If you're a liberal living in Maryland, there's been plenty of reason to smile lately. The Old Line State continues to beat a steady path toward leading a new vanguard of progressive policy and politics in the United States.
Let's start with last November's elections. Actually, no: To understand why those elections mattered, let's back up two more years to the 2010 statewide elections.
Nationally, the 2010 cycle was nothing short of a nightmare for liberals and Democrats. The Democrats lost the U.S. House and, if not for a few self-destructing Republican Senate candidates, would have lost both chambers of Congress. Republicans won the governor's races in Wisconsin and Michigan, setting the stage for a coordinated pushback against state pensions and public sector unions.
Two days after the election at a (rare) White House press conference, President Barack Obama admitted that he and his fellow Democrats suffered a "shellacking." The major casualty for Maryland Democrats was the defeat of 1st District Rep. Frank Kratovil, a rookie Democrat swept into office on Mr. Obama's coattails, by Republican Andy Harris.
But Gov. Martin O'Malley had perhaps the best electoral night of any Democrat in the country. He beat his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., by twice the margin of victory from four years earlier — a pretty remarkable feat, given that 2006 was a strong Democratic cycle and 2010 was a strong Republican year.
By 2012, however, Republicans in the state thought Mr. O'Malley and his agenda were vulnerable to popular backlash. So the GOP put key policy measures on the statewide ballot in an attempt to embarrass and rebuke the governor.
One measure was strictly partisan-electoral: a veto referendum of the Maryland congressional district map. Although I have criticized the partisan gerrymandering of the state in this space, putting such a matter to statewide vote was just as political as the mapmaking process itself.
But the real policy victories were elsewhere on the ballot, specifically the approval of both the so-called Dream Act, granting in-state tuition for some children of undocumented immigrants, and the somewhat surprising approval of marriage rights for same-sex partners.
Of the four states in which same-sex marriage was on the ballot last November (the others: Maine, Minnesota and Washington), Maryland was expected by some gay rights advocates to be the least likely to approve it, given the state's sizable Catholic and African American populations.
The same-sex marriage provision passed narrowly (52 percent), the Dream Act a bit more comfortably (58 percent). But the wins are the thing, as the saying goes.
The 2013 session of the Maryland General Assembly continued the state's push toward a variety of progressive reforms, some of which passed and some of which made important headway toward future adoption. The gas tax will be raised 10 cents per gallon. The death penalty was repealed.
A five-cent statewide tax on plastic bags failed, but it is gaining traction. Ditto for a bottle deposit bill. And I wouldn't be surprised if these two reforms are enacted in the next few years, which would be good news for the state's environment. The bag tax implemented by the neighboring District of Columbia has been an almost unqualified success. And if you haven't googled the term "giant ocean garbage patch" yet, perhaps you should — because then you'll understand why it would be beneficial for all American states to adopt bottle deposit bills.
Liberals didn't get everything they wanted. The attempt to gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $10 per hour — and then benchmark it to inflation thereafter — was soundly rejected in March by the Senate Finance Committee. That's a shame, given that in 10 other states (some of which have lower costs of living than Maryland's) new minimum wages above the $7.25 federal level already took effect on January 1 this year.
Maryland was one of just a handful of states where President Obama in 2012 increased his popular vote margin of victory from four years earlier. Already one of America's bluest states, Maryland seems to be getting bluer with each passing year. Liberals still have plenty of work to do, but lately have ample reasons to be encouraged.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.