Incumbent losses deepen Senate divide

Union plays key role in five Democratic primary races

September 16, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The ouster of a half-dozen state Senate incumbents in this week's primary elections is likely to deepen the partisan divide in Annapolis, analysts said, nudging the Democratic majority to the left and the Republican minority to the right.

On the Democratic side, Local 1199 of the progressive Service Employees International Union helped to replace four incumbent senators, including George Della of Baltimore, with challengers seen as more liberal. On the Republican side, conservatives cheered the election of conservative House Minority Whip Christopher Shank of Washington County over moderate Sen. Don Munson.

"It is a swing around to some extent," said Democratic former Sen. Laurence Levitan, now an Annapolis lobbyist. "You move a little bit from the center. … That is what happens; it is nice to get to the middle but it is hard to do."

As of Wednesday evening, six incubments in the 47-member Senate had lost their seats in party primaries; one other race was still too close to call. A half-dozen incumbents also fell in the House of Delegates, but they represent a smaller proportion of the 141-member chamber.

SEIU Local 1199, which represents 9,000 registered nurses and other health care workers in Maryland and the District of Columbia, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the successful effort to unseat Della in Baltimore, Sen. Rona Kramer in Montgomery County and Sens. Nathaniel Exum and David C. Harrington in Prince George's County.

The group also helped an ally, Sen. Nancy King of Montgomery County, fend off a challenge from Del. Saqib Ali in a fight that became one of the nastiest in the state.

The union supports increasing the minimum wage, expanding access to health care, increasing spending on education and establishing bans on smoking. Members have also supported raising revenues to pay for their ideas, backing the unpopular millionaire's tax and a so-far unsuccessful increase in the state's tax on alcoholic beverages.

"We don't have permanent friends, we have permanent interests," Local 1199 political director Patricia Lippold said. "Sometimes you need to change friends, and the Senate is really where we felt we needed to make some change."

Some of the union's gripes were specific: Organizers disliked the skeptical approach of Exum and Harrington toward a state and local bailout for Prince George's County Hospital Center, which has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for years.

Harrington crossed SEIU when he was a county councilman. He said the group dropped five glossy negative mailers on his campaign in the final days, while funding half a dozen positive pieces for his challenger, Del. Victor Ramirez, plus radio advertisements and volunteers to knock on doors.

"We just couldn't compete with that," Harrington said. The longer-term effect, he said, will be to intimidate other senators.

"Can legislators look objectively at issues when SEIU has played such a critical role in shaping who gets into office and who doesn't?"

The executive director of the union's state council, Terry Cavanagh, said organizers targeted races intelligently and aggressively.

"We don't get involved unless we can get behind a candidate who was viable," he said. "We knew we could make a difference, and we worked very hard to be that difference."

Clearly, other factors played a role in each race. Union organizers had their eye on Della since he voted against a smoking ban. But they backed challenger Bill Ferguson only after the candidate had shored up local money from developers and backing from Baltimore City Council members.

Conservatives celebrated Shank's victory over Munson. Shank's agenda includes opting the state out of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and allowing local law enforcement officers to check immigration status when making routine stops.

Two challengers with close ties to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won primaries in seats left vacant by Republicans: J.B. Jennings, an intern in Ehrlich's congressional office, won a closely contested race in Baltimore County. Joe Getty, who was policy director when Ehrlich was governor, won in a district that includes Baltimore and Carroll counties.

The Senate turnover so far does not appear to have broken any records, though more incumbents could lose in the general election. The highest turnover in recent history came in 1994, when 20 new members joined the body, according to the Department of Legislative Services. The lowest recent turnover was in 1998 when only seven members were new.

The House of Delegates saw proportionally far less action Tuesday. More incumbents survived primaries this year than four years ago — a feat that House Speaker Michael E. Busch called remarkable, given the number of competitive races.

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