Democrat-dominated Maryland not quite as liberal as its leaders


Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, Maryland State Del. Heather Mizeur and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown take part in a Democratic primary gubernatorial debate at the University of Maryland on May 7 in College Park. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Candy and Walter Morrison have had it with the taxes and the politicians in Maryland who jack up spending while people can’t find decent work. “We’re driving jobs out of the state,” says Walter, a recently retired federal contractor.

“It’s like the politicians think they fool us when they raise taxes and call them ‘fees,’ ” adds Candy, who worked in auditing before she retired.

Although their complaints echo what tea party Republicans in Virginia said as they booted out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor two weeks ago, the Morrisons voted Democratic when they cast their early ballots in Glen Burnie last week.

In Maryland, voters can be forgiven for thinking they don’t have much choice about that. The state has had one Republican governor in the past 45 years, hasn’t had a GOP senator in 27 years and has picked Democrats for president in six straight elections.

Beneath that one-party uniformity, however, there are signs that Maryland voters may not be quite as liberal as their state government, which under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has raised taxes to expand access to health care, improve schools, hold down college tuition and offset federal cutbacks. Most Marylanders support recent shifts in social policy — the state banned the death penalty, toughened gun controls, legalized same-sex marriage and eased access to college for illegal immigrants — but polls indicate that voters are more troubled by O’Malley’s increases of the income tax on high earners, the corporate income tax, the sales tax and taxes on gasoline, alcohol and tobacco.

Still, do those grumbling voters matter on Election Day? Perhaps not as much as they once did. Democrats and Republicans alike say that as the state’s population center shifts ever more surely to the Washington suburbs, Maryland’s liberal identity is being cemented into place. Candidates who can win with huge margins in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties don’t have to worry as much about dissatisfaction in less-populated, more-Republican parts of the state.

This year, the three Democrats running for governor have taken distinctly different approaches to addressing misgivings about Maryland’s direction.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has tailored his message to the disaffected center, proposing last week to provide $600 million in tax relief for middle-income residents. “The tax burden and the companies fleeing our state with their jobs is truly choking the middle class,” he said.

Gansler has also criticized Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who has a commanding lead in polls ahead of Tuesday’s primary, for proposing to make pre-kindergarten classes available to all 4-year-olds by 2018. Gansler says Maryland can’t afford that; he would instead expand the program first to low-income families.

Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery) has staked out an aggressive stance as the most progressive candidate. Comparing herself to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the unabashed liberal who prevailed last year despite an underfunded campaign and underdog status, Mizeur proposes to slap a new tax on millionaires to ease the burden on middle-income taxpayers, sharply increase the minimum wage and legalize marijuana to pay for expanded pre-kindergarten — all the while proudly introducing her wife as the future first lady, which she would be if Mizeur becomes the state’s first openly gay governor.

Brown — who has a 2-1 lead over Gansler, according to the most recent Washington Post poll, with Mizeur in third place — has been the most cautious, mainly hewing to O’Malley’s agenda and making vague promises of “comprehensive tax reform.”

Marylanders’ tax burden ranks seventh among the states, compared to 20th place for the District and 30th for Virginia, according to the nonprofit Tax Foundation. But while the Post survey found that six in 10 voters — including large majorities of blacks and whites — want the next governor to lead the state in a new direction, it also showed large majorities of Democrats backing Brown.

Tax increases pushed Bill Bishop of Ellicott City to conclude that O’Malley’s liberalism has made it harder to make ends meet. He turned to Gansler, seeking a new approach.

“Gansler’s right about taxes and I voted for him, but Brown’s going to win,” says Bishop, 65, a retired bank employee.

He now works the front desk at a gym where many clients are college-educated women with young children. “I hear them talking, and I don’t hear any frustrations. Everything seems to be nice for them,” Bishop says. “They just want good schools for their kids. They’re okay with the way things are.”

That sense of satisfaction is driven by low unemployment and strong real estate sales, especially in the state’s most populous region, the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“It’s been true for decades that outside the Washington suburbs, there’s strong anti-tax sentiment,” says former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the only Republican to hold the office since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

“But you have this weird dichotomy now: more conservative views among my old strength — blue-collar Democrats and Republicans in the rest of the state — and this heavy, liberal anchor now in Prince George’s and Montgomery. The demographics make it tough for Republicans statewide.”

A majority of voters are registered Republican in exactly half of the state’s 24 counties, but they tend to be the smallest counties. All six of Maryland’s most populous counties are lopsidedly Democratic, by 3-1 in Montgomery and 10-1 in Prince George’s. Statewide, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans more than 2-1.

