Clayton Mitchell: There’s Blue Dog Room in Maryland’s New Third Party

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By: Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr., Esquire 

Many people have asked me why I have not written an article for almost a year. To be honest, it is because I have been embarrassed.You see, my whole life I have been a traditional conservative “Blue Dog” Eastern Shore Democrat, in the tradition of my father (R. Clayton Mitchell, Jr.), Thomas Hunter Lowe and Walter Baker. Even as the Eastern Shore became more Republican, I stubbornly held on to the belief that there was room in the Maryland Democratic Party for a fiscally conservative member.

I was wrong.

Today’s Democratic Party is nothing like the party I grew up with. Within my lifetime, President John F. Kennedy – a tax-cutting, staunch anti-communist leader – had the vision to marshal our national resources and recruit the best and the brightest among us for a mission to land “a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth.” He loathed our Soviet enemies and courageously stared them down during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the 1990s, President Clinton, cooperating with a Republican-controlled Congress, abandoned the “tax-and-spend” Washington zeitgeist and presided over a lustrum of unprecedented prosperity. After President Clinton declared, “The age of big government is over”, the annual federal budget surpluses became so large that Congress fought over what to do with the massive “peace dividends.” The Clinton era was the modern apotheosis of divided government cooperation and productivity.               

Locally, we had Democratic leaders like Governor Marvin Mandel, who took a bloated and cumbersome state government of over 240 scattered agencies and commissions and taxonomically organized them into 12 departments with individualized focused missions. Under his tenure, the judiciary was restructured into a cohesive four-tiered trial and appellate court system. Government reorganization and efficiency was his administration’s mantelpiece.

Personal issues aside (because to me good governance is all that matters) – these gentlemen were not just good Democrats – they were models of great American leadership.

But that was then and this is now.

The Current Democratic Incarnation

On the national level since at least 2007, the Obama / Pelosi / Reid Democrats have commandeered the JFK-Democratic Party and converted it into a progressive movement. These national party chiefs have demanded that party members embark on an evangelical mission of collectivism, bellicose environmentalism, and applied Keynesian economics.

The current national progressive vision is a pronounced departure from the American ambitions of the past two centuries. The party no longer considers America’s borders as restrictive boundaries. It no longer views the country as a melting pot, but as a collection of competing constituent interests divided by race, gender and class. Its antiseptic sectarian social agenda tends to view our founding principles as malevolently misplaced. It views “fairness” as mandatory equal outcomes while arguing that free market capitalism unfairly rewards the entrepreneur. I could dilate with supporting examples if coaxed, but I do not wish to write an encyclopedia.

At the state level since 2007, when faced with a perpetual structural deficit and decreased revenues due to the Great Recession, the O’Malley / Brown administration augmented the state government’s treasury through a series of increased taxes, fees and new revenue sources.  Without the ability to print money, the administration had little choice but to take these actions to fund its priorities. During the past few years, the economy has partially recovered and state revenues are up.

Progressives in Annapolis, however, did not regard the increased taxes as the temporary panacea for escaping the Great Recession’s deleterious effects. They were inappropriately treated as nourishment for new spending. While state employees were inflicted with pay cuts, furlough days, and a significantly larger contribution for their pension costs, the progressives simultaneously proposed new programs and abandoned most other meaningful belt-tightening measures. Despite Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s affectations to the contrary, according to the Department of Legislative Services, the state’s budget was never cut in real terms during his tenure – it increased from $29.6 billion in 2008 to $37.2 billion in 2014 – a $7.6 billion dollar increase.

In local Eastern Shore elections since 2006, the field of Democratic candidates offered little for economic amelioration. Improving the local economy by implementing pro-growth economic and land use policies should have been of paramount importance. Instead, the Democratic candidates only appeared concerned with ensuring that no trees were cut down and that farmers were restrained from land development. At a swearing in ceremony for local officials several years ago, a newly elected ecocentric Democratic official pledged to represent “the two-legged citizens and the four-legged citizens.” This is not how rational Eastern Shore residents view the world and a reason that official is no longer in office.

A Viable New Third Party: The “Change Maryland” Republicans

Beginning in early 2013, the race for a new Maryland Governor commenced. Both parties conducted primary contests and the major party nominees were Democrat Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and former Ehrlich Appointments Secretary, Republican Larry Hogan.

Larry Hogan is a businessman who calls himself a Republican – and he is. But, unlike past gubernatorial contests, he did not wage his campaign as a clash of left-versus-right ideologies.  Through his grassroots organization, “Change Maryland,” he offered – for the first time in memory – an alternative campaign opportunity for people of all parties to come together to put the unchecked expansion of state government spending back on track.

