Md. progressive groups grow, clash over issues
With four Maryland progressive groups holding major events in different parts of the state last weekend, activists had to make tough choices about which activity to attend — or rush from one to the other.
Trying to avoid the same problem, another group is rethinking plans to hold a forum for gubernatorial candidates on Sept. 9, the day a different coalition of activists is scheduled to march on Washington for racial justice.
The scores of left-leaning organizations that have cropped up since the 2016 election often trip over each other as leaders try to harness a groundswell of opposition to President Trump and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in a way that could impact the state’s 2018 election.
In addition to scheduling problems, they have clashed over issues as basic as whether to endorse a candidate early in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, or wait until all the hopefuls have had a chance to campaign.
“There always seems to be some kind of conflict,” said Betsy Halsey, who chairs United for Maryland, which had proposed the Sept. 9 forum. She hastened to add that she thinks the proliferation of groups is good for the progressive movement, and that efforts are underway to improve
Bob Muehlenkamp, a longtime activist who chairs Our Revolution Maryland, said the leaders of many emerging groups are new to political activity and are strategizing as they go along.
“They’ve been very effective with various resistance activities since Trump was elected, but that’s not enough,” he said. “You can’t have an effective state legislative program or political program with these groups functioning on their own.”
The Maryland groups are part of a vocal and visible wave of activism that has swept the country since the 2016 election cycle. Progressive organizations fueled the upstart presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and turned the selection of a Democratic National Committee chair after the election into a battle between the party’s left and centrist elements. But progressives ultimately lost both battles, with the nomination of Democrat Hillary Clinton and the selection of establishment favorite Tom Perez for DNC chair.
It remains to be seen whether progressive groups in Maryland will succeed in nominating one of their own to challenge Hogan in 2018, or will be able to achieve their other goals of pushing the party to the left in Annapolis and denting the governor’s sky-high approval ratings.
“I’m not sure yet how this will play out in the Democratic primary for governor, but I think it means going into the general election that there will be a lot of energy and activity,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
When progressive and resistance groups have formed a united front, they have often made an impact. For example, several joined forces this year to successfully fight a Baltimore County Council measure that would have required local correctional officers to participate in a federal program to carry out certain immigration-enforcement measures.
Many activist leaders say collaboration will be key to replicating that kind of success in the midterm elections.
“We have to demonstrate and write letters to elected representatives, but that has to be backed up by then working on elections, supporting candidates that meet our ideology and even recruiting candidates,” said Sheila Ruth, of the Baltimore County Progressive Democrats. “In order to do that, we have to work together. There’s a lot at stake here — not only the Trump-Republican thing we have to resist, but we want to go beyond that and start to work toward progressive priorities.”
Kathleen Matthews, who was tapped by party elders this year to chair the Maryland Democratic Party, has made a point of reaching out to progressives, inviting activists to participate in voter-outreach training sessions and giving Ruth a seat on the organization’s diversity leadership council.
Matthews said she sees progressive groups becoming “more and more organized” despite their disparate efforts.
“I see them as rocket fuel to help us move forward our efforts,” she said. “They have a lot of passion and determination and are working with us in many parts of the state.”
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who has said he will run for governor in 2018 and is courting the progressive vote, said he sees some value in the chaos, as long as the groups are generally pointed in the same direction.
“People are bringing their own activism and issues and enthusiasm to the table,” he said. “It’s organic, it’s exciting, and I’d hate for any part of that to be lost because there is a sense that we all have to coalesce around certain issues.”
Similarly, Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin, who specializes in U.S. politics and social movements, said that “movements are messy” but tend to succeed because “people agree in general what direction to move.”
For their part, Maryland Republicans say they are not particularly concerned about the surge in activism, and are focused on their quest to win enough seats in the state Senate to disrupt the Democrat’s veto-proof majority.
“Anger is not a strategy,” said state GOP chair Dirk Haire. “We’re pretty unified, and I’ve been working closely with all of our various Republican groups across the state to make sure everyone is on the same page. Republicans aren’t sitting around in a salon in Takoma Park talking about how bad Trump is. They’re walking the streets with an app on their phones, figuring out who might vote for us next year.”
With just under a year until the Democratic primary, progressive groups disagree over whether and when to endorse one of the candidates vying for the right to challenge Trump.
Some want to hold off until candidates have participated in debates and proven that they can appeal broadly to an electorate, while others plan to endorse early, in part out of concern that the state’s Democratic leaders move quickly to help centrist candidates win the party’s nomination.
“We have to make the decision earlier and unite around one candidate and bring in all the resources — the money and the people — behind them,” said Muehlenkamp, of Our Revolution, which on Friday started canvassing its supporters about endorsing Jealous, a former board member. “You won’t get the establishment Democratic Party to hold off. They’ll get together and quietly come up with whoever they’re going to support.”
Groups associated with the Indivisible movement and Women Indivisible Strong Effective, say that endorsing a gubernatorial candidate could hurt their cause in conservative-leaning districts. Their leaders said they will focus instead on educating voters about the voting records of incumbents and where candidates stand on the issues.
“If we go issue by issue, there’s a lot more room for consensus,” said Katherine Bain, a member of the steering committee for WISE’s Severna Park chapter. “We want to create a wealth of information for people and hopefully avoid this habit of people marking an entire column for either the D’s or the R’s.”
Together We Will, which hosted a June 24 meeting with progressive leaders from across the state, is working to organize a follow-up session this fall, with the goal of coordinating strategies for the state’s 2018 legislative session and primary elections.
Additionally, a coalition of activists organizing as the “progressive caucus” plans to meet July 26 to discuss how to better coordinate their efforts.
“There’s room for different strategies,” Bain said. “And we’ll see at the end of the day if that adds up to more progressive candidates winning elections.”
“People are bringing their own activism and issues and enthusiasm to the table.” State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery)