Josh Kurtz: Ervin to Leave Montgomery Council; Working Families on the March in Maryland

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D) is set to announce today that she will resign in early January to become executive director of the Center for Working Families, a national 501(c)3 issue advocacy and education organization affiliated with the politically ascendant Working Families Party.

It’s big news, of course, for Ervin’s own promising political career – and for Montgomery County politics. Already there is buzz that state Del. Tom Hucker (D) may choose to seek Ervin’s Council seat.

But perhaps more significantly, it’s further evidence that the progressive and tactically effective WFP, which has close ties to important labor unions and was a major player in Bill de Blasio’s insurgent victory in the New York City mayoral election this fall, is about to make major inroads into Maryland. This should have a significant impact on the looming debate in Annapolis over raising the minimum wage, on the 2014 elections, and on the future political discourse in Maryland – particularly in its largest jurisdictions.

“After a 10-year career in public life, it seems fitting to me that this is the next step in the journey,” Ervin said in an interview. “I’m really excited.”

Ervin’s new gig is a national position, and she’ll have more to say at a news conference in Rockville later today about the scope of her job. The position will enable her to remain in the Washington, D.C., area, though she will be traveling plenty and spending time regularly at the WFP’s national headquarters in Brooklyn.

She will, roughly speaking, be an equal to Dan Cantor, the veteran labor organizer who founded WFP in the late 1990’s and remains in charge of the organization today. WFP is a 501(c)4 – typically referred to as a social welfare organization, but equipped to engage in partisan political battles.

In its posting for the position Ervin is about to take on, the Center for Working Families wrote that the aim of the organization under its new executive director “is to articulate, advance, and implement concrete public policies that advance democracy, solidarity, and economic and racial justice in the United States…Winning the kind of changes we seek requires not only good ideas, but also the power necessary to enact and implement them.”

With de Blasio winning on a populist agenda in New York, with President Obama and Pope Francis both speaking at length recently about economic disparity in the modern world, with a host of young progressive activists coming of age around the issues of economic justice, there’s plenty of momentum behind WFP’s agenda.

The group has been most active through the years in New York, Connecticut and Oregon. But make no mistake: Maryland is an important part of the organization’s expansion plans. The group has already stuck its toe into the minimum wage debate in Maryland and is now advertising to hire a state director. Ervin will have a major say in the WFP’s direction here.

Working Families, which started in New York in the late 1990’s, calls itself a political party because in the Empire State, that’s what it is. It is one of four minor parties officially recognized by state elections officials.

But New York is one of the few states in the U.S. that enables fusion candidacies – candidates can be cross-endorsed by more than one political party and can appear on more than one ballot line. And sometimes, in close elections, the ballot line of a minor party can make a major difference in the outcome. So while the Working Families Party may occasionally run its own candidates for state or local offices, it gains its leverage by pressuring Democrats to get behind progressives in nominating contests – promising its ballot line if the Democratic nominee passes muster, and threatening to withhold it if he or she doesn’t.

On Election Day in New York City, for example, de Blasio got 753,039 votes on the Democratic line, and an additional 42,640 on the WFP line. But the WFP influence has become far greater than the number of votes it produces. Working with other progressive organizations, the WFP helps set the agenda for political campaigns and policy debates, and its influence has grown exponentially in the past decade and a half.

The WFP’s close partner, in New York and elsewhere, is the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which was started in New York in the 1930’s but began representing health care workers up and down the east coast in the 1980’s. Martin Luther King once called 1199 his favorite union, and his widow, Coretta Scott King served as its honorary chairwoman in the ‘80s. Patrick Gaspard, who was political director in the Obama White House and now serves as U.S. ambassador to South Africa, came of age politically as an operative in 1199.

Local 1199 has grown in Maryland to the point where it counts more than 9,000 members in the state and in D.C., and it is one of the most powerful labor organizations in the region. Raise Maryland, a coalition that was formed to fight for a higher minimum wage in the state, is, not surprisingly, substantially backed by 1199 – and the Working Families Party.

It’s too early to say just how the WFP plans to exert its influence in Maryland. While it probably won’t attempt to become a political party it will certain put pressure on Democratic officials at all levels of government.

It will also be interesting to see how its presence here affects Progressive Maryland, an organization whose influence has waxed and waned in its 15 years of existence – and which, coincidentally, is holding its annual awards dinner tonight in Greenbelt. Will Progressive Maryland, which has a strong labor base of its own and has been promoting the regional minimum wage hike in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and the WFP be able to work together? Or will they become like the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea, the bitter, sectarian rivals in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”?

Kate Planco Waybright, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said in an email last night that she's "excited about the WFP coming to Maryland. "For the past 12 years, Progressive Maryland and our 43 affiliates have been on the forefront of efforts that build power for working families in the Free State," she said. "We know that WFP has played a similar role in NY and so we're excited to see what future collaborations might be possible in Maryland."

Valerie Ervin will have a lot of say over this – and over the direction of an organization that is poised to have a huge influence over a variety of political and policy debates over the next few years.

For Ervin, it’s a chance to work several of her pet issues on a bigger stage. But the job is likely to keep her politically viable in Maryland down the line, if that’s what she wants.

“I don’t see this as an ending, I’m seeing this as a beginning,” she said.

In the short term, the Montgomery County Council gets to choose Ervin’s successor for the remainder of the year. The question is whether Ervin’s colleagues will select a placeholder who will not seek a full term in 2014.

Already Evan Glass, a community and political activist who is a former CNN producer, has declared for Ervin’s Council seat, and others are almost certain to follow. Terrill North, a former environmental lawyer and ex-Capitol Hill staffer who lives in the district, is running for an at-large Council seat but could pivot and seek Ervin’s seat now that she’s leaving. Casey Anderson, a member of the county planning board, and Chris Barclay, a member of the school board, may also run.

And there are about a dozen candidates running for the House of Delegates in Dist. 20, whose district lines roughly overlap with Ervin’s Council district boundaries. Some may now be enticed by a Council vacancy.

Pay particularly close attention to Hucker – who just happens to have been the first executive director of Progressive Maryland and its predecessor, Progressive Montgomery. Some insiders believe he will now eye Ervin’s Council seat as well. That could create its own set of dominoes.

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

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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.