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Maryland Democrats call for state constitutional amendment to guarantee abortion rights

Maryland Democrats on Thursday called for a state constitutional amendment to guarantee a woman’s right to abortion — and Gov. Larry Hogan said he would support an effort by House Speaker Michael E. Busch to let voters decide.

The Republican governor, who has long expressed personal opposition to abortion, reacted to news of Busch’s plans to try to put the abortion issue on the 2020 ballot even before leading Democrats could stage a news conference to call on him to support Busch’s proposed constitutional amendment.

A spokesman for the governor’s campaign said that while Hogan doesn’t know that a constitutional amendment is necessary, he is comfortable with the idea of putting it on the ballot and trusts that voters would make the right decision. The spokesman did not say whether the governor would support the substance of the amendment.

The Maryland Democratic Party held a phone-in news conference Thursday afternoon aimed at highlighting the governor’s past support for government restrictions on abortion. It included lieutenant governor candidate Susan Turnbull, appearing on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous.

“We are the only ticket that will make this a priority regardless of what happens in Washington,” Turnbull said. “Saying he would let the voters decide isn’t enough. . . . How would Larry Hogan vote on this ballot question?”

Others who joined Turnbull on the call were Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Kathleen Matthews, former gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah and state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk of Prince George’s County.

Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said his call for the amendment had not been coordinated with the party’s efforts. He said the governor had promised not to make abortion an issue during his first term and had kept his word.

“I see no reason he wouldn’t support a constitutional amendment [vote] to let the voters decide in 2020,” Busch said. “There’s a lot of Republicans who would support putting it to referendum as well.”

Women’s abortion rights have been firmly protected under Maryland law since voters in 1992 decisively passed a referendum question protecting freedoms gained under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. However, that referendum did not write that decision into the state’s Constitution, where it would be more difficult to dislodge.

The 1992 vote essentially moved the abortion issue to the margins of Maryland Democratic politics for more than 25 years. In recent years, pollsters haven’t bothered to ask about the issue because it seemed to be settled in Maryland.

But new concerns have arisen among Maryland abortion rights advocates since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and President Donald Trump’s nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanagh to the high court.

Kennedy has been the swing vote on the court on abortion, coming down on the side of upholding the Roe v. Wade precedent. Abortion opponents are hopeful that Kavanagh, if confirmed, will provide the fifth vote needed to overturn Roe and return to the states the decision on whether to allow or prohibit abortions.

Democrats, including Jealous, have called on Hogan to publicly oppose the Kavanagh nomination — something the governor has refused to do. Instead Hogan has remained silent on the nomination as he’s run his own re-election campaign.

In pushing the abortion issue, Maryland Democrats are hoping a strategy that didn’t work for them in 2014 is more successful in 2018.

Four years ago, with then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown as their nominee, Democrats warned that Hogan would turn back the clock on social issues including abortion. They seized on statements by Hogan dating back to the 1980s supporting curbs on abortions.

Polling in the past found that Maryland voters strongly supported abortion rights, but Hogan won in 2014 by concentrating on bread-and-butter economics and avoiding social issues.

That is largely how he has governed, in the process maintaining some of the highest popularity ratings among the nation’s governors.

The women on the Democratic call pointed to the part of the governor’s statement in which he said he didn’t see the need for an amendment.

“If he doesn’t think it’s necessary, he doesn’t think it’s important,” said Peña-Melnyk. “He needs to tell us how he would vote.”

Hogan would not have a vote on or a veto over legislation that would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. He would only have his individual vote in the referendum itself.

Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said the last polling on the issue she has seen from Maryland was from 2006. At the time, she said, 63 percent of voters favored abortion rights.

Kromer said trying to raise concerns about Hogan’s views on abortion might not play the same way this year it did in 2014.

“There is a chance it could perhaps stick a lot more this year,” she said.

That’s the hope of Democrats such as Matthews.

“We have Donald Trump in the White House. The Republicans control the majorities in both houses of Congress,” she said. “Maryland voters believe their basic rights and freedoms are at risk in 2018 in a way they’ve never seen.”

But Kromer said Hogan might just have defused the issue.

“Hogan has a four-year track record right now of not touching these social issues,” she said.

Busch said he’s proposing the referendum because he remembers how divisive the issue was before lawmakers let voters decide in 1992. He said he’s concerned the matter could be thrown back to the states.

President Trump’s “litmus test” for judges “is where do you stand on abortion,” Busch said, “so you know the current law — Roe v. Wade — is going to be at risk…. This is a chance to prepare for that debate and give the citizens of Maryland a chance to decide whether they want to make it part of the Constitution of this state.”

Whether a constitutional amendment would go to referendum depends heavily on whether Democrats can retain their super-majorities in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates in November. If Republicans pick up enough seats to deny Democrats a three-fifths majority, they could block efforts to amend the state Constitution.

Busch said he believes Democrats will pick up seats in the House. As for the Senate, where Hogan hopes to pick up at least five seats, Busch said, I’m optimistic they’ll lose only one seat.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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