Opinion: An Opportunity to Change Party Politics in Md.

Franca Muller Paz on the campaign trail. Campaign photo.

During the first 105 years (1827–1932), the Maryland Democratic Party was a far right party that protected the rights of white, straight, U.S. born landholding men above everyone else’s. It was founded to further the politics of President Andrew Jackson  —  who committed genocide against Indigenous people in order to expand the enslavement of Black people  —  a right-wing populist with a base of white working class men.

Through epochal shifts in national history, the Maryland Democratic Party remained an overtly white supremacist institution well into the 20th Century.

During the next five decades (1932–1982), much of the rest of the Democratic Party outside the Deep South swung toward the center-left social democracy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but dominant Maryland Democrats behaved much more like the Southern Jim Crow Dixiecrats than the Northern labor-immigrant or Western populist-farmer Democrats. They had a monopoly on politics in the Old Line State and saw little reason to change how they did business, and so the New Deal in Maryland was not as fully implemented by conservative anti-labor Democrats at the municipal, state, and federal levels here as it was in other states.

When the national Democratic Party swung back toward the center-right (on a global scale) during the “Reagan Revolution” and Clintonian “Third Way” wave (1982–2017), the Maryland Democrats were right at home, having never swung much to the center-left during the New Deal or Great Society years to begin with.

It was during these years, when the conservatism of the Maryland Democratic Party was bolstered by the rightward turn of the national Democratic Party, that leaders of the generation just now being pushed by the new guard to relinquish their grip came into power. Their ascent during this assault on progressivism shaped their politics and left an indelible mark on Maryland.

Since 2016, and in a less concerted way since the 1960s, some rank and file and elected Maryland Democrats have tried to push the Maryland Democratic Party and its leadership toward the center-left. And indeed there have been some victories here, just as there have been on the national level, even if they have garnered outsized attention by traditional and social media catering to news consumers hungry for hope.

But at the federal level, the all-male Maryland congressional delegation is still controlled by moderates like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and senior Sen. Ben Cardin.

At the state level, a changing of the guard did take place within the Maryland General Assembly last year. Senate President Mike Miller —  the longest reigning state legislative leader in the country  —  stepped down and Sen. Bill Ferguson was elevated to the post.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) offer support for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform bill during a hearing in February. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A power struggle in the lower chamber resulted in the elevation of Del. Adrienne Jones to succeed the late Mike Busch as House speaker. However, a session cut short this year by COVID-19 obscured the extent to which the change in faces represents continuity or change in the ideology of the body.

Whether a coalition of younger progressives and older progressives (who themselves have tried, and largely failed, to move the party left, even relative to other state parties, for decades) will gain the upper hand remains to be seen. While one of these relative progressives, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2018, moderates in his own party abandoned him to curry favor with the Republican incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan, an alignment which may be a sign of things to come as much as it is a reflection of the Maryland Democratic Party’s history of moderation.

A few leftists have broken through at the municipal and state levels, but there are no members of “The Squad” in Maryland’s all-male congressional delegation. At the state level, with few exceptions, progressive Democrats do not chair powerful committees, and even where changes have been made by Senate President Ferguson and House Speaker Jones, transformative results have not yet materialized.

Progressive Democrats who have won power on the municipal level, such as Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, have just as often tacked to the right, disappointing the coalitions that put them in power while practicing the art of saying a lot to their bases without doing much of substance for them. Across the state, business interests maintain the upper hand over labor, facilitated by a bought and bossed Democratic Party almost as much as by Governor Hogan’s Republican administration.

As co-chair of the Baltimore City Green Party and the communications director for the Franca Muller Paz Baltimore City Council campaign, respectively, we believe the best way to hold the Maryland Democratic Party accountable to the left-wing of its own base is to build the Maryland Green Party in a way that straddles the left inside of it, while bringing people to the left of it ideologically and below it on a grass-roots level into the electoral process.

This work has yielded some small affirmations over the last four years, including the defection of outgoing state Del. Shane Robinson to the Green Party to become the first Green in the General Assembly in 2018, the election of the Rev. Annie Chambers to the HUD Resident Advisory Board in Baltimore City in 2017, new electoral highwater marks in the 2016, 2018, and 2020, and increasing influence in both legislative advocacy and grass-roots community organizing.

Paz and reflect

This year, we demonstrated what grass-roots community organizers are capable of in the electoral arena against all odds. Running Franca Muller Paz in District 12 led to the Baltimore City Green Party’s best showing yet in a City Council race.

Not only did this campaign manage to raise nearly $130,000 (over 10% of which came from Green parties and members) from over 1,400 individual donors, but she was endorsed by the Baltimore Metro AFL-CIO Council, the first time a Green candidate has earned this consequential support from organized labor. At least 300 volunteers donated their time and skills to the campaign at some point during its 107 days.

As of the latest count, 4,571 or 35.8% of people in Baltimore’s District 12 voted for her, the best showing by a non-Democrat in a partisan municipal race in the city since Theodore McKeldin returned to the mayoralty after a term as governor in 1962 (go back a couple decades more to find a comparable non-Democratic City Council campaign).

Even though we fell short, the emergence of the Green Party as the second party has changed the political landscape of Baltimore City. Thousands of voters were willing to join this coalition and set aside political affiliation because of what this campaign stood for, and that is a success in itself.

In a majority Democratic city in a solid blue state, most voters write off the general election as a done deal. Franca Muller Paz’s Green campaign made this general election matter. People who were otherwise disillusioned with the political process were activated and in turn inspired others to fight for structural change in Baltimore.

