Is it just a coincidence that Maryland, which is ranked as having the best-educated electorate in the nation as well as the No. 1 public education system in America, bucked the midterm election trend more than any other state in the union?
In one of the biggest years for Republicans ever, Maryland's incumbent Democratic governor did even better than four years ago, and the Democrats picked up seats in the state Senate.
Some moderate Democrats will no doubt try to argue for a turn to the center. But the biggest lesson from the last four years is that Gov. Martin O'Malley didn't trounce his challenger by competing for middle-of-the-road bragging rights. His signature accomplishments in his first year included making Maryland the first state in the nation with a living wage requirement for state contracts and passing a once-in-a-generation package of revenue raisers that was extremely controversial — even unpopular — at the time, but put the state on more solid fiscal footing to weather the recession.
He went on to support a millionaire's tax and expand workers' right to choose to join labor unions. He stood up for civil rights for new Americans and gay Marylanders at a time when demagogues on the right exploit those issues to sow division. He fought for Chesapeake Bay protections in spite of criticism that he was being "anti-business."
In the nation as a whole, corporate campaign cash was unleashed by the Roberts Supreme Court's notorious Citizens United decision, which undid the longstanding ban on direct corporate spending on elections. Nationwide, this led to a flood of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars, mainly in support of Republican candidates, but also playing a key role in the growth of the tea party movement. In Maryland, we saw the evidence of this trend in the defeat of Rep. Frank Kratovil.
Nationally, a knee-jerk anti-tax and anti-government antipathy continues to reign, in spite of 30 years of evidence of the grave damage that ideology has done to America. Fortunately, Maryland voters have a greater appreciation for the critical role that public investments in education, infrastructure, public health and the environment play in creating the foundations of our prosperity.
The major conclusion from Tuesday's election is that while the nation has shifted into neutral, condemned to two years of partisan paralysis and positioning, Maryland is poised to continue its forward progress.
Several top progressive priorities stand to gain as a result:
•Raising the minimum wage: Fourteen states and the District of Columbia mandate minimum wages above the federal minimum. Maryland, the wealthiest state in the nation with one of the highest costs of living, is not one of them.
•Expanding the living wage: Today the state living wage requirement applies to roughly half of state contracts; numerous exceptions and exemptions reduce its beneficial impact. Imagine how much more money consumers in our state would have to spend if it were applied more consistently.
•Progressive tax reforms: The legislature is expected to once again debate in the 2011 session the extension of Maryland's surcharge on high incomes (aka the "millionaires' tax") and the introduction of combined reporting to close tax loopholes for out-of-state corporations. The recent revelations that Maryland remains the No. 2 state in the nation for millionaires and the No. 1 state for corporate-friendly taxes should help to advance both of these measures.
•Public campaign finance: For more than a decade, the General Assembly has debated and come close to passing a proposal for public campaign finance as a voluntary alternative for viable candidates for state legislature who prefer not to be beholden to corporate interests in exchange for their campaign cash. Now is the time to put Maryland on the forefront of states strengthening democracy in the wake of Citizens United.
Not that the federal government is off the hook. Especially during the lame duck session beginning later this month, the still-large Democratic majorities in Congress have the opportunity and responsibility to act. They should:
•Extend unemployment insurance for 2 million out-of-work Americans, including more than 13,000 in Maryland who stand to lose their benefits by early December. Otherwise these families won't be the only ones experiencing a rough holiday season — so will the entire retail sector of the economy, which counts on holiday shopping.
•Extend the Bush tax cuts for the 98 percent of Americans who make less than $250,000.
•Pass the $250, one-time payment to Social Security recipients to offset the lack of a cost-of-living adjustment in 2010.
Here's hoping that Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer seize the moment. The next two months may be the last chance for positive congressional action for quite some time.
Fortunately, the same won't be said about Maryland. Marylanders have every reason to be proud of the course we have charted. Would that the rest of the nation had as clear a sense of direction and purpose.
Rion Dennis is acting executive director of Progressive Maryland. Matthew Weinstein is the group's Baltimore region director. Their e-mails are email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.