Analysis: Mikulski Power and the Democratic Challenge
By Josh Kurtz
Beleaguered Maryland Democrats may yet have some cause for optimism.
On a day when hundreds of people came together to pay tribute to venerated former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) and her 45-year political career, hopeful glimpses of the Democrats’ future were also on display Thursday.
Mikulski was, rightfully, the toast of her home town Thursday evening, her name plastered like a movie star’s on the marquee of Baltimore’s historic Senator Theater.
“I always wanted to be in the movies,” the 81-year-old former senator cracked.
The event at the Senator was a fundraiser for Emerge Maryland, a group that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. An all-star cast of speakers told stories and jokes that illuminated Mikulski’s singular career. Implied but seldom mentioned was Democrats’ horror and outrage over the state of affairs in Washington, D.C., and the fact that there’s a Republican governor in Annapolis. A video message from Hillary Clinton and a written greeting in the program from Barack Obama punctuated those sentiments.
But Mikulski, with her typical brio, was less interested in mourning and more interested in organizing – speaking more about the future than about her own storied past.
“We want our democracy back, and we’re going to get it – and it starts with you,” she exhorted the crowd.
With dozens of whooping and cheering Emerge graduates in attendance – some of them already serving in office and most of the others running for something – it was easy for Democrats to feel hopeful about the party’s future.
But inspiring as this event was meant to be (and it raised about $100,000 for Emerge), partisan Maryland Democrats dispirited by President Trump in the White House and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in Government House could find equal inspiration in a series of developments in their largely off-the-radar gubernatorial primary Thursday.
First, at the dawn’s early light, a video from Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a policy consultant and wife of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ended months of speculation, and she formally joined the gubernatorial race. The 3 ½-minute video had something for everyone, and Rockeymoore Cummings seemed completely at ease before the camera, introducing herself and talking about a range of issues.
“Maryland is blessed with many strengths, but we’re punching below our weight,” she said. “Too many Maryland families are still struggling to make ends meet. Too many live in neighborhoods where public schools have to do more and more with fewer resources. And with more than one-quarter of our state’s revenue dependent on the federal government, Trump and the congressional Republicans’ attack on civil servants, research and environmental protections undermine Maryland’s economy. And all we hear from the current governor in the face of these attacks is the sound of silence.”
Rockeymoore Cummings called herself “a leader with fresh ideas and clear metrics who can hold our government accountable for results.”
“I am not a typical politician,” she added. “In fact, I’m not a politician at all. I’m a change agent with real-world experience.”
She’s getting into the race late and is unknown to voters. But she has potential star power and a raft of connections. Her presence at the Mikulski event drew cheers.
And there were other signs of Democratic life on Thursday: Dozens of labor activists, clad in purple and gold T-shirts, jammed into a room at the headquarters of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 in Baltimore, to offer an early endorsement of former NAACP President Ben Jealous in the gubernatorial primary.
This is no ordinary labor support: SEIU has a ground game like no other union, and it isn’t often that the union’s many locals agree on an endorsement so early in a primary cycle.
“We wanted to be able to hit the ground early and have an impact at the start of the race,” Lisa Brown, the executive vice president of 1199 said in an interview.
“We want to make sure we send the message about the type of governor of Maryland we want to have early on,” added Jamie Contreras, vice president of SEIU Local 32BJ. “This is the guy we want to carry the agenda for working people.”
The room was humming with energy as a handful of labor leaders served as Jealous’ warm-up acts. They cheered as he laid out his progressive agenda, which includes free college tuition, single-payer health insurance, and a $15 minimum wage.
“With the purple and gold behind me, we’re going to get this done,” Jealous told the union members – the very activists that Democrats will need to energize if they are to have a prayer of ousting Hogan next year.
That afternoon, Jim Shea, the former managing director of the Venable law firm who is also seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, told Maryland Matters that he too favors single payer – though he expressed a preference for a federal solution rather than the state going it alone and incurring the expense. Even so, he’s proposing reforms to strengthen the health care system, ensure quality service and emphasize preventive care.
“You can’t sacrifice in any system the standards of care,” Shea said.
A few hours later, in a chilly drizzle, gubernatorial contender Alec Ross, a tech entrepreneur and futurist, stood at a waterfront bar in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood, addressing supporters. His pitch – that “talent is everywhere but opportunity is not” – is designed to prod Democrats to extend their appeal beyond well-educated elites, who have become the core of the party’s support in many places.
Ross, who grew up in West Virginia “coal country,” as he puts it, who took menial jobs to put himself through college, casts himself as the ideal candidate to spread the Democratic message to forgotten communities and reach out to voters who may have tuned the Democrats out.
That’s an essential element of what the Democratic strategy ought to be for 2018 and beyond – just as keeping the labor activists aligned with Jealous fired up is, just as encouraging minority female candidates like Rockeymoore Cummings is. Democrats now have eight candidates for governor – each with distinctive assets and something to say. Voters will need to sort through the choices and calculate who is best to take on Hogan in the general election.
Of course, all the contenders pale in comparison to Mikulski, who would surely swamp any opponent in any hypothetical election.
Speaker after speaker at the Emerge event spoke about Mikulski’s unique language and operating style – and her unparalleled ability to get things done. U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D) even read a list of her sharpest quotes – from “Behind every me is a we” to “We’re not here to haggle – we’re here to hustle.” It only seemed like a bit of hyperbole when Elijah Cummings called Mikulski “one of the greatest senators that ever lived.”
There is no Mikulski running for office in Maryland this cycle – and no one even remotely like her. But there are dozens of “BAMers” – those inspired by the career of Barbara A. Mikulski – in every corner of state and national politics.
Democrats despairing of their ability to oust Hogan in 2018 or halt the Trump agenda may want to think again, because they have a formidable ally in their corner.
“I’m not campaigning for myself,” Mikulski said. “I’m campaigning for the next generation.”