arrived here with great fanfare more than five years ago, is retooling.

Some people who have worked with the progressive organization are suggesting that Maryland Working Families is on the verge of disbanding – or is at least scaling back dramatically. MWF’s executive director, Jay Hutchins, is departing in a matter of days.

But Hutchins and another Working Families Party leader say the group is committed to Maryland and is working on its next iteration.

“There’s a desire to build a Working Families 2.0, and that will have various adjustments throughout the entire organization,” Hutchins said.

The realignment of Maryland Working Families coincides with a change of leadership at the national organization. Maurice “Moe” Mitchell, formerly a top leader at Movement for Black Lives, took over the 20-year-old New York-based organization last summer. But what the emerging national leadership team means for Maryland – or in the 15 other states where the group has a presence – isn’t altogether clear.

“We are currently developing a new strategic plan and restructuring our operations in Maryland, with a focus on deepening our grassroots organizing, volunteer mobilization and leadership development capacities,” Joe Dinkin, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement provided to Maryland Matters.

Certainly, there has been evidence of Maryland Working Families’ activism in recent legislative sessions and during the 2018 political campaign. The group fought for earned sick leave and the $15-an-hour minimum wage, and just last week it joined 10 other progressive groups on a letter urging Democrats in the House of Delegates to support the choice of the Democratic caucus when the House selects a new speaker next week.

Working Families also helped progressive candidates, including gubernatorial contender Benjamin T. Jealous, in last year’s Democratic primary.

“The Working Families Party is about building a nation that works for the many, not just the few,” Dinkin said. “We’re proud of our work in Maryland, including helping to win policies that are transforming people’s lives, like a $15 minimum wage and paid sick days, and electing progressive champions to office that put the people before the powerful. We’re eager to build on that success.”

Working Families arrived in Maryland in 2014, backed by labor unions, community organizations and other progressive groups. Its arrival in Maryland came at the same time the national group hired Valerie Ervin, the former Montgomery County Councilmember, to be the head of the Center for Working Families, an affiliated national advocacy organization.

For a time, Working Families was seen as a potential rival to the older group Progressive Maryland, and it appeared initially to have more firepower – at least for a while. But the groups struck an alliance and have pursued similar agendas – and enjoyed overlapping benefactors.

“We continue to have a very strong and close relationship with the Maryland Working Families organization,” said Larry Stafford, the executive director of Progressive Maryland. “They’re great allies and partners of ours.”

Still, one Maryland union leader familiar with the work of Maryland Working Families said the organization was the victim of infighting among certain groups on the left, and also faced funding challenges.

“Working Families had the potential to be a progressive leader,” the union official said. “There were too many egos involved, and folks couldn’t work together.”

One segment of the organization’s portfolio, to train progressive activists and potential political candidates, was spun off last year into an organization called Step Up Maryland, headed by Charly Carter, who had been Maryland Working Families’ first leader.

The Working Families Party started in New York two decades ago, largely funded by the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 and other unions, to pressure Democratic candidates and leaders to pursue a progressive agenda. In New York, Working Families was set up as a political party, and because parties in the Empire State are allowed to cross-endorse candidates, Working Families’ ballot line became a prize for many Democrats – and leverage for unions and their progressive allies that doesn’t quite exist in Maryland.

For example, in the 2018 New York gubernatorial election, Gov. Andrew Cuomo received more than 3.2 million votes on the Democratic line, but an additional 114,000 votes on the Working Families line. As of Feb. 1, there were more than 46,000 New York voters who had registered as members of the Working Families Party.

Some Maryland progressive leaders have speculated that Maryland Working Families may begin to look more like the group — an organization that mobilizes its members through online campaigns. But Dinkin, the national spokesperson, said that won’t be the case.

“You can count on us to continue to be a home for progressive political action in Maryland and working to recruit, train and elect the next generation of progressive leaders around the state,” he said.

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Progressive Group Maryland Working Families Is Retooling