As the state with the nation’s highest median household income and the highest education level aside from Massachusetts, Colorado and the District, Maryland is buffered from the decline in economic mobility and frustration over job shortages that are driving politics in much of the nation.

But Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, warns against Democratic complacency. “The party’s gotten too comfortable,” he says. “Brown has run a comfortable campaign, sitting on his lead and not saying much. Maryland remains a liberal state, but you do hear voters saying that taxes are driving out businesses, and the economy is stagnating in Baltimore and even in the D.C. suburbs because federal dollars are drying up.”

In Howard and Anne Arundel counties, bedroom communities sandwiched between Washington and Baltimore, the idea of Maryland as a solidly liberal state meets with more skepticism. In The Post’s poll, large majorities of voters in Montgomery and Prince George’s said O’Malley’s initiatives have been neither too conservative nor too liberal; in Howard and Anne Arundel, by contrast, a plurality said that laws passed during the governor’s time in office were too liberal.

The state’s tourism slogan is “America in Miniature,” “but that’s not our political slogan,” says Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist who lives in Howard County.

“I hear more people asking these questions and talking about fiscal restraint,” he says. But at the same time, “I don’t see it in how people vote.”

He says “people tend to vote their personal situation” and, in his comfortable jurisdiction, “that seems to be improving. My suburban neighbors are buying things again — new cars in the driveways, bidding wars on houses.” Morrill has heard Columbia residents worry about how the state will pay its pension obligations, but said those concerns are not changing political behavior, at least not yet.

“We’re blessed to live in a place where we don’t have the same unemployment as some parts of the country have,” says Walter Carson, an attorney for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbia who is running for state delegate as a Democrat in western Howard. “The reality is that to get quality education and good roads and safe neighborhoods, those benefits come with a price tag.”

Traditional liberals remain the Democrats’ core supporters. “I’d like to think that Maryland really is a place that supports education and treats people fairly because we’re all the same,” says Pauline Jacobs, an Ellicott City resident who ran her family’s grocery store until she retired recently. She voted early for Brown because she has a granddaughter and likes Brown’s promise of universal pre-kindergarten.

But O’Malley’s proposal this year to raise the minimum wage — a cause that has moved smoothly through legislatures in a number of liberal jurisdictions around the country — ran into unexpected trouble. The bill was watered down and the timetable stretched out before it finally passed.

Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families, whose members worked for a higher minimum wage, was surprised to see the issue tie lawmakers in knots.

“We got less than three dollars over four years, and that took almost the entire session,” Carter says. But legislation to cut the estate tax to encourage the wealthy to stay in the state? “They did that in seven days.”

Carter and her volunteers have visited more than 4,000 homes in the past month, talking mostly with parents who work more than one job and feel that they can’t get ahead. “They’re tired,” she says. “There seems to be a great deal of frustration. . . . They’re losing hope that someone will make a change for them.”

Voters want Maryland to be socially progressive, Carter says, “but they’re not seeing the same progress in their personal lives.”

Misgivings about Maryland’s liberalism stem primarily from economic strains, but social issues have proven divisive as well. Opponents took the changes on same-sex marriage and illegal immigrants to referenda in 2012; each time, voters upheld O’Malley’s reforms.

The Democratic candidates have debated how much further to go than other parts of the nation on questions such as illegal immigration, gender rights and marijuana, with Mizeur pressing to legalize recreational use of the drug and Brown and Gansler supporting only decriminalization.

GOP front-runner Larry Hogan said Thursday in Baltimore that if elected governor, he would not seek to roll back the legalization of same-sex marriage. “The voters of Maryland have already decided this issue,” he said.

Aidan Fisher, 24, who lives in Baltimore and works in marketing, “was really gung-ho” about Mizeur, mainly because of her marijuana proposal.

“But then I thought about it,” says Fisher, who grew up in Easton in a divided household — dad is a Republican, mom a Democrat. Mizeur, he decided, “was too far left.” He voted early for Gansler.

Fisher says he has friends who usually vote Democratic but are thinking about switching sides because “they’re really unhappy about the situation they’re in,” with too much of their paycheck going to the government.

He, too, chafes at high taxes. He sticks with the Democrats mainly because of their liberal social agenda — mindful of his aunt, a lesbian, who has “come out of her shell more” as states have legalized same-sex marriage. He would consider crossing the aisle if Maryland Republicans took a more libertarian approach to social issues, taking the government out of people’s personal lives.

“It would be very cool to see a Republican who says, ‘I’m for gay marriage,’ ” Fisher says. “If the Republicans got on board with that, it would be a really difficult decision for me.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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