Josh Kurtz: O’Malley and the Mod Squad

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With the 2012 General Assembly session set to begin next week, all the previews will no doubt talk about the ambitious agenda and the challenges Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) will face pushing it through.

That’s all true.

But what’s especially noteworthy about the agenda O’Malley has laid before the lawmakers is how liberal it is – and how difficult it will be for conservative and moderate Democrats to support it.

That’s a departure from the usual way of doing business in Annapolis. All too often, liberal Democrats are advised by party leaders to tone things down. An overly liberal agenda, they’re told, will rile up conservative activists and imperil Democrats who represent conservative areas.

So liberals swallow hard, lay aside their hopes and ideals, and accept compromises, with the often reneged-on promise that doing so will help protect – or even elect more – Democrats and thus make a progressive agenda more palatable sometime in the unspecified future.

This time around, O’Malley is driving a very liberal train, and it may be up to conservative and moderate Democrats to apply the brakes. They’re not being asked to make one or two tough votes this year, but a whole series of them.

Think of the top items on O’Malley’s agenda: Gay marriage. A gas tax increase. Severe restrictions on septic systems and an increase in the so-called flush tax. Expanded wind power. And on and on.

That may seem like a worthwhile agenda in the state’s more liberal precincts. But those are going to be tough items for senators like Ed DeGrange and Jim Mathias and John Astle to defend; tough for delegates like Steve DeBoy and John Bohannon and John Donohue to sell to their constituents. Even state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola, a key proponent of gay rights and more transportation spending, probably would prefer to see a more moderate agenda emerge this legislative session, now that he’s running for Congress in Western Maryland.

On top of this, social conservatives have vowed to force a referendum on gay marriage if it passes this year – as they have already succeeded in doing with the DREAM Act. Who will be caught in the crosshairs? Once again, it will be moderate and conservative Democrats.

In fact, DREAM Act supporters may find more opposition to the referendum to overturn it in rural areas, which are conservative but rely heavily on migrant labor, than they will in places like Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Most liberal Democrats aren’t yet willing to acknowledge that the referendum has a real chance of passing next November – with all kinds of political implications if it does.

Which conservative and moderate Democrats will support it? Which will oppose it? Who will keep silent?

(One interesting thing to watch is how state Comptroller Peter Franchot handles the DREAM Act referendum. He is inclined to support immigrants’ rights and is close to the leaders of the activist group CASA de Maryland – a hangover from his time representing polyglot District 20 in the House of Delegates. But the voters who are likely to embrace the referendum are the voters Franchot has been pandering to during the past few years. How does he walk this tightrope? But we digress…)

There are plenty of conservative and moderate Democrats in positions of leadership in Annapolis, from Mike Miller and Mac Middleton in the Senate to Norm Conway and Joe Vallario in the House (Mike Busch was decidedly moderate as chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, but has allied himself more with the growing segment of liberals in his caucus since he became Speaker).

How much loyalty do they owe O’Malley? Miller in particular will be sensitive to the tough votes his members will be asked to take, and will protect them to the extent that he can. The fact that many Maryland business leaders support a gas tax hike will offer some cover to moderate Democrats who vote for it.

And what does O’Malley have to offer moderate and conservatives who are wavering on whether to support his agenda – or elements of it? That’s hard to say before the General Assembly session really takes off – especially with the final version of the new legislative map due out in just a few days. Already O’Malley and Miller seem determined to cut conservative Democratic Sen. Jim Brochin off at the knees through redistricting. You can be sure that Brochin’s ideological soul mates are taking notice.

Through most of his tenure, O’Malley has maintained a solid working relationship with Miller and Busch. That’s a luxury many of his predecessors did not enjoy with the presiding officers, even if they were all from the same political party.

But O’Malley has benefited from coming after Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican. It’s as if Miller and Busch are willing to forgive – and give – O’Malley a lot, just because they had such a lousy relationship with Ehrlich. All these years later, the Mikes are still feeling burned, and O’Malley is reaping the benefits.

More evidence of the luck of the Irish – but whether it’s enough to advance O’Malley’s ambitious legislative agenda very much remains an open question.

* * *
CORRECTION: In my column last week, I incorrectly described two events for state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, one headlined by former Gov. Harry Hughes, the other by former U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, as fundraisers. My apologies to one and all.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Jim Rosapepe’s Boot & Roscoe Bartlett’s Poll

Walter Dozier, RIP

Redistricting, By the Numbers and in Black and White

Living in Infamy

Holiday Green and Anthony Brown

All I Want for Christmas Is Bob Ehrlich’s Book (Plus: A Meditation on Tom Perez)

Road to Nowhere

Hoyer on Currie: ‘The system works’

Why Glenn Ivey Will Win — And Why He Won’t
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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.