The late Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) was a master fundraiser. He created the fundraising program for the Senate Democratic Caucus decades ago, and vacuumed up huge sums of special interest money through the years for himself, his friends and the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee.
But in his first election as the upper chamber’s leader, the current Senate president, Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), is proving that he’s no slouch on the fundraising front, either.
At this point in the 2018 election cycle, the Senate Democrats under Miller had raised $924,000 — at a time when Republicans were aggressively targeting five Democratic Senate seats. The Senate Democratic Caucus Committee under Ferguson has collected $1.26 million so far.
“We’re kind of all in,” Ferguson said of himself and his Democratic colleagues. “It’s the fundraising that powers the engine of campaigns.”
Already, he said in an interview Wednesday, the fundraising is paying off. During the recently completed primaries, every incumbent that the campaign committee supported won. Ferguson also saw his preferred candidates prevail in three open-seat primaries: Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) in District 3; attorney Dawn Gile in Anne Arundel County District 33; and former Del. Mary-Dulany James (D-Harford) in District 34.
“We batted a thousand,” Ferguson said. “I feel proud of it. That was the goal. That was the plan.”
But this isn’t just political gamesmanship, in Ferguson’s view. The success of Senate incumbents represented an important validation by voters of the General Assembly’s performance during unprecedented times.
“I think the work we did was rewarded,” he said. “It was a tough four years.”
Armed with this momentum, Ferguson said he is confident that Senate Democrats can protect their most vulnerable incumbents in the fall, and target a few Republican-held seats to build on their 32-15 supermajority.
Characteristically, Ferguson refuses to say that Democrats are on defense anywhere. But most political professionals agree that Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard), who is facing an aggressive challenge from Del. Reid Novotny (R), is probably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent, though Democratic mapmakers sought to shore up her position in the latest round of redistricting by cutting conservative Carroll County from her district and adding a slice of Montgomery County.
Anne Arundel County Democratic Sens. Sarah Elfreth and Pam Beidle are favored to win re-election, but they could sweat the fall if the national political environment turns especially sour for Democrats. The same could be true in Frederick County, where Lewis Young is bidding to succeed her husband, retiring Sen. Ron Young (D), though Democrats generally have been on the rise in Frederick. And Democrats are keeping an eye on Sen. Michael Jackson (D-Prince George’s), whose district includes some conservative territory in Calvert County.
Conversely, Democrats feel confident about Gile’s prospects of capturing the seat of retiring Sen. Ed Reilly (R-Anne Arundel). She’s facing Del. Sid Saab (R) in the fall. And they believe James, a political fixture in Harford County, also represents a pick-up opportunity as she battles against former Del. Christian Miele (R), who held a seat in Baltimore County before moving to Harford.
Ferguson suggested that Democrats could pull surprises in more rural areas, like District 2 in Washington County and Districts 37 and 38 on the Eastern Shore.
“We have good candidates,” he said.
Ferguson also believes Senate Democrats are aided by the fall gubernatorial matchup between Wes Moore (D), the author and former nonprofit CEO, and Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick), which Moore is currently favored to win.
“The Republican Party nominated two individuals that are as extreme as it comes,” he said, referring to Cox and Michael Anthony Peroutka, the GOP candidate for attorney general. “This is a race against an idea. In my mind it’s a race between the democratic ideal and tyranny.”
Ferguson said that after eight years of serving with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, he and his colleagues are excited at the prospect of a Democrat like Moore in Government House, though they’re taking nothing for granted in the election. Ferguson endorsed Moore in the competitive Democratic primary, and he said that while Hogan and the legislature were able to get things done with divided government, under Moore it will be different.
“Almost always [with Hogan] it was reacting to programs as opposed to being at the table [with a Democratic governor] and being able to create programs,” he said.
Ferguson dismissed suggestions that Democrats and their allies in the advocacy world might have unrealistically ambitious goals if there is unified government in Annapolis.
“I think expectations should always be high,” he said. “I think Marylanders should always expect excellence.”
Ferguson is already pondering an ambitious agenda for the 2023 General Assembly session, starting with how to sustain and solidify the state’s transportation funding in an era when an increasing number of electric vehicles are on the roads (currently the state’s transportation trust fund is sustained by the gasoline tax). He also expects the legislature to focus on standing up the recreational cannabis industry in Maryland, assuming that’s approved by voters in November. And he also wants the legislature to focus on mental health next year.
With abortion now a top-line issue in the November elections, Ferguson was asked whether he regretted that the Senate did not move a measure this year, which passed in the House, that would have enabled voters to codify abortion rights in the state constitution. Ferguson said he preferred to focus on the fact that the legislature took steps to make reproductive health care more widely available throughout the state.
“I think we did what was most important and that’s what we knew we could get done,” he said, adding that the legislature would almost certainly take up the proposed constitutional amendment on abortion in the next session. “When we were in session [this year], Roe [v. Wade] was still intact.”
Ferguson’s role as a fundraising force was on vivid display Wednesday afternoon in Ocean City, where he held a fundraising event at the Aloft Hotel, three blocks from the convention hall where the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference is taking place. Several hundred lawmakers, lobbyists, business leaders and political operatives crowded into a bright ballroom overlooking Assawoman Bay.
The event had a gold-plated list of sponsors, topped by the Baltimore Gas & Electric Political Action Committee; Coca-Cola Consolidated; Compass Advocacy, an Annapolis lobbying firm; CSX; Diageo; Harris Jones & Malone LLC, a lobbying firm; Robert N. Hockaday Jr., a businessman and philanthropist; the Maryland Building Industry Association PAC; Southwest Airlines Freedom Fund; T-Mobile; Transurban; US Wind; and the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association. Another two dozen corporations, law and lobbying firms and advocacy groups were also listed as sponsors.
Through early July, Ferguson had more than $757,000 in his campaign account — a treasury that was well-supplemented by Wednesday’s turnout.
An elite corps of Democratic candidates and elected officials were on hand, including Moore, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic nominees for attorney general and state comptroller, House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), at least a dozen of Ferguson’s Senate colleagues, state Treasurer Dereck Davis, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, and more.
But if any of those luminaries was expecting a big and bold speech from Ferguson at his fundraiser — unlikely, given the celebratory nature of the MACo conference — they would have been disappointed. Instead, he thanked his colleagues for all their hard work and told people to enjoy themselves at MACo. But the future is never too far from Ferguson’s mind.
“We’re going to have an incredible next four years,” he promised.