Maryland 'Democratic dominance' in numbers, not in spine

Last I checked, Maryland was a blue state. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.

There has been only one Republican governor since the 1960s, and he only managed one term. There's only one Republican in our congressional delegation. The state has not had a Republican U.S. senator since 1987, and he was a liberal.

So everyone talks about Democratic dominance here. In fact, "Maryland Politics and Government: Democratic Dominance" is the title of a political history by Herb Smith and John Willis. Even during Republican Robert Ehrlich's four years as governor (2003-2007), his party could not move the needle. In fact, growth in both independent and Democratic voters outpaced Republicans' by a 4-1 margin during that time. Ehrlich's governorship did not inspire a GOP surge.

In the General Assembly, the main color theme is blue, too. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Senate, 35-12. They outnumber Republicans in the House of Delegates, 98-43.

But "Democratic dominance" has been overstated, especially if we're talking about Democrats who keep faith with the party's progressive ideals or even know what they are — fostering a government that serves the common good, giving voice to the poor, watching out for the working class, promoting public education and environmental stewardship, exercising vigilance over the powerful while protecting the powerless.

Most of those themes defined the Democratic Party in the time of Franklin Roosevelt. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy ran with them.

But then, coming out of the Democratic wilderness years when Ronald Reagan was president, Bill Clinton decided to tone the whole Roosevelt thing down and run to the middle.

That's where Democrats generally still are — in the middling middle. That's very clear in Maryland where, despite being the dominant party, Democrats keep finding ways to be mediocre and run from their party's historic ideals. It's why they look like a party in almost constant identity crisis.

Here's what FDR once said: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."

So, of course, we have the Maryland General Assembly, dominated by Democrats, prepared to give a huge tax break to the heirs of millionaires. They're going to raise the exemption on estate taxes from $1 million to nearly $6 million, making some of the wealthiest people in one of the wealthiest states in the country even wealthier.

Meanwhile, the same legislators hesitate about giving some of the poorest Marylanders a lift by raising the minimum wage. They're going to raise it, all right — to $10.10 an hour. But, instead of making that rate effective in 2016, they are going to stretch it out to 2018.

Raising the minimum wage should be in the Democrats' wheelhouse. It should be a point of pride, a cause and action that asserts political identity. After all, it was FDR who said: "No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country."

I realize that for some modern Democrats, these references to Roosevelt seem quaint — idealist political rhetoric from the Great Depression and the New Deal, things that modern Democrats seem almost ashamed to mention in public.

It's why they don't talk much about the Affordable Care Act — they're afraid of being shouted down by some tea party grouch at a town hall or candidates forum.

It's really spineless, when you think about it.

The ACA had some serious and expensive rollout glitches — Maryland might have led the nation in rollout glitches — but at its foundation the ACA represents the kind of social progress that Democrats should crow about. It's in the job description. Democrats should be proud of the ACA and have the courage to defend it.

Millions of people already have new or improved health plans. If people keep signing up and the ACA becomes a fixed part of the nation's human services infrastructure, promised Republican repeal efforts will become irrelevant. Even tea party members, those who weren't already on Medicare, might have to admit satisfaction with finally having insurance.

The ACA passed without a single Republican vote in Congress. Democrats should remind people of that, not avoid the subject.

Same with stormwater fees in Maryland. In 2012, the General Assembly decided to pass a law to address stormwater pollution flowing into the creeks and rivers that flow into the cherished but beleaguered Chesapeake Bay. The law applied to Baltimore and nine counties; each jurisdiction was supposed to establish a fee to devote new money to projects to arrest stormwater runoff.

Republicans ridiculed the fee as a "rain tax," and two counties, Frederick and Carroll, refused to go along. What did the legislature do? It caved and granted those two whining counties an exemption to the fee requirement.

An unnecessary concession: Democrats backed down from a fight over an environmental remedy they believed needed to be made law just two years ago. Democratic dominance? In numbers, not in spine.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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