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Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: Legislative Priorities and Political Imperatives Collide in This Winter of Our Discontent

The Maryland State House. Photo by jonbilous / stock.adobe.com.

As the June 28 primaries get closer — unless they are pushed back, a distinct possibility — you can feel the tension rising among Democrats and Republicans in Annapolis and across the state. Both parties have a lot to worry about.

There’s always plenty of tension at this stage of the legislative session: This is the time of year when bills are being killed right and left. But this year, there is an extra layer of fretting, as the fates of bills — and individual lawmakers’ votes on them — become linked in certain cases to the members’ electoral fortunes. That’s especially worrisome for the Democrats, as we’ll soon see.

What’s shocking, 3 1/2 months before the primary, is how little overt politicking there has been in the gubernatorial election. Part of that is hangover from the pandemic; with warmer weather approaching and COVID-19 caseloads dropping, we should see more candidates out and about.

But there also appears to be a reluctance to expend any resources. This may be a function of the uncertainty over congressional and legislative district lines and whether the primary will be delayed. No candidate for governor wants to spend a lot of money now if they’re going to have to budget for a primary that’s, say, six months away instead of three.

And yet, on the Democratic side, there is peril in waiting. Even with the institutional and labor support for Tom Perez, the potential star power of Wes Moore, the progressive policy prescriptions of John King, the gender appeal of Laura Neuman, or the presence of respected warhorses like Rushern Baker and Doug Gansler in the primary, the longer candidates keep the gloves off Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, the likelier it is that he will wind up as the Democratic nominee. He’s been around the longest, is the best known, has traveled the state relentlessly in his official role, dispensing medallions and good will, and has pockets of supporters in every corner of the state.

Establishment Democrats may imagine that because they dislike Franchot, most everyone else does, too. That’s just not the case — and so, a case must be built against him by the people who want to defeat him.

Uncertainty over the legislative maps is surely also impacting the policy narrative in Annapolis this session. The sweeping climate legislation and the bill to bring paid family leave to Maryland are illustrative.

Both are top progressive priorities, but both are the kinds of bills that opponents can easily paint as expensive and anti-business. And both, it should be pointed out, are bills that probably would never have seen the light of day in an election year if the General Assembly’s previous presiding officers, the late Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) and the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D), were still with us.

The fact that the climate legislation is around at all this year is a function of the House and Senate’s inability to come together on a bill in the final hours of last year’s session. Legislative leaders were embarrassed and vowed to finish the job in 2022.

The imperatives of addressing climate change grow with every passing day. But the pure ambitions of the bill — and the potential costs — are inspiring business groups, energy utilities and other special interests to mobilize against key provisions of the legislation. Already it seems likely that the bills will proceed without the strongest possible emissions restrictions on the building industry.

The climate bills probably have the votes to pass, but proponents — especially the measures’ sponsors — haven’t done a great job of selling them politically. The argument is more like, “Eating your spinach is good for you.” And vocal opponents have skillfully cast enough doubt on them to make it less than palatable for certain endangered, moderate Democrats, to embrace them.

Of course, nobody really knows who is actually endangered because we don’t know what the final legislative maps will look like!

There is an increasing assumption in the halls of Annapolis — call it fear — that the Maryland Court of Appeals is going to overturn the legislative map that the General Assembly approved earlier this year and will take particular aim at districts that aren’t compact. It’s also assumed that the court won’t pay any attention to where legislators live, meaning several members could wind up running against each other, in primaries or the general election. Nothing inspires fear and loathing among lawmakers than the prospect of internecine battles on unfamiliar turf.

Paid family leave is another measure that the business community is whipping hard to defeat, even as legislative leaders fully embrace it for the first time and say it is a priority for this session. But top-ranking lawmakers may be doing that with the assumption that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is going to veto the bill. So they get to appease the activist forces in the Democratic coalition with the knowledge that the doomsayers in the Democratic donor class will be placated at least for now by a Hogan veto. And you thought only Miller and Busch were Machiavellian!

Nothing breeds self-interest like an election-year legislative session. Add redistricting and impending court challenges into the mix and it becomes an extreme condition.

The GOP’s woes

Of course, Republicans have political worries of their own. Yes, this is shaping up to be a good election year nationally for the GOP, and that could certainly trickle down to Republicans in key Maryland races. But Republicans here are going to have to decide what face they show to the electorate.

Even though he lost his long-shot bid to impeach Hogan Thursday — that was hardly a surprise — Frederick Del. Daniel L. Cox could wind up as the Republican nominee for governor. Hogan is of course backing former Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz, in the GOP primary, and his political team is largely working for Schulz’s campaign.

Think of the Republican race as a battle between an air game (Schulz’s) and a ground game (Cox’s). Hogan unwittingly did Schulz no favors last week when he went on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News Channel show and vowed not to support Trump for president in 2024. That’s certainly an on-brand declaration for Hogan, but it increases the possibility of Trump coming into the state and unleashing his network of supporters on Cox’s behalf.

That would not be helpful for Schulz, who seems to mostly stay under the radar, meet with Republican stalwarts, and air generic ads with mainstream Republican talking points. Whatever she was early in her political career, or even as a member of Hogan’s cabinet, Schulz has morphed into Mrs. Glenn Youngkin.

Did you catch Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Republican response to President Biden’s State of the Union address last week? You could imagine every word Reynolds uttered coming out of Schulz’s mouth or appearing in her talking points or policy papers — down to the “nice” mom and grandmother trope.

A scripted and stage-managed Schulz would be very formidable in the general election. But she has to get there first.

And just as most mainstream Republican leaders aim to ignore Cox and hope he goes away, they also have to contend with the possibility that Michael Peroutka, a former Anne Arundel County councilmember with ties to right-wing extremists and white supremacist groups, winds up as their nominee for attorney general. In a chat with leaders of the Maryland State Bar Association the other day, Peroutka said he looked forward to defending the law of God if he’s elected, and would work against the state’s abortion protections, which are considered settled law.

“The most dangerous place anyone can be in America right now is in a mother’s womb,” Peroutka said.

So we’re in a funny place right now, in the legislative session and in the election season, in this winter of America’s discontent. No wonder so many people in the Maryland political world are feeling so angsty.