Richard J. Cross, III: Beware the Reactionary Progressive

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In recent years, Maryland state government has witnessed the rise of a new creature on its landscape: The reactionary progressive.

The hallmark of this new breed of political animal is a refusal to absorb election results that do not serve a desired narrative, or – in extreme cases – an unwillingness to hear the concerns of those they represent.

They also possess a penchant for in the bubble thinking, a fondness for “solutions” imposed from above, and an unfailing willingness to defend a moribund status quo.

“Trust us,” is the clarion call of the reactionary progressive. “We always know best for you…whether you like it or now.”

For the reactionary progressive, pushing through a gas tax increase – even when gas is approaching $4 a gallon and Marylanders are struggling at the pumps – is the right thing to do.   

For the reactionary progressive, proposing a ludicrous tax on chicken – as some Montgomery County legislators did in 2014, 2015, and will reportedly do so again in 2016 – is the best thing to do to help working families struggling to make ends meet.

For the reactionary progressive, a tax hike is an investment in the future, and a tax cut a reckless and irresponsible threat to “progress.”

Recently, however, Maryland’s reactionary progressives have made the defense of Maryland’s flawed, highly politicized redistricting process their latest cause du jour.

Governor Hogan has proposed an amendment to Maryland’s constitution which would put creation of state and congressional legislative districts into the hands of a nine person independent, nonpartisan commission. 

Presently, the lines are drawn by the Maryland General Assembly. Should the legislature fail to reach consensus on its own plan, the governor’s plan shall become law.

Critics of the current system maintain that it results in districts that divide communities, lack compactness and geographic integrity, and are unabashedly crafted in a way as to serve the agenda of Maryland’s progressive establishment.

As recently as 2002, Maryland’s congressional delegation was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.  Now, thanks to some creative and controversial redrawing of the lines, the split is now 7: 1 in favor of Democrats.  Putting things in context, Democrats currently outnumber Republicans in Maryland by only a 2: 1 margin.

All recent evidence is that Marylanders support a depoliticized redistricting process. Last February, a poll conducted by Goucher College's Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center showed that 72 percent of Marylanders preferred redistricting by an independent commission, compared to 22 percent who wanted to leave the decision-making to politicians.

Nonetheless, when Governor Hogan unveiled his proposal, the leaders of the Maryland General Assembly declared it dead on arrival.

Bryan Sears of The Daily Record recently asked Senate President Mike Miller to explain his views on redistricting. Miller said Hogan’s proposal should be deferred until there are “uniform national rules and it can only come from the Congress themselves or for the Supreme Court.” Miller then pointed to Pennsylvania and South Carolina as examples of states where “Republicans” hijacked the redistricting process for partisan ends.

States traditionally serve as laboratories for democracy, exploring public policy solutions in a number of arenas long before they percolate up to the federal level. California and Arizona are among those states that did not wait to create independent commissions to oversee redistricting. Other states such as Iowa and New York have freestanding advisory commissions that participate in the process. There is already ample precedent for Maryland to act now.

Further, neither Pennsylvania nor South Carolina – the examples cited by Miller – has an independent redistricting commission. Their lines are drawn by their legislatures, and are therefore prone to the kind of partisan mischief we witnessed here in Maryland during the congressional redistricting cycles of 1992, 2002, and especially 2012.

In the end, Governor Hogan may not get his redistricting proposal through the legislature. But he should respond to legislative recalcitrance by doubling down on reforms that will highlight ideological differences between him and agents of the status quo.

Other potential process changes could include:

  • Open primaries: So-called “Unaffiliated” voters are the fastest growing bloc of the electorate. Other states open their primaries to independent voters, and it makes sense for Maryland to do the same.
  • Nonpartisan elections for candidates: States such as Louisiana and California have elections in which every candidate runs in the same primary; the top two vote-getters advance to the general regardless of party affiliation.  According to the National League of Cities, 22 of the nation’s 30 largest cities have nonpartisan balloting. So do most of Maryland’s 157 municipalities. Replacing the current system with nonpartisan elections could address infuse a new degree of energy and excitement into Maryland elections.
  • Single member legislative districts: Dividing the state into 141 House districts and 47 senate districts will ensure members are directly connected and responsive to the areas they represent.
  • Term limits: Other states’ experiments with legislative term limits have yielded mixed results. This may not be a desired solution for Maryland, but there may be value in initiating a conversation.

Not every Republican is a reformer; not every Democrat is a reactionary progressive. But hopefully enough reform-minded officials exist in both parties to see the value in increasing openness and transparency in state government, and embracing the wisdom to do things differently in order to meet modern needs.

Even in a state as statist and static as Maryland, it is time to give change a chance.

Richard J. Cross III, a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter, resides in Baltimore, and can be reached at .

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