Josh Kurtz: 2018, Already

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By: Josh Kurtz

The General Assembly session hits its halfway point on Thursday, and still not much is happening.

The administration of new Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is still finding its way, and legislative leaders continue to adjust to the dramatically altered landscape. Most of the new Democratic lawmakers in Annapolis, who were elected with a certain set of goals and expectations, are realizing that those will have to be significantly scaled back. Deadlock over the next four years seems unavoidable.

So perhaps it is inevitable that a number of political people in Maryland, out of ennui or political calculation or just sheer desperation, are already starting to think about 2018, when Hogan will be vigorously challenged for re-election.

When Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) penned an op-ed piece in The Baltimore Sun a few weeks back outlining his economic development vision, some insiders saw that as the starting gun of 2018. Congressman John Delaney (D) a few days later hired Justin Schall, who had managed Anthony Brown’s disastrous campaign for governor last year, as his chief of staff. That was also a significant move – one fraught with a hundred implications.

After Republican Bob Ehrlich was elected governor in 2002, Democrats, with a surprising degree of certitude, comforted themselves thinking that Martin O’Malley – smart, telegenic, progressive, and with a saleable record of governing – would be there to save them four years later. And that if O’Malley faltered, Doug Duncan, a competent manager who had tamed the crazies in Montgomery County, would be a palatable fall-back.

But with Hogan’s victory, there is no early and obvious Democratic frontrunner for 2018. That uncertainty and the size of the field are exciting – but they also make the party establishment nervous.

And it should be nervous. Because the potential Democratic contender with the most star-like qualities – a committed progressive with an impressive record of service, able to think on his feet, articulate what he stands for, bring the fight to the Republicans and appeal to wide swaths of the electorate – is someone who cannot be easily controlled by the state’s Democratic leaders.

That would be U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

Is Perez running for governor? We don’t know that yet. Like anyone who ponders such a big move, he has a thousand considerations before he can make the commitment.

But Perez likes to say that politics is situational, and 2018 sure seems like a good situation for him. He’s got 23 more months as Labor secretary, if all goes according to plan, serving a president who remains popular with most Maryland Democrats. The timing works out for Perez – and he’s already quietly raising his profile in the state. He’s headlining the Calvert County Democratic dinner next month, has a speaking gig lined up with the Greater Baltimore Committee this spring, and is in demand with other Democratic groups.

Perez is a strategic thinker, both politically and on policy. When most Montgomery County Democrats were lining up behind Duncan’s 2006 gubernatorial bid, Perez, then a county councilman, was quietly helping O’Malley. When O’Malley and Brown backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, Perez was quietly helping Barack Obama. Perez, as a councilman, anticipated the nation’s mortgage crisis way before most politicians did. And he’s long preached the necessity of a well-educated and well-trained workforce.

Perez is a progressive rooted in the real world. With his service to Obama and as O’Malley’s Labor secretary, he’ll appeal to labor unions, but he has years working with the business community as well.

He’s also a former civil rights lawyer with ties to the Obama, O’Malley, Clinton and Kennedy camps. He has national political and fundraising connections and can generate excitement among the party faithful in Maryland like few others. If Hogan kills the Purple Line, Perez, who fought for it long before he ever got into politics, as board president of Casa de Maryland, is uniquely qualified to push back. And he doesn’t have to be told by advisers what he stands for.

Not that Perez as a statewide candidate is without flaws. He last won an election in 2002. His 2006 bid for attorney general fizzled out. He’s not a proven fundraiser (though he retains $126,000 in his campaign account). And his smarts don’t always translate well on the campaign trail.

Still, in a field with many potentially attractive contenders, Perez stands out:

-Rushern Baker is a beautiful guy who is amassing a strong record in Prince George’s County, helping to make the Jack Johnson nightmare fade. But he’ll need to upgrade his political operation by several levels if he wants to run for statewide office.

-John Delaney is smart and thoughtful, an unconventional and unbossed newcomer to politics who has unlimited resources to plow into a statewide bid, if he’s so inclined. But he barely hung on to his congressional seat in 2014. He will have to tend to the homefront before he can plot a statewide run.

-Peter Franchot has found his sweet spot as comptroller. But he’ll be 71 in 2018. He didn’t run for an open gubernatorial seat in 2014, and isn’t likely to next time, even with the $1 million he’s sitting on in his campaign account. And does his protracted bromance with Hogan really enhance his stature in a Democratic gubernatorial primary? Does it, in fact, invite a challenge from the left in 2018?

-Doug Gansler would like to get his “I told you so” tour up and running even as he’s returned to the private sector. But is anyone clamoring for a comeback?

-Kevin Kamenetz should have a strong record of fiscal management and economic development when his term ends, and he had $810,000 in his campaign account in January. He has top-notch political consultants, and an enviable perch in the Baltimore area. But it may be hard for him, at least among insiders, to shake the well-accepted notion that he’s difficult to work with.

-Heather Mizeur still has a cadre of loyal supporters. But is she even interested in harnessing that support and trying again – or turning it into a powerful progressive force? How does she stay relevant, beyond her post as Democratic National Committeewoman? Does she have the ability to run a better-funded, better-structured campaign? Would she be taken more seriously a second time around? Would she deserve to be?

-Even with a mixed record, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has plenty of potential statewide appeal, and national political ties as well. But first she’ll have to get through a difficult re-election campaign in 2016 before she can entertain any notion of a statewide run. And one prolonged crime wave in Baltimore could jeopardize her career.

-Ken Ulman found a nice landing, courtesy of Senate President Mike Miller (D) and other insiders, working for the University of Maryland Foundation as the university seeks to make College Park a mini-Silicon Valley. A good gig and a noble goal. But hardly the stuff that makes future governors, at least in the short term.

Tom Perez has had powerful political patrons, without a doubt. But he remains his own man. And after another campaign disaster featuring a candidate propped up by the Steny Hoyers, Barbara Mikulskis and Mike Millers of the world, that might be reason enough to root for Perez’s success in 2018. At the very least, let’s root for an open nominating process, unfettered by interference from the political bosses.

Now, back to the present.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.