Reforming MD's Democratic Party: Ground Zero may be Saturday

Will the state's Democratic establishment take steps to democratize their party and loosen the grip of big money? PM electoral fellow Richard DeShay Elliott, in a guest commentary for Maryland Matters today (Nov. 29), describes how this might come to a head Saturday at the state Dem leadership elections -- if restive progressives let their central committee reps know how they feel.

/By Richard DeShay Elliott <> Maryland Matters/ Honest question here: Who is satisfied by the current Maryland Democratic Party’s institutional leadership and strategy? Or, one could ask, is there any leadership or strategy?

Barely visible on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Focuses overly on the old guard and doesn’t highlight the wealth of new legislators who hail from impressive backgrounds. Doesn’t focus outreach to the rising elements of our party: women, people of color, and  youth. Doesn’t have an “offseason” strategy of adding to the political bench, cultivating new leadership, and building the Democratic Party of 2028. Just a few critiques that I’ve heard, but there is an outlet for this dissatisfaction.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday in the Lanham IBEW Hall, there will be leadership elections for the Maryland Democratic Party for party chair, three vice chairs, treasurer and deputy treasurer, and secretary and deputy secretary. They are elected by the Democratic Central Committee (DCC) members from each individual subdistrict and members of the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC). This is well below the radar of basically everyone, except the most insider of Dem politicos.

I wish this wasn’t the case, as we have a lot of work to do. The Maryland Democratic Party has maintained supermajorities and a 2-1 advantage in registered voters in this state. For statewide officials, the winner is generally chosen in the primary: same situation in the majority of Maryland’s subdistricts.

But the grand issues that the voters overwhelmingly support, such as a $15 minimum wage and legalized cannabis, never seem to pass in Annapolis while huge tax incentives for Amazon and a sentence-enhancing crime bill both pass with ease. A Democratic supermajority without actionable change in the lives of constituents shouldn’t be the status quo.

All this is to say that we have a fertile political landscape where we should critique, refine, and build a more democratic state party. This leadership election will provide the opportunity to bring changes that our party needs to pick up independent and infrequent voters, reframe political debates, promote democracy and political education, and otherwise improve Maryland’s stagnant, insular political culture.

Saturday’s party vote will be allocated among the central committees representing the political subdivisions based upon the following formula: 25 percent weight to population based on the most recent federal census, 25 percent weight each to the proportion of the vote given to the Democratic candidates for president in each of the two most recent White House elections by each subdivision, and 25 percent weight to the proportion of the vote given to the Democratic candidate for governor in the most recent gubernatorial election by each subdivision.

Sound confusing? That confusion helps leadership, anointed by the state’s Democratic kingmakers, maintain the vote totals to control the state party. But after this cycle’s turnover that has birthed a completely new DCC roster across the state, this will be a true battle for the votes. (Vote weighing is seen here)

The rules are available here for you to digest. What’s important is that constituents who want to influence the direction of the state party and the strategy we pursue to win elections and seek policy victories can be shaped during this election. Here are some of the major issues that concerned Democrats should contact their DCC members about to find out their stance on:

  • Sample Ballots: During the primary election in Prince George’s County, Harford County, parts of Montgomery County, and possibly other jurisdictions, “Official Democratic Party Sample Ballots” were distributed to voters both via mail and at the polls.

There’s just one major problem: The Democratic Party, as an institution, cannot endorse candidates during the primary.

These mailers serve no purpose but to deceive voters into believing that a slate of political candidates who pay for access are endorsed by the Democratic Party. They are blatantly false and according to Black Power In The Suburbs, their use dates back to Prince George County politics in 1976, under the thumb of state Senate President Mike Miller and [now] U.S. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.

These “ballots” do not state anything whatsoever about policy issues, endorsements from grass-roots organizations, or even the source of the seed money to fund them. Voters should not be tricked into supporting machine candidates because of their trust in the Democratic Party. These need to be banned and candidates who used them should be highlighted. Will your DCC delegation work to ban these undemocratic tools and hold political candidates who use them accountable?

  • Party Platform & Convention: What is a political party without a convention to discuss the issues, develop a comprehensive platform, and set goals to them? By not having a party platform, Democrats are not held to any sort of standard. In a state where Democrats have a supermajority, we should be making consistent progress that is visible to all voters. Instead, we have candidates who cater specifically to the political and fundraising class in their particular districts.

