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Is the Legislature Becoming Too Much Like Congress?

Photo illustration by Maryland Matters.

Three times this General Assembly session, the top Democrat in the Maryland Senate, President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), visited a Senate Republican Caucus meeting.

The gesture was highly appreciated — and senators from both parties say they cannot imagine a similar scene taking place 31 miles to the west, in the U.S. Capitol.

“We have a very good working relationship,” said Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel).

“It’s such a contrast from what you see at the federal level,” Ferguson agreed.

And yet despite the good will, many lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of the legislature believe the State House is becoming an increasingly partisan place.

That’s an inescapable conclusion: Moderate state legislators in both parties are quickly disappearing. Party-line votes on many high-profile bills are now commonplace. Rhetoric during floor debates in both the House and Senate has become increasingly heated and caustic. And relationships within the General Assembly have been shaped to a degree by the fact that a Republican governor has been trying to co-exist with a legislature dominated by Democratic supermajorities for the past seven years.

The partisan animus spilled out in a dramatic way on the floor of the House of Delegates Saturday afternoon as lawmakers debated a heavily amended bill on judicial pensions. While Republicans questioned the substance of the amendments, they homed in on the way the changes were made, accusing Democrats of employing underhanded tactics and operating behind their backs to help a privileged few.

“What kind of political party thinks it’s OK to interfere with the basic tenets of democracy, which is transparency?” thundered Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert). “The Democrat Party is saying the rule book doesn’t matter.”

As he has more than a few times this legislative session, House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) rose to try to diffuse the tensions.

“We’ve all witnessed in recent years a rising tide of vicious partisanship in this country,” he began. “And I don’t think it serves the state of Maryland well.”

Luedtke urged lawmakers to limit their arguments to the merits of the legislation they’re debating — and not impugn the motives of their colleagues.

“This is not totalitarianism,” he said. “This is a disagreement. And we can have disagreements and not be angry at each other and not insult each other.” He concluded by saying the goal of Maryland legislators ought to be “showing America how a reasoned debate should be done.”

Luedtke’s words mollified Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) — who a night earlier had suggested the House was becoming “a banana republic” — but only up to a point.

“I brag often, at home and on TV and on the radio at how well we get along, how we are not Washington,” she said. But the partisanship, Szeliga argued, has gotten worse.

“It looks like we’re going back to the bad old days,” she said.

Political moderates: A vanishing breed

Actually, the “bad old days,” from a partisan standpoint, may not have been so bad.

The General Assembly has almost always had robust Democratic majorities. But until recently, moderate and conservative Democrats held sway.

Before 2020, the Senate for 33 years was run by Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a centrist Democrat from Southern Maryland. His predecessor as Senate president, Melvin A. “Mickey” Steinberg, of Baltimore County, is so conservative he has endorsed Republicans for governor since 1998 (for 2022, he has endorsed Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, a Democrat).

The House was run from 1987 to 2003 by two conservative rural Democrats, speakers R. Clayton Mitchell and Casper R. Taylor Jr. Taylor’s successor, the late Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County started in politics as a pro-business moderate, though he moved to the left during his time as speaker.

Over the past two dozen years, both chambers have had many powerful moderate and conservative Democratic committee chairs from rural and suburban areas, like Walter M. Baker, Thomas L. Bromwell, Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton and Edward J. Kasemeyer in the Senate; and Ronald A. Guns, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., John F. Wood Jr. and Norman H. Conway in the House.

Republicans, too, had their share of influential moderates in the State House during this period, likes Sens. Howard A. Denis, Vernon F. Boozer, John A. Cade, Robert R. Neall and Jean W. Roesser and Dels. Jean B. Cryor, Richard A. LaVay and Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (the latter currently secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources).

Both the Republican caucuses in the Senate and House have moved steadily to the right since the late 1990’s — and more recently, the Democratic caucuses have moved steadily to the left. Since the 2018 election, 16 new Democrats have entered the state Senate — half the Democratic caucus. With the exception of one, all the new senators are as liberal or more so than their predecessors.

“They took a lot of moderates out of the Senate,” said Simonaire.

Today, there are very few ideological centrists left in the General Assembly: no more than half a dozen in the Senate (including one or two Republicans) and perhaps another handful in the House (no Republicans).

“I think a lot of the people whose voices have been really squashed are the moderate Democrats who aren’t allowed to stand up and say anything anymore,” Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Harford), said in an interview.You know, they’ve just been shamed into staying silent on issues that they personally care about.”

Some Democrats are unapologetic about the ideological change — but throw the same charge back at Republicans.

“The opposition is right, it’s a little more progressive,” said Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles), who ousted the moderate Middleton in a 2018 Democratic primary that had racial and ideological overtones. “Personally, I’m happy about it. But also Republicans have chosen to become more vocally conservative.”

The occupant of the governor’s office has also set the tone in Annapolis.

