Blue Maryland gets more liberal [Editorial]

2013 saw progressive politics ascendant — and a strengthening backlash

December 27, 2013

Maryland has long been a heavily Democratic state, but 2013 may have cemented its status as a truly liberal one.

The two things were not always synonymous. Though Democrats have dominated the legislature and governor's mansion for decades, the party's caucus has traditionally been ideologically diverse, with healthy doses elected officials who voiced relatively conservative fiscal and social views. They represented places like Dundalk or Southern Maryland where voters abandoned the Democratic nominee in 2002 to elect Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. governor. Increasingly, though, conservative Democrats have been replaced by more liberal ones, and that ideological shift reached its full flower in 2013.

It was this year when the state's trajectory became clear — and when the backlash against it grew more intense. The 2012 election included important liberal victories, to be sure, with the voters' validation of laws allowing same-sex couples to marry and some immigrants who are in the country illegally to get in-state tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities. But the election also validated old-school, insider Democratic politics with the voters' approval of the state's egregiously gerrymandered Congressional district maps and an expansion of gambling championed by the avatar of the Democratic machine, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

That left two paths for lawmakers to choose in 2013, and it was entirely possible — perhaps even likely given, the rhythms of Maryland politics — that the state's leaders would follow the latter. Historically, legislators have been loath to rock the boat in the year or two before an election, and given the progressive advances of 2012, the General Assembly seemed ripe for a retrenchment. Meanwhile, Gov. Martin O'Malley was making noises about changing the law to make it harder for voters to petition laws to referendum — an idea that would further cement the influence of the powers-that-be.

But outside forces intervened to steer the state in a different direction. First, NAACP President Ben Jealous sought to place the repeal of the death penalty — long a priority of Governor O'Malley but not one he was prepared to spend any more political capital on — at the top of the agenda in Annapolis in 2013. Then a lone gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and several adults. Finally, just as the General Assembly was set to convene, then-Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell unveiled a massive transportation funding package.

Looking back on the last several years, it would be easy to credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) Governor O'Malley for leading the state in a more liberal direction. But the bigger story is the extent to which the state has pulled him and other leaders to the left. When Mr. O'Malley opened the legislative session, he planned to try again for a bill facilitating the development of an off-shore wind farm, but neither a transportation tax package nor the death penalty repeal were on his agenda at that point. He was committed to pursuing new gun control measures, but it was unclear just how far he would go.

In the end, thanks to concerted outside pressure, he championed what was likely the toughest package of gun control measures to pass in any state this year. Governor O'Malley won repeal of the death penalty, secured a major new funding package for roads and mass transit, and got his long-sought offshore wind legislation. And in the meantime, the legislature enacted a medical marijuana program and almost decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot altogether. The proposal to make referendums harder went nowhere, but a package of good-government bills — including the most significant campaign finance reform in a generation — passed easily.

Conservatives sought to petition both the gun control package and the death penalty repeal to referendum, but they could not get enough signatures in either case. After the failures of the previous year's efforts to overturn laws at the ballot box, there was little institutional support for the arduous process of canvassing for signatures this time.

The leftward trend continued throughout the year, up through the recent votes by the Montgomery and Prince George's county councils to raise the local minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. The minimum wage is now expected to be one of the biggest issues in the 2014 General Assembly session, with Governor O'Malley and all the major Democratic candidates to replace him backing an increase.

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