Unlike the Republican stereotype, Mr. Hogan did not run on an austerity platform; he simply postulated that we have to re-examine the state government’s breadth and scope, make it more efficient, eliminate excess regulation and roll back as many of the recently enacted 40 tax increases as possible. On more than one occasion, he declared that Maryland does not have to have the lowest taxes in the nation but that it does have to be competitive with other states.

This message resonated with Blue Dog Democrats – and that demonstrated the genius of the Change Maryland movement. By presenting a fiscally responsible message that is sensitive to a fertile business climate while recognizing the importance of funding fundamental government services, the Hogan tent instantly doubled in size. The affinity of fiscal conservatism and social responsibility promoted by Change Maryland was seductively refreshing.

But make no mistake – it was Democrats who selected Larry Hogan to be their next governor. In a state where Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in party registrations, it is impossible for Republicans to unilaterally elect one of their own to statewide office. Because statewide offices cannot be gerrymandered, and because most peoples’ politics are “center-right,” Republican Larry Hogan’s decisive victory in November proved he was the only true populist candidate.

There are important reasons why conservative and moderate Democrats felt at ease voting for Mr. Hogan. Most importantly, Larry Hogan understood that he would matriculate to the state’s highest office only through significant support from these disaffected Democrats and Independents. The Hogan Administration’s mandate is not to intentionally antagonize these core groups, but to promote a new course of reining in the geometric increase in state spending funded in part by newly discovered tax sources – like rain. If displayed on a Venn diagram, the area where the Republican position overlaps with the moderate Democrat and Independent positions is Mr. Hogan’s “Change Maryland” mandate. It is patently clear that the overlapping mandate area is discernibly “center-right” – which is much further to the right on the political spectrum than the liberal ethos that has dominated Annapolis in recent years.

With pre-election opinion polls reporting a 4- to 12-point Brown / Ulman advantage, it is obvious that there were many closeted Hogan-Democrat supporters. Now that a broadly appealing Republican candidate has been decisively elected to statewide office, the warp and woof of polarized partisan Maryland politics has been renovated. Voters no longer have to choose between the usual extreme left or extreme right nominees promulgated by the two major parties.

The Hogan / Rutherford ticket emerged from the cocoon of the traditional Republican Party and morphed into a viable de facto third party: the party of moderation, reasonableness and governmental self-control. Mr. Hogan gave no indication that he was hell-bent on pursing a procrustean right-wing social agenda. The Change Maryland organization employed a hybrid of the two party ideologies which proved to be an effective catalyst for capturing Democratic and Independent votes for Hogan in the state’s 20 conservative “red county” jurisdictions.

An advantage for Eastern Shore Blue Dogs casting a vote for Mr. Hogan is that for the first time in years, the Eastern Shore’s concerns cannot be ignored. The nine Shore counties voted for Mr. Hogan in overwhelming numbers – as high as 80% in Queen Anne’s County. This statistic may come as a shock to voters living in the four liberal “blue counties,” but if they would travel outside of their jurisdictions they would realize that red county voters do not subscribe to the blue county philosophy of governance. Eastern Shore residents have no desire to have their way of life fundamentally changed in order to comport with blue county attitudes.

For years, the progressives in Annapolis have had no motive to listen to the Shore Delegation. Based on the Shore’s overwhelming support for his campaign, Mr. Hogan is empowered to be the Shore’s strongest lobbyist during the legislative sessions. No longer will our legislators feel as though their opinions will fall on deaf ears in Annapolis.

The Change Maryland Candidate: He’s a Mountain, Not a Molehill

Blue county progressive leaders are certainly pondering what went wrong during the campaign. The general election was Brown’s to lose – and little did anyone realize he was perfectly capable of doing it. An excellent inventory of “How Brown Blew a Sure Thing” is in Barry Rasovar’s November 6, 2014, article of the same title for the Maryland Reporter. The article’s most striking theme is the extent to which Lt. Governor Brown was detached and disinterested in mingling with the folks and his reluctance with making sufficient exertions to uncover the pressing issues on voters’ minds. Mr. Brown mistakenly left the dirty work of addressing contentious campaign issues with his confederates. By remaining within a self-imposed quarantine, Mr. Brown became a distant figure, publicly protected by a cadre of handlers and only sighted when he appeared at choreographed events.

Meanwhile…Mr. Hogan (who insists to be addressed as “Larry”) literally rolled up his sleeves, traveled the state on his tour bus (registered with Maryland, not Virginia, tags), spoke and shook hands with every Marylander he could meet while his every move was videotaped by the Brown campaign. Over the summer, Hogan had a ubiquitous presence at the season’s most prominent political gathering – the Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield. He frequently visited Baltimore City as well as Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore counties. His outreach to voters through the Change Maryland Facebook page reached over 120,000 people on a daily basis. Conversely, Lt. Governor Brown’s social media presence barely reached 17,000 people – an indication of the campaign’s fear and loathing of direct interaction with voters. Given the negative tone of his Facebook subscribers’ responses to his campaign’s posted messages, his fears were justified.