Gubernatorial elections since 1994 have also become more competitive in the state — and Republicans have won three out of the last five. In 2003, then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took office following eight years as a GOP foot soldier in an increasingly polarized U.S. House of Representatives. He thought he could succeed because he had been friends with several Democrats when he served in the legislature, but he never worked those relationships very hard as governor and Democrats had other ideas.

The relationship between the current Republican governor, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., and Democratic lawmakers has been complex, to say the least — all the more so due to Hogan’s enduring popularity with the voters and his efforts to portray himself as a bipartisan consensus-builder. With rare exceptions, Hogan’s highly-hyped bipartisanship is harder to see the closer one gets to the Annapolis sausage-making.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City), the longest-serving current lawmaker in the General Assembly, said he sees the recent complaints by Democratic county executives that Hogan hasn’t consulted them on key COVID-19 decisions part of pattern of disrespect toward Democrats emanating from the governor’s office under Hogan.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s déjà vu all over again,” Rosenberg said.

‘The bleed-over from the national environment’

But no matter what happens in the State House, the political discourse in Annapolis is determined to a degree by what happens at the national level, where partisan divisions have become ever more toxic. As partisanship in Congress rises, state legislators will inevitably follow.

“I think it’s just the bleed-over from the national environment,” said Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard).

Lam said that as media coverage of state and local government diminishes, voters are taking their political cues exclusively from coverage of national politics — which is increasingly more ideologically fragmented.

“The national dialogue drives the electorate and we respond to that dialogue, too,” he said.

Two Democrats — Baltimore County Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a veteran moderate, and Baltimore City Sen. Mary L. Washington, a leading progressive — said they see Republican tactics on the Senate floor as mostly performative, while at the committee level, lawmakers from both parties are still rolling up their sleeves and trying to work together.

“I don’t think it’s more partisan, but I think the partisan opposition is more organized,” Washington observed.

“The fights are on the floor, but the work is still being done,” Klausmeier said, though she conceded: “It’s not as congenial as it was before.”

Many lawmakers — some Democrats, but especially Republicans — say the abrupt change in management in both legislative chambers has also changed the partisan tone in Annapolis. Busch and Miller were long-serving presiding officers who worked hard to maintain a dialogue with Republican leaders. Their respective successors, Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) are still finding their way and developing their own leadership styles.

Ferguson, when seeking comity on the Senate floor, sometimes invokes a phrase that Miller often used, and that he hopes his colleagues will understand: “This is the Senate of Maryland.”

And Jones, after one particularly brutish floor fight, recently admonished: “I’m asking each and every one of you — and that’s both parties — to be respectful of one another. We want to leave here Sine Die telling our constituents that we did some great things.”

‘We actually think we’re providing moderation to the Senate’

But there’s no doubt that the ideological poles in both the Senate and House are shifting.

Ferguson is a young, urban progressive — a stark contrast to Miller, who was 40 years his senior. Jones is less vocally ideological, but as the first woman and first African-American to serve as speaker she is invariably going to have a different set of priorities than all her white male predecessors.

This session, legislative leaders have attempted to respond to the year-long public health crisis from COVID-19, which has exposed and reinforced inequities in every element of society. They’ve also tried to meet the moment on racial justice and policing with a sweeping police reform legislative package, and they are starting to address the long-term crisis of climate change.

Luedtke, the House majority leader, credits Jones and the Democratic caucus for making these legislative initiatives their priorities, but said they were also reacting to the demands of the electorate.

“A lot of that is that the people have provided us with these issues,” he said.

Republicans sense opportunity in these legislative and political developments.

Fisher, the pugilistic Calvert County Republican, said the Democratic agenda is turning off rural voters.

“Really this session has been like O’Malley 3.0 because it’s constantly attacking rural Maryland,” he said. “It feels like we live in District 9 in ‘Hunger Games.’ It’s just one bill after another coming after us in the rural areas.”

Simonaire, the Senate GOP leader sees Democratic activism burnishing the Republican image.

“I think while collegial, this legislative session has been characterized by very little restraint,” he said. “We actually think we’re providing moderation to the Senate as it’s moving further and further to the left. We work on solutions. We’re not the party of ‘no.'”

But Senate Republicans last fall replaced their long-time caucus leaders with more conservative members — Simonaire and Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) — in part because they felt their predecessors were too cozy with Democratic leaders. And the House Republican Caucus is scheduled to elect a new leadership team on Tuesday that is almost certain to be more combative, and possibly more conservative, than Szeliga and Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel).

What does that portend for the future of the General Assembly, and where does that leave legislative moderates heading into an election year? With a target on their backs.

A prior generation of Democratic legislative leaders, especially Miller, were mindful of the fine line their moderate and conservative members walked in competitive districts and worked hard to protect them.

Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard), a moderate who ousted a Republican incumbent in a conservative district in 2018, said she feels constant pressure from the left and the right even though she believes Maryland is more centrist than most people assume.

“I really think the majority of us are more toward the center — moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, and 22% independents,” she said.

Hester wishes they’d speak up more.

“There aren’t very many loud moderates,” she said.

Hannah Gaskill contributed to this report.

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Is the Legislature Becoming Too Much Like Congress?