Josh Kurtz: Establishing the Establishment

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Just weeks before he formally joins the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) and his allies have become increasingly critical of the parade of political insiders who have rushed to back Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) for governor instead.

Gansler is banking on Democratic voters being willing to buck the party establishment in the primary. He thinks they’ll be ready for a change after eight years of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and is convinced that what Brown appears to be offering -- basically, at least at the moment, a third O’Malley term -- isn’t what Democrats want.

Gansler may be right. Certainly, it’s the only play he has. And he’s prepared to deploy his formidable campaign war chest to repeat the message over and over. No doubt, he’ll find receptive voters in parts of the state and in certain pockets of the Democratic electorate.

Gansler strategists are likewise puzzled that Brown has spent so much time since he formally declared his candidacy three months ago vacuuming up the insider endorsements, and they have a point. The early stages of any campaign are an opportunity for candidates to define themselves to the voters. By concentrating so single-mindedly on rounding up the usual suspects for support, Brown is essentially defining himself by the company he keeps.

But before Gansler and friends are overcome with glee, they might want to consider this: the Democratic establishment is a lot more cohesive -- and possibly, a lot more powerful -- than it’s been in decades. And that might make Gansler’s task more difficult than he thinks.

While O’Malley presides over a state Democratic universe that’s more diverse than ever, he enjoys more hegemony over the party than any of his recent Democratic predecessors -- and that probably works to Brown‘s advantage.

There are myriad reasons for this.

Think of the Maryland Democratic establishment as a group of power centers: the governor, the presiding officers of the legislature, members of the congressional delegation and the state’s U.S. senators, the mayor of Baltimore and the county executives. Now think of the cast of characters, past and present.

When he was governor, William Donald Schaefer was a charismatic figure -- and a bully. He fought with everyone. He made enemies. Even as the titular head of the state party, he didn’t do anything for party building. He endorsed George H.W. Bush for president in 1988 and Helen Bentley to succeed him in 1994. He drew congressional lines that aided the GOP.

When Schaefer became governor, the presiding officers of the legislature -- Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker Clay Mitchell -- were new, and neither had any particular ties to the new governor. Schaefer did himself no favors with Mitchell when he said un-nice things about the Eastern Shore. Miller did himself no favors with Schaefer when he said un-nice things about Baltimore.

Schaefer despised Kurt Schmoke, who was elected to succeed him as mayor of Baltimore after Du Burns served in the interim -- and vice-versa. And he found most of the county executives an impediment to his agenda. He even broke with his hand-picked lieutenant governor, Mickey Steinberg.

When Parris Glendening was elected to succeed Schaefer in 1994, most of the Schaefer crowd and much of the Baltimore establishment distrusted him and never considered him a legitimate governor. Schmoke endorsed him but later broke with him over what they might or might not have said during a meeting about casino gambling. Miller and Glendening had a history of antagonism in Prince George’s County and thus started out as combatants, though they developed a grudging respect.

The new House speaker, Casper Taylor, thought Glendening was too patronizing (and too liberal) -- and he wanted to be governor. One congressman, Ben Cardin, openly pondered running against him.

Two county executives, Doug Duncan and Dutch Ruppersberger, were part of a cabal working to oust Glendening in the 1998 primary -- and wanted to be governor themselves. Another county executive, Eileen Rehrmann, ultimately did challenge him in the Democratic primary. Another county executive, Wayne Curry, who was elected to succeed Glendening as executive in Prince George‘s County, openly despised him -- and sued to overturn his redistricting plan.

Glendening had a pretty good relationship with his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and wanted her to succeed him. But he was considered more of a liability than an asset in the final months of her campaign. What’s more, he encouraged his loyal secretary of State, John Willis, to challenge Schaefer in the 2002 Democratic primary for comptroller -- much to Townsend’s chagrin.

By comparison, O’Malley’s got it easy.

Miller and the current House speaker, Mike Busch, were so traumatized by four years of Republican Bob Ehrlich as governor that they’ve given O’Malley wide berth and have largely fallen in line when it comes to passing his agenda, with a few notable exceptions.

O’Malley had a cordial relationship with his immediate successor as mayor of Baltimore, Sheila Dixon, and when Dixon was replaced by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, he had a true ally in City Hall -- whose father’s endorsement helped give O’Malley’s mayoral candidacy a healthy dose of legitimacy when he first ran in 1999.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski is not only an ally but a mentor to the governor -- whose mother spent years on Mikulski’s payroll. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the epitome of an establishment Democrat, has never said a harsh word publicly about O'Malley.

Democratic county executives have been loyal. African-American county execs like Rushern Baker and Ike Leggett testified in favor of O’Malley’s redistricting plan even when other minority leaders blasted it.

And, of course, several of O’Malley’s political lieutenants are now guiding Brown’s campaign for governor.

When you’re aiming to run for president, as O’Malley is, you want things to be as quiet as possible politically on the home front. You want your chosen successor to win the race to replace you. You want someone you can trust running your state’s most visible -- and troubled -- jurisdiction.

Whether the political establishment’s backing of Brown is as important as Brown thinks it is -- or as insignificant as Gansler makes it out to be -- is impossible to say. And it must be pointed out that four of the state’s seven Democratic congressmen, and both of the state’s U.S. senators, and powerful county executives like Baker and Leggett and Kevin Kamenetz have yet to publicly take sides in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

The Maryland Democratic establishment, in the broadest sense, will always have its gadflies and its ideological outliers and its malcontents. And the establishment can’t always preordain elections (see Garagiola, Rob).

But this political establishment that Gansler disparages -- and that Brown has attached himself to -- is a lot more formidable and a lot less fractured than it usually is. And for now at least, that seems significant.


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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.