Liberals seeking sway in state

At meeting, a bid to tug Democrats to the left

O'Malley, Duncan attack GOP

Many in party stay away, and some criticize effort

October 03, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

A struggle for the soul of Maryland's Democratic Party is under way, with the strongest pull coming from the left.

Dazed and fractured since losing the governorship to Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002, Democrats have been searching for a message, a vision and a leader. They hope the party's 2-to-1 voter registration edge and 8-to-2 congressional delegation advantage are not depreciating assets.

Several party leaders wanted a unifying theme to emerge yesterday from a gathering in Columbia. The goal of the Maryland Progressive Summit, organizers said, was "to `energize the base' of the Democratic Party in preparation for the November elections and to help lay the foundation for Ehrlich's defeat in 2006."

"We want to present a very clear, progressive alternative that reflects the core values of the Democratic Party," said Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County. "It is our belief that you can't beat something with nothing. It's not good enough anymore to go out to the public and say, `I'm a Democrat.'"

But Franchot is considered one of the General Assembly's most liberal members, and his efforts to direct the party's discourse do as much to highlight fissures among Democrats as they do to patch them.

Rural, conservative Democratic leaders say they feel increasingly isolated by the party's leftward tilt, most clearly reflected in recent leadership changes and votes on taxes and other issues in the House of Delegates.

In Annapolis, two Democratic leaders -- House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- are feuding over slot machines. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are circling each other, looking for advantages in the 2006 governor's race.

While Ehrlich espouses slots and promises to hold the line against taxes, Democrats are split on slots and struggle to explain how they would maintain education, social programs and health initiatives and whether to ask taxpayers to dig deeper to fund them.

"Yeah, I think the Democratic Party is in a world of trouble in Maryland," said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The problem is that the Republican Party has a really strong message. The Democrats don't have a clear and strong message."

More than 600 party loyalists and politicians attended yesterday's summit at the Sheraton Hotel to develop such a message. In addition to the more mainstream Democrats in attendance, Ralph Nader supporters, union leaders and peace activists traded bumper stickers and built mailing lists as they listened to panelists discuss education, health and the economy.

O'Malley and Duncan both delivered keynote speeches, earning standing ovations for their appeals to defeat President Bush and, later, Ehrlich.

Duncan criticized the governor's support of slot machines, saying Ehrlich wants to "sell out his state to gambling interests to collect money from those of us who can least afford it." The governor's recent assertion that slots would help the environment by boosting horse racing and thus protecting horse farms is a sham, Duncan said.

"We've seen the colossal failure that can occur when a leader asks a people to agree to do something based on false assertions," Duncan said. "Let's not make the same mistake here in Maryland."

O'Malley was accompanied by Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, in town to view the mayor's work in City Hall.

"To be progressive is to be an optimist," O'Malley said. "We don't accept injustice. We don't settle for stagnation. And we don't have to settle for mediocrity."

But while O'Malley, Duncan and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski grabbed the chance to address a left-leaning crowd, many other party leaders stayed away. None of the state's six Democratic congressman -- each up for election this year -- attended, nor did Busch or Miller. Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens were elsewhere.

"I think this progressive thing is the wacko left of the Democratic Party, and I think they are contributing to the demise of the Democratic Party in the state," said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat and an Ehrlich ally.

Indeed, "progressive" has become a euphemism for "liberal," as the latter adjective has been transformed by the right into an insult.

"Liberal polls poorly, so nobody calls themselves that anymore," said Joe Libertelli, a Rockville resident and organizer for Progressive Democrats of America. "So liberals call themselves progressives, and progressives don't know what to call themselves."

A shift to the left is no formula for success for a troubled party, said Norris, the UMBC professor.

"If the Democratic Party embraces that notion, they are going to get killed by the L-word," Norris said. "Bill Clinton taught the Democratic Party something, and that is to move to the center."

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