The campaign did bring tangible benefits to people across East and north-central Baltimore. Over 13,000 pieces of PPE were distributed door-to-door, weekly stoop concerts brought much-needed music and beauty to neighbors withstanding the bleakest of times, and a weekly food give-away program was initiated in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store.

Despite a campaign that was unprecedented both in method and outcome, Baltimore City Hall remains under one party control. With Muller Paz’s historic run, however, the Green Party has laid a strong foundation to return multi-party democracy to Baltimore in future cycles.

In running a grass-roots campaign built around direct mutual aid and community organizing, we proved that the left can do more with less, and in doing so address the root causes of the problems we face. The Franca for the People campaign brought people together in a long-divided city.

All of this was done under the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. This no doubt had a negative impact on grass-roots organizers locally as it did around the country. It delayed the start of door knocking, shuttered neighborhood polling sites, and caused more Baltimoreans than ever to focus on meeting their basic needs rather than achieving dearly needed structural change.

But the pandemic, like all crises, clarified as much as it disrupted. It has highlighted racist, classist, and ableist systems in place in Baltimore with a severity comparable in recent history only to the Baltimore Uprising in 2015.

Black and Latinx people bear the brunt of the pandemic as those most likely to be essential workers who are put at risk for profit or out of service every day. In this moment, we see an opportunity to enact a vision in which the racial makeup of your zip code does not determine your health and economic outcomes.

Realizing this vision for social justice is carried out by challenging the powers that be, being unrelenting in our activism, and building alternative structures outside the two corporate-funded political parties.

As we continue to crawl our way out of this public health crisis, we have a lot of battles left ahead of us. A new BRESCO incinerator contract was just signed by unelected outgoing Mayor Young, one of many current establishment officials to try and stop the momentum of the left.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

In a city with some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country, this unconscionable decision shows that there needs to be an opposition to the Democratic Party in Baltimore that will hold feet to the fire when elected officials put private profit before the people’s interests. Only then can we ensure that the advances made by activists fighting for racial, environmental, and social justice cannot be undone by the interests of developers and establishment politicians.

This is not an easily or readily achievable work, but it is necessary work; Baltimore cannot afford more of the same.

Just as it took several decades to build a viable abolitionist party in the mid-19th Century, and a viable socialist party in the early 20th, it will take a third decade for the Maryland Green Party to reach political maturity; Maryland, as history shows, has not been fertile ground for any party except one.

Hegemony, however, often works in surprising ways. In 2027, the Maryland Democratic Party will turn 200 years old. Certainly, it is impossible to predict how the first years of the ’20s will transpire. Global and national trends outside any individual or group’s control will shape events during the next decade in unknowable ways, few more so than demands for racial, immigrant, and climate justice.

But people and groups whose strategies and values align with those trends stand to benefit from them more than those at odds with them in a potentially groundbreaking manner. Setting aside a flash of elite progressive “good government” reformers within the Maryland Republican Party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the recent limited inroads of progressive Democrats, the state has never had a left electoral party in government. It has never had grass-roots empowered left parties integral to the history of other states, such as the early and radical abolitionist Republicans of the Upper Midwest, or the Populist Party of the Plains and Rockies, or the Socialist Party of the big northern cities.

The absence of counter-hegemonic parties in Maryland that were so present during key historical periods in other states has had a profoundly conservative effect on the Maryland Democratic Party, as it has only ever had to contest the center-right suburbs and never worry that its left base will be disloyal; for with whom would they even so much as flirt, until now?

A new struggle of ideas

Has the wealth of Maryland soil finally been depleted so much by 200 years of nearly uninterrupted Democratic rule, more devastating in few places than in Baltimore  —  which hasn’t had a non-Democrat on the Council in nearly 90 years  —  as to be ready to be overturned and refreshed by a new struggle of ideas?

The viability of the third party project in Maryland remains to be seen as much as the viability of the attempted left-wing take over of the Maryland Democratic Party. Both approaches have been tried and failed before. But these strategies work best in tandem, and the next decade may well be the first time in state history they dovetail here.

The dovetailing of the growing strength of the Maryland Green Party and the internal left wing of Maryland Democratic Party gives hope that by the time the state’s Democratic Party turns 200 in seven years — when the Maryland Green Party turns 26 — we will have achieved a truer democracy, a more just society, a Maryland Green New Deal, and a more peaceful Baltimore.

That’s something both factions can, and hopefully will work toward. Divisions over tactics  —  and party politics is nothing if not tactical  —  have long divided the left, while the divergent corporate, religious, hawkish, and white supremacist elements of the American right never more successfully put aside tactical and ideological differences in the name of power as they did when the Trump campaign gained momentum in the spring of 2016 and throughout the ensuing tragedy of his now thankfully defeated administration.

The future of our state, and our country, depends largely on the left’s willingness and ability to similarly set aside differences, but instead of working toward the lost cause of a fading white and male dominated society, we must instead get to work for the greater collective good of the emerging new plurality: young people, Black, Indigenous, and people of color, queers, immigrants, and an awakening working class.

Let us not miss this historic moment, when the momentum and interests of the left within and outside the Democratic Party are so aligned and the stakes are so high. If we fail, we may not have much of a country, much less a state, left 200 years from now. If we succeed, we can remake Maryland politics in ways currently so hard but so necessary to imagine.

There is much work to do. Let’s build coalitions capable of doing that work.

— ANDREW ENEIM AND OWEN S. ANDREWS

Andrew Eneim is a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and former communications director for the Franca Muller Paz campaign. Owen S. Andrews is co-chair of the Baltimore City Green Party.