Josh Kurtz: Maryland: Laboratory of Democracy?

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By Josh Kurtz

It’s hardly a secret that today’s national political discourse is dominated by polar extremes, by organizations and advocacy groups that are funded by big-moneyed interests, and by media outlets that exploit voters' fears and fuel their contempt for government.

Small wonder average voters, who are often closer to the ideological center, usually feel left out of the political process. Imagine what our democracy would look like if voters had more of a say -- and if politicians didn't have to pander to the basest elements (as opposed to the bases) of their parties.

A senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and a seasoned Maryland political operative are trying to do something about this sorry state of affairs. They have launched an organization designed to restore citizens’ voices to the political process – and lower the partisan temperature on Capitol Hill in the bargain.

"This is an idea to have an impartial third party, a marker, to tell Congress where the people in their districts really are," said Richard Parsons, the organization’s executive director.

Next week, their group, Voice of the People, is going to ramp up its activities. Its goal is nothing less than to help elected officials make more informed choices – and to increase voter turnout.

“People are not participating in the political process because they’re smart, not because their stupid,” Parsons said. “They’re perceiving that their voice has no impact.”

Parsons, who has worn many hats in Maryland and national politics over the past quarter century, including as executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party and president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, is working with Steven Kull, a public opinion expert who is senior research scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies to launch the project. They are hoping to set up ideologically balanced “citizens’ panels” around the country that will weigh in on the burning issues of the day, giving lawmakers unadorned opinions about where the public stands – without the interference of pollsters, cable news, talk radio and other professional provocateurs.

“Not Fox News facts, not MSNBC facts – actual facts,” Parsons explains.

Voice of the People is using three states for a pilot project – Democratic-leaning Maryland, Republican-heavy Oklahoma, and a swing state, Virginia. Drilling down further, the group is using two congressional districts in its pilot – Maryland’s 7th, based in Baltimore and represented by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D), and Oklahoma’s 4th, in the south-central part of the state, which is represented by Rep. Tom Cole (R).

Cummings and Cole were chosen not just because their districts are so different from one another. Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and enjoys widespread respect on both sides of the aisle. He has spent his entire career trying to make the political process more inclusive.

Cole ran his own political consulting firm before being elected to Congress. He’s an unabashed conservative and partisan – he even served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee a few election cycles ago. But he has become increasingly critical of the forces within the House GOP that are hostile to government and have made Congress so dysfunctional.

Both congressional offices are cooperating with the project.

Next week, at press events in Baltimore and Oklahoma, the group will reveal the first issue its citizens’ cabinets will tackle.

Poring through voter files, the organization plans to identify 120,000 people to participate in the project nationwide. To become a member of a “citizens’ cabinet,” voters will have to agree to take an online 20- or 25-minute survey on a burning issue perhaps once a month. The organization will provide fact-based briefing papers that the cabinet members will read before taking the survey. The group will then provide the survey results to the members of Congress. It's a far more rigorous process than merely answering polling questions.

For the Maryland pilot, Voice of the People is surveying about 500 people statewide, and 400 people in Cummings’ district.

"The hope is, the members who see these results over the next few months will talk to their colleagues about it," Parsons said.

Parsons and his colleagues have had about 65 meetings with member of Congress or their staffs, and have been met with widespread enthusiasm.

“In our meetings, we didn’t have a single person tell us this was a crappy idea,” Parsons said. It was if the lawmakers and their aides were desperate for ways to extract themselves from the ideologically-driven special interests that dominate their political parties – and were looking for political cover to do the right thing by knowing more authoritatively where the people stand.

“You can take that or leave that as a representative,” Parsons said. “But they should at least know where the public is…The one thing that’s lacking as they make their decisions is the reasoning of the public.”

Voice of the People has an impressive list of bipartisan leaders serving on its advisory board, including former Maryland Congressman Mike Barnes (D) and former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D). Republicans include former Delaware Congressman Mike Castle, and Carlos Gutierrez, who was secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush.

Parsons said the pilot program will run for about half a year, and then the group's organizers aim to take it national, with financial assistance from foundations and other do-gooders.

"There's so much hunger out there," he said, "for the public to be heard."

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.