If we had a party platform, we could hold party leaders more accountable and have visible goals that inspire voters to expand our party. If we had a state party convention every two years, we could refine our messaging and get popular opinion on what the issues are that affect most Marylanders. What issues will your DCC delegation incorporate into a winning platform, and will they support a state convention?

  • Filling Political Vacancies: In Maryland, nearly a quarter of our political representatives were originally appointed to their seats. With the insulated political culture where most constituents don’t know who their elected officials are or what they look like, this is a high form of insider baseball. Central committees, often elected through the support of active cogs of the Democratic machine, have the ability to send someone to Annapolis when a spot becomes vacant.

But what about the voters – shouldn’t they get a say? Every two years, there should be special elections to ensure that voters have a choice in who represents them if the seat had an appointee to fill a vacancy. Will your DCC delegation support legislation to bring special elections to Maryland?

  • Public Financing of Elections: One of the big successes in Maryland this cycle was the impact of public financing in Montgomery County, along with its expansion to Prince George’s County, Baltimore City, and Howard County. Public financing of elections will give community-backed candidates the ability to raise funds and participate in elections at a competitive level. Expanding access to campaign fundraising for average folks is an expansion of democracy. Will your central committee support this, or are they a beneficiary of Big Money politics?
  • Independent Voters: Maryland has nearly 2,200,000 registered Democrats and 1,020,000 Republicans, but over 788,000 registered voters belong to neither of the predominant political parties, as of October. Those 788,000 are left out of the primaries, which determine the overwhelming majority of Maryland’s elected officials. How can we better ease access to our party for them, convince them to join/rejoin the Democratic Party, and what should the Maryland Democratic Party do to incorporate that strategy?
  • Rural Reform Task Force: Maryland’s rural regions have become the reddest parts of the state. The old strategy of well-funded, establishment-backed financial conservatives a la state Sens. Jim Mathias and Mac Middleton has gone stale. The strong campaigns of progressives like Josh Hastings, Jamaad Gould, and Michele Gregory in Wicomico County and Allison Berkowitz in Harford County, Ysela Bravo and Kai Hagen in Frederick, and the congressional campaigns of Allison Galbraith and Michael Pullen show the path forward for insurgent candidates all over.

Will the party follow their lead? What steps will the state party take to build party infrastructure, recruit candidates, and win elections on the Shore, Western Maryland, and the interior of Maryland, and will it be ordained by party bosses or rural voters?

  • Holding Party Leaders Accountable: During the 2018 gubernatorial primary, Republicans did everything in their power to tie themselves to Gov. Larry Hogan and many establishment Democrats did everything they could to tie Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker to them. Yet, this political assistance was not applied for the Ben Jealous/Susie Turnbull ticket during the general election. Miller, the state Senate president, returning Sen. Kathy Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), and recently defeated Sen. Jim Mathias all featured Hogan on their mailers. The real star, Del.-elect Courtney Watson, ran multiple mailers with Hogan and Republican Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Why can elected officials use party money to support Republicans, when DCC members are supposed to be removed from their seats for supporting non-party nominees? I will say that many Maryland progressives, the future backbone and institution of our state party, have a sour taste in our mouths after the many, many deliberate and visible efforts to undermine, insult, and both financially and politically abandon the Jealous/Turnbull ticket. Will your DCC delegation work to hold others, including elected officials, accountable to Democratic principles?

  • Endorsements: Endorsements in Maryland have historically served as the way of coronating party picks. Rushern Baker piled on the endorsements from elected officials all over the state, whereas Ben Jealous had the endorsement of a literal handful. Why is this significant? When a long line of leaders queue up to endorse a candidate early, that directs the fundraising and donating class to assist some and abandon others. While the state party can’t give institutional endorsements, it can demand that party members hold back their endorsements until the filing deadline to prevent the appearance of picking winners and losers. Will your DCC delegation reform the endorsement process or allow the party machine to pick our legislators for us?
  • Unity Reform Commission: In the aftermath of the 2016 election, many members of the Democratic National Committee sought reforms to the national party and strategies to bolster our party. Some of these reforms included having delegate representation proportional to the vote, expanding access to the ballot, and increased transparency. Do your Central Committee members, who may be delegates to the Democratic National Convention, support these reforms?

— RICHARD DESHAY ELLIOTT

The writer is a Ph. D candidate at Johns Hopkins University, an electoral fellow for Progressive Maryland, the former campaign manager for Allison Berkowitz (District 7) and director of digital strategy for Allison Galbraith (Maryland’s 1st congressional district). This guest commentary was published by Maryland Matters November 29, 2018