Mr. Brown’s most egregious miscalculation was that he did not take the general election seriously.  Anybody who competes wants to win.  Sometimes in the anxiety to win, people say disfiguring things.  As reported in the Washington Post’s May 8, 2014 edition, Mr. Brown considered, “…the primary ‘the bigger objective’ in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1. ‘We take that hill, and then we’ve got a little bit of a molehill to take in November’ Brown said.”

By uttering those words, Anthony Brown’s disconnect with the voting public was manifest. His underestimation of the public’s fury with his administration’s recent tax and fee increases and with his assigned supervisory role over the failed healthcare website rollout was astounding. The Lieutenant Governor failed to recognize that the “molehill” event was to be the plebiscite on his past performance and future promises – a referendum that included unhappy members of his own party.

The Pre-Election October Surprises and the Blue Dog Obliteration

A series of events affirmatively demonstrated that today’s progressive Maryland Democrats have permanently parted ways with the JFK-Democratic Party traditions.

First: The 40 cited O’Malley/Brown tax increases were originally touted as a permanent cure for the state’s structural deficit and the transportation and educational programs’ fiscal woes. Even in the face of this tax funded promise (as reported by the Associated Press on October 14, 2014) the Board of Public Works was forced at its October meeting to cut $400 million dollars from the state’s current budget to cure the latest infection from the ballooning structural deficit, with another round of budget cuts planned for December. The Associated Press report stated (Democrat) Comptroller Peter Franchot was opposed to more tax and fee increases to bring the current budget into balance: “‘Those things haven't worked,’ says Franchot. ‘We can't tax, borrow, or gamble our way out of this economic crisis. It is too big and too serious. We have to reform state spending from top to bottom.’”

Mr. Franchot’s declaration was a political lightning bolt that echoed the Hogan campaign’s “Change Maryland” theme just three weeks prior to the election. As a major Democratic leader, Comptroller Franchot conferred upon his fellow Blue Dog Dems validation for their views and comfort with voting for Mr. Hogan’s campaign platform.

Second: It was disconcerting to hear Mr. Brown propose a new statewide “Pre-K” program without identifying a specific adequate funding source (like Heather Mizeur’s marijuana taxes). During October’s televised debates, and after touting the merits of his proposed Pre-K program, Lt. Governor Brown unequivocally promised that there would be “no new taxes” in a Brown / Ulman administration.

In the face of the acknowledged $400 million deficit in conjunction with a “no new tax” pledge, conservative Democrats asked, “How the hell is he going to pay for that new program?” Don’t get me wrong, a Pre-K program is a great idea – and idealism is fine…but (to borrow a phrase from William Buckley) “as idealism becomes reality its costs become prohibitive”, especially in an era of unresolved budgetary problems. The logical follow-up question was, “If the Pre-K program is passed, will it become necessary to raise taxes and fees (or legalize marijuana) to fund it?” The answer of course is in the call of the question.

Third: Another seminal event was the administration’s breach of its promise to bolster the underfunded state pension system. State employees, who historically contributed little towards their defined benefit, previously agreed to contribute 7 percent of their salaries to the pension fund and furthermore agreed to a new conditionally restrictive formula for the receipt of future pensions. Concomitantly, the administration agreed that the state budget would provide for an annual payment of $300 million dollars towards the pension fund as part of a comprehensive plan designed to reach Wall Street-acceptable solvency levels. Notwithstanding this agreement, in the 2014 Legislative Session, the administration re-appropriated $200 million from the promised pension fund payment to the general fund to balance the state’s budget.

Not to be outdone, as reported in the Washington Post’s October 27, 2014, edition, the administration now proposes “…to divert $100 million annually in scheduled contributions to the state pension fund to help close the state’s chronic structural deficit.” State employees, however, are paying their promised share and keeping their part of the bargain.

As noted by commentator Blair Lee IV in a Gazette newspaper editorial of the same date, “During the next eight years (two governor’s terms) Maryland’s stagnant economy is on a collision course with its reckless spending habits. But the economy isn’t going to improve, so it’s the spending habits which must change. The longer we ignore this reality, the worse the inevitable consequences.” In October, the “Change Maryland” theme seemed to reverberate from everywhere.

Fourth: The rejection of Doug Gansler by a wide margin of Democratic voters supported a finding that a fiscally conservative, socially moderate gubernatorial candidate has no quarter in the Maryland Democratic Party. Heather Mizeur, an intelligent, relative newcomer and the most liberal candidate (who proposed to legalize and tax marijuana to fuel more spending), had almost as many votes as Mr. Gansler. After comparing the combined Mizeur and Brown votes to the Gansler votes, it was clear that a Blue Dog Democrat has no chance of winning a Maryland gubernatorial primary election for the foreseeable future.

