Strat­egy for Md. Democrats ex­tends be­yond 2016 races

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JOSH HICKS

Pa­trick H. Mur­ray was a pre­co­cious 23-year-old and just a few years re­moved from fin­ish­ing his un­der­grad­u­ate work at Swarth­more Col­lege when he be­came di­rec­tor of the Kansas Demo­cratic Party in 2003.

“I joke that all five other Democrats in the state had jobs al­ready,” he said.

Mur­ray, now 36 and with more than a decade of ex­pe­ri­ence with pol­i­tics and pol­icy, will work with a more fa­vor­able elec­torate in his new job as the Mary­land Demo­cratic Party’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. The state’s reg­is­tered Democrats out­num­ber Repub­li­cans by more than 2 to 1.

The state party put Mur­ray in charge of its oper­a­tions about two months af­ter elect­ing for­mer Mary­land House ma­jor­ity leader D. Bruce Poole as its chair­man.

The task for Mur­ray and Poole

is to en­er­gize and re­fo­cus the party af­ter stun­ning defeats that cost it the gov­er­nor­ship and seven seats in the leg­is­la­ture last year.

One chal­lenge they will face is bridg­ing the gap be­tween lib­eral Democrats in the Washington sub­urbs and Bal­ti­more, and those from the outer sub­urbs and ru­ral ar­eas, where Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) made in­roads with in­de­pen­dents and mod­er­ates by promis­ing greater fis­cal re­straint and eco­nomic growth.

“If we break down into small camps and get lost in the weeds, we’re go­ing to suf­fer,” Poole said.

Poole, a Hager­stown-based lawyer, ap­pears well-matched for his party’s cur­rent chal­lenges. He won his first elec­tion to the House of Del­e­gates in 1986, when he was 27, and in 1991 be­came the youngest House ma­jor­ity leader in state history.

Dur­ing his time rep­re­sent­ing a Western Mary­land dis­trict, Poole earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a mod­er­ate Demo­crat and op­posed plans for build­ing tax­payer-sub­si­dized sta­di­ums for the Bal­ti­more Ravens and Washington Red­skins. He lost his bid for re­elec­tion in 1998 but has re­mained ac­tive in the public square by serv­ing on state com­mis­sions.

“It’s good to have him be­cause weget anew, en­er­getic, fresh look, par­tic­u­larly with a guy from a sub­ur­ban-ru­ral per­spec­tive to head up the party,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arun­del) said.

Poole cred­its much of his elec­toral suc­cess in Western Mary­land to his abil­ity to win sup­port from “old-style la­bor Democrats” and mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans.

“That’s who I con­nected with, and that’s still who I am,” he said. “By phi­los­o­phy, I’m a Bill Clin­ton Demo­crat.”

Mur­ray, who lost a Mary­land House of Del­e­gates pri­mary race last year, pre­vi­ously served as di­rec­tor of state af­fairs at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. Be­fore that, he was deputy chief of staff to Mary­land Se­nate Pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and an aide to Busch, giv­ing him close ties to the ex­ist­ing party es­tab­lish­ment. He also served as a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist on cam­paigns in Iowa, New York, Penn­syl­va­nia, Vir­ginia and Utah.

“He’s very aware of the ur­ban op­por­tu­ni­ties and ru­ral land­scape,” Miller said.

De­spite the Demo­cratic losses in last year’s elec­tions, Mary­land’s outer sub­urbs are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an ide­o­log­i­cal shift that ben­e­fits the party, much the same way North­ern Vir­ginia has be­come less con­ser­va­tive with a grow­ing and di­ver­si­fy­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Mur­ray sees an op­por­tu­nity to pick-up votes in that en­vi­ron­ment.

“We­have to­raise the floor in the sub­ur­ban and ru­ral ju­ris­dic­tions,” he said. “Ev­ery vote mat­ters, whether it’s com­ing from a swing voter in Car­roll County or a good base Demo­crat in Prince Ge­orge’s County or Bal­ti­more City.”

As part of its plan to un­seat Repub­li­cans, the party is en­cour­ag­ing mem­bers to lis­ten to vot­ers and bring them around to the idea that Democrats can bet­ter serve their in­ter­ests, for in­stance with more ed­u­ca­tion spend­ing to bet­ter pre­pare the fu­ture work­force and with new in­vest­ments in projects that could sup­port de­vel­op­ment and at­tract busi­nesses.

“One of the rea­sons we talk as much as we do about great public schools is be­cause that’s some­thing that mat­ters tremen­dously to vot­ers in places like Howard County or Fred­er­ick County, where peo­ple might have moved in search of bet­ter schools,” Mur­ray said. “As long as we’re con­nect­ing our agenda in An­napo­lis to peo­ple’s bread-and-but­ter, day-to­day, qual­ity-of-life and eco­nomic con­cerns, we’re go­ing to be okay.”

Mur­ray said another key to suc­cess is match­ing can­di­dates with the right ju­ris­dic­tions. He re­calls work­ing with Dennis McKin­ney (D), a for­mer Kansas House mi­nor­ity leader, who rep­re­sented one of the state’s most ru­ral dis­tricts and once in­sisted that Mur­ray take a ride in his pickup truck to check out his cat­tle.

“A guy like that wouldn’t have been elected in Lawrence, Kansas, where the univer­sity is lo­cated,” Mur­ray said.

For now, the party is fo­cused on re­tain­ing con­trol of the White House and the seat of U.S. Sen. Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski (D-Md.), who has an­nounced plans to re­tire af­ter her cur­rent term ends. So far, the Demo­cratic pri­mary race pits Rep. Donna F. Ed­wards against Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

“Part of what we have to do is har­ness the energy that is go­ing to be gen­er­ated in a fed­eral elec­tion in 2016 and use that energy to keep peo­ple en­gaged with the Demo­cratic Party through the 2018 elec­tion,” Mur­ray said.

For 2018, Democrats are bet­ting that Ho­gan’s own poli­cies will sink him, es­pe­cially if his plans for spend­ing cuts have a neg­a­tive im­pact on schools and other gov­ern­ment ser­vices.

“There will be, by virtue of Ho­gan hav­ing to gov­ern, plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to talk about his record over the next 31/ years,”

2 Mur­ray said.

In the mean­time, the Demo­cratic cau­cuses must avoid in­fight­ing be­tween es­tab­lished mem­bers and a large crop of fresh­men, many of whom are more pro­gres­sive than their pre­de­ces­sors.

“A lot of these fresh­men are tough to keep up with, but it’s that re­lent­less pas­sion for their work that got them here, and if they can keep that energy and har­ness that energy, it’s go­ing to help them climb to lead­er­ship and po­ten­tially be long-term im­pact play­ers,” Mur­ray said.

As for Miller and Busch, who have run the Se­nate and House for 28 years and 12 years, re­spec­tively, the party has ex­pressed lit­tle de­sire to re­place them.

“I think in this mo­ment, par­tic­u­larly with a di­vided gov­ern­ment, their ex­pe­ri­ence, their judg­ment and their tough­ness is im­por­tant to ev­ery­one in their cau­cuses,” Mur­ray said. “They’re the right guys in the right mo­ment.”

Whether Democrats will feel the same about Mur­ray and Poole in com­ing years re­mains to be seen.

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