Blue Maryland gets more liberal [Editorial]

Maryland has long been a heavily Democratic state, but 2013 may have cemented its status as a truly liberal one.

The two things were not always synonymous. Though Democrats have dominated the legislature and governor's mansion for decades, the party's caucus has traditionally been ideologically diverse, with healthy doses elected officials who voiced relatively conservative fiscal and social views. They represented places like Dundalk or Southern Maryland where voters abandoned the Democratic nominee in 2002 to elect Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. governor. Increasingly, though, conservative Democrats have been replaced by more liberal ones, and that ideological shift reached its full flower in 2013.

It was this year when the state's trajectory became clear — and when the backlash against it grew more intense. The 2012 election included important liberal victories, to be sure, with the voters' validation of laws allowing same-sex couples to marry and some immigrants who are in the country illegally to get in-state tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities. But the election also validated old-school, insider Democratic politics with the voters' approval of the state's egregiously gerrymandered Congressional district maps and an expansion of gambling championed by the avatar of the Democratic machine, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

That left two paths for lawmakers to choose in 2013, and it was entirely possible — perhaps even likely given, the rhythms of Maryland politics — that the state's leaders would follow the latter. Historically, legislators have been loath to rock the boat in the year or two before an election, and given the progressive advances of 2012, the General Assembly seemed ripe for a retrenchment. Meanwhile, Gov. Martin O'Malley was making noises about changing the law to make it harder for voters to petition laws to referendum — an idea that would further cement the influence of the powers-that-be.

But outside forces intervened to steer the state in a different direction. First, NAACP President Ben Jealous sought to place the repeal of the death penalty — long a priority of Governor O'Malley but not one he was prepared to spend any more political capital on — at the top of the agenda in Annapolis in 2013. Then a lone gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and several adults. Finally, just as the General Assembly was set to convene, then-Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell unveiled a massive transportation funding package.

Looking back on the last several years, it would be easy to credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) Governor O'Malley for leading the state in a more liberal direction. But the bigger story is the extent to which the state has pulled him and other leaders to the left. When Mr. O'Malley opened the legislative session, he planned to try again for a bill facilitating the development of an off-shore wind farm, but neither a transportation tax package nor the death penalty repeal were on his agenda at that point. He was committed to pursuing new gun control measures, but it was unclear just how far he would go.

In the end, thanks to concerted outside pressure, he championed what was likely the toughest package of gun control measures to pass in any state this year. Governor O'Malley won repeal of the death penalty, secured a major new funding package for roads and mass transit, and got his long-sought offshore wind legislation. And in the meantime, the legislature enacted a medical marijuana program and almost decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot altogether. The proposal to make referendums harder went nowhere, but a package of good-government bills — including the most significant campaign finance reform in a generation — passed easily.

Conservatives sought to petition both the gun control package and the death penalty repeal to referendum, but they could not get enough signatures in either case. After the failures of the previous year's efforts to overturn laws at the ballot box, there was little institutional support for the arduous process of canvassing for signatures this time.

The leftward trend continued throughout the year, up through the recent votes by the Montgomery and Prince George's county councils to raise the local minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. The minimum wage is now expected to be one of the biggest issues in the 2014 General Assembly session, with Governor O'Malley and all the major Democratic candidates to replace him backing an increase.

The seriousness with which the candidacy of Del. Heather Mizeur is being greeted is a testament to the power of the liberal wing in Maryland Democratic politics. The other two major Democratic candidates in the race — Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — are running campaigns that are, at least broadly, in the same ideological spectrum as Mr. O'Malley, and even in some respects to the right of him. But Ms. Mizeur is betting on a strategy of outflanking them to the left. A supporter of higher taxes on the rich, a minimum wage of $16.70 (by 2022) and full legalization of marijuana, she is running the most purely liberal campaign the state has seen in at least a generation.

But the backlash, particularly in rural parts of the state, also intensified this year. A 2012 law requiring nine counties and Baltimore City to enact a tax or fee to pay for stormwater management upgrades needed to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay pollution diet got dubbed by critics the "rain tax" and became one of the biggest political issues of 2013.

Laura Neuman, the newly appointed Republican county executive in Anne Arundel, made the veto of the stormwater fee one of her first acts in office. Frederick County's commissioners set their fee at a penny per property owner. Carroll County refused to enact a fee at all. And in a reflection of the general rightward tilt of the Republican gubernatorial primary, Harford County Executive David Craig, who has generally been considered a moderate, pushed to repeal his county's fee, the legislation for which he had introduced and signed.

At the same time, a group of conservative dissenters in Western Maryland (which in this context includes Carroll and Frederick counties) began talking up the idea of seceding and creating a 51st state. Perhaps the most immediate impetus was the state's new congressional district map, which resulted in that area being represented by two Democrats from Montgomery County, but the grievances against a state whose politics are dominated by the Baltimore-Washington corridor run deep. If Maryland is America in miniature because of its geography, so too is it by dint of its politics in which conservative rural counties feel they have less and less in common with liberal urban and suburban ones.

The contrast in attitudes was well exemplified when Texas Gov. Rick Perry paid Maryland a visit in an attempt to recruit its companies away to what he paints as a pro-business paradise. It's a trick he's pulled in a few other states, but by dint of Maryland's proximity to Washington and its cable TV news studios, he wound up this time in a debate with Governor O'Malley on CNN's Crossfire. The most enlightening hour of television it was not, but the encounter did nicely illuminate the philosophy Maryland has followed, particularly during the O'Malley years. Rather than pursuing the low-tax, light-regulation model embodied by Governor Perry's Texas, Maryland has operated under the assumption that the state can prosper by providing high-quality public services — education, transportation, health care and environmental protection — and asking its residents to pay for them.

Are Marylanders still happy with that bargain? Former Ehrlich administration official Larry Hogan boasts nearly 70,000 Facebook likes for his group, Change Maryland, which is dedicated to the proposition that the state has gone badly off track. Now he's running for governor amid the broadest GOP field in decades. Will one of them turn in an unexpectedly strong performance and become the surprise of 2014, or will it be Delegate Mizeur? Has the pendulum swung too far to the left or not far enough? We're about to find out.

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