As for the legislature, the “…obliteration of the Democratic Party’s moderate-conservative wing in Annapolis” was detailed in Barry Rascovar’s November 14, 2014 article. Mr. Rascovar observed, “The Democratic Party’s fulcrum in the State House is now dangerously weighted to the strident left. The party’s center-right legislators have shrunk to a handful. It’s tough even coming up with who you’d place in that category in the House of Delegates once you get beyond House Speaker Mike Busch. You can count less than 10 moderates still left in the Senate, including President Mike Miller….”

Fortunately for Blue Dog Dems, President Miller and Speaker Busch remain in place as the legislative branch’s powerful moderating counterbalances.

Blue Dogs in the Outhouse: A Time For Choosing

The November 4th national and state election results illustrated that I am not the only lifelong Democrat who feels alienated from the party. In my disenfranchisement, and with the recognition that a moderate to conservative candidate cannot win a Democratic gubernatorial primary, I pensively deliberated about what to do. The choice of which gubernatorial candidate was in accord with my philosophy in this general election was crystal clear. But what action should I take after the election?

Sheldon Adelson’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal’s November 4, 2012, edition sums up my view better than any words I can assemble: “I feel obligated to speak up and support the American ideals I grew up with — charity, self-reliance, accountability. These are the age-old virtues that help make our communities prosperous. Yet, sadly, the Democratic Party no longer seems to value them as it once did. That's why I switched parties…. Although I don't agree with every Republican position — I'm liberal on several social issues — there is enough common cause with the party for me to know I've made the right choice.”

Why change to Republican and not to Independent? Independents are impotent for selecting candidates in primary elections. The Eastern Shore is overwhelmingly Republican because most Blue Dog Dems made the conversion long ago. What remains in the relics of the Eastern Shore Democratic Party are mostly progressive ideologues who are more akin to liberal Mizeur voters than to moderate Gansler or Franchot voters. For an Eastern Shore Blue Dog to remain a Democrat or register as an Independent is a seemingly useless endeavor. Our opinions within these diminishing local parties are brusquely disregarded. Blue Dog candidates have no chance of winning a local Eastern Shore Democratic primary election – but they have a fighting chance in a Republican primary.

Why not remain a Democrat and help reform the party from the inside? Based on the primary results, any remaining old-style conservative Eastern Shore Democrats are vastly outnumbered by progressive Democrats in the blue counties. To that point, personal experience has shown me that significant numbers of blue county progressives have judged the Shore’s people with extreme prejudice. Our homeland has been infamously described by a sitting Democratic Governor as the “outhouse side of Maryland” -- full of unsophisticated hayseed farmers and waterman in desperate need of enlightenment. Besides, the Change Maryland Republicans accept disillusioned Democrats as companion members.

Eastern Shore residents also understand that a significant number of blue county progressive legislators have a “who cares?” attitude on the negative effects of implementing undifferentiated tax policies on Eastern Shore businesses. For example, Annapolis uniformly applied the state’s newly raised 6% sales tax on the Shore’s retail businesses – businesses that are fettered to the same peninsula with another state that has a zero percent sales tax.  Does anyone in Annapolis think Shore residents are paying a 6% premium just to make purchases in Maryland? Does anyone in Annapolis wonder why Middletown, Delaware, is a boomtown surging with economic growth while neighboring Kent County, Maryland, is stagnating?

As Senator Barry Goldwater once said, “This is a time for choosing.” The Change Maryland movement invited my participation as a fiscal conservative and the newly-moderated Maryland Republican Party made ample room for my social views. The blue county Maryland Democrats seems to prefer that I keep my little town views to myself and march in lockstep with the urban progressives.

Does this mean from now on I will only vote for a straight Republican ticket? No! – and I previously never voted for a straight Democratic ticket. Voting strictly Republican is not what the Change Maryland movement is about.

The Change Maryland movement is non-partisan -- it is about voting for the best person who has the genuine desire to deliver efficient high-quality government services within the limits of finite taxpayer resources. That is why I did, in fact, vote for numerous Democrats seeking other statewide and local offices and still ardently support red county Democratic legislative leaders like Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch (who will soon face the unenviable Herculean task of tempering the demands of the growing number of far-left members in their respective chambers).

I live on the Eastern Shore. The Eastern Shore’s culture is not comprised of urban progressive liberals. We are a proud rural community of self-reliant farmers, watermen, health care workers, teachers, small business owners, professionals and public servants. In sum, the Eastern Shore voted in overwhelming numbers to “Change Maryland” because quite frankly we are tired of the blue counties’ incessant flagellations on our way of life – a way of life symbolized by the farmer and the fisherman depicted on the Great Seal of Maryland.

Clayton A. Mitchell, Sr. is an attorney in Stevensville and regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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