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News Opinion Editorial

Mizeur, Coates and the evolution of Maryland politics [Editorial]

The conventional political wisdom about Del. Heather Mizeur's pick of the Rev. Delman Coates as her running mate is that it shows her campaign for governor is more about making a point than winning the Democratic primary, much less the general election. But the more interesting question is not what the selection says about the Mizeur campaign than what the Mizeur campaign says about the state of Maryland politics.

Reverend Coates is the pastor of the 8,000-member Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George's County. He is best known as one of the most prominent faces in the campaign for marriage equality in 2012, but he is a long-time champion for a variety of social and economic justice issues. Crucial to the standard political analysis, though, is the fact that he does not hold elective office and never has. The issue has nothing to do with qualifications and everything to do with what the selection says about how eager prospective candidates are to join the ticket. What is the No. 2 giving up in exchange for the possibility of what is, in truth, not that great a job?

The ultimate validation-by-selection this year was the case of Lt. Gov. (and presumed front-runner) Anthony G. Brown getting Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to join his ticket. Mr. Ulman was himself preparing a gubernatorial bid, and the fact that he was willing to put his own ambition on hold in service of the Brown campaign was generally read as a signal of Mr. Brown's inevitability. The other two candidates who have named running mates so far, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Harford County Executive David Craig, both followed the pattern, picking sitting members of the House of Delegates — Jolene Ivey and Jeannie Haddaway, respectively. Unlike the rest, Reverend Coates can go back to his day job if Ms. Mizeur loses.

The fact that Mr. Coates does not balance the ticket other than racially — de rigueur at this point in Maryland Democratic politics — could be read as a further sign that Ms. Mizeur is not doing what it takes to win. Like her, he is from the Washington suburbs, and like her, he is well to the liberal side of the spectrum.

But what that analysis misses is the extent to which we have shifted from a tribal to an ideological stage in our politics. When Gov. Martin O'Malley wanted to demonstrate his strength against then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006, he trotted out a who's who of endorsements from the Baltimore County political establishment at the Battle Grove Democratic Club in Dundalk. That's the way politics in this state used to be organized. Now, though, it's less a matter of family and community tradition and more a question of political philosophy. To a great extent, machine politics has given way to people organizing through affinity groups on Facebook and Twitter that make old geographic boundaries irrelevant.

In the process, the character of Democratic politics has changed. Traditionally, the party's office holders were often moderate or even conservative on social and cultural issues. But the last four years saw a real shift to the left in Annapolis, where lawmakers passed bills legalizing gay marriage, allowing some illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, abolishing the death penalty, and enacting some of the strictest gun control measures in the country. The first two were approved by the voters with comfortable margins in referendums, and the latest polling shows that more voters support the death penalty repeal than oppose it. Activists were unable to muster the signatures to take the gun control law to referendum. This year the state Senate voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the effort to raise the state's minimum wage is gaining steam heading into next year's General Assembly session. The latest Goucher poll puts support for an increase in the minimum wage to $10 at greater than 70 percent.

There's not much electoral room for a candidate to run to the right of the field in next year's Democratic primary — Comptroller Peter Franchot, an astute reader of the political landscape, kicked the tires on that proposition rather thoroughly and decided to stay put. But there is room on the left, and Ms. Mizeur has that lane all to herself. Picking Reverend Coates solidifies her position.

It's an open question as to whether Ms. Mizeur's views represent the mainstream in Maryland, but there's no doubt that they speak to a large swath of the Democratic primary electorate. How well she does next year depends not on whether she does conventional things like picking a running mate from Baltimore's ranks of elected officials but on how well she can get her message out to the increasingly powerful liberal wing of the Maryland Democratic Party.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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