Maryland Democratic Party’s pre-session rally lacks the pep

The Maryland Democratic Party’s annual legislative lunch is really a pre-game pep rally before the session that starts in Annapolis on Wednesday. But even cheerleaders make frowny faces sometimes, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings tucked some reality into his rah-rah.

“I know,’’ he told 220 fellow Democrats, that lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown has “become a little bit discouraged” by the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, even in a heavily Democratic state, where Gov. Martin O’Malley not only supports Obamacare, but appointed Brown to help oversee its implementation the day after it was signed into law four years ago.

“There’s no family I know,’’ Cummings continued encouragingly, “that when they have problems they say, ‘To hell with it.’ ’’ The most memorable part of his “life-altering” trip to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa, he told his friends in the hotel ballroom, was when Mandela’s grandson said that the great man had counseled him, “Don’t be pushed around by your fears and problems; be led by your hopes and dreams.”

Actually, Emerson said that. But no one could correct Cummings on this bit of advice: “We’ll always have to dust ourselves off and get back up.”

Or, no one but maybe its intended recipient, Anthony Brown, favorite of the party establishment, who was seated at the center of the room and on this day, anyway, had no competition from his Democratic rival, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who wasn’t there.

(“He’s on a family vacation,’’ a campaign spokesman said. Rep. Chris Van Hollen also missed the lunch, because of a family emergency, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski sent word that she was in Washington “fighting for the day-to-day needs of Maryland families.”)

The soft-spoken Brown is a Harvard Law grad who served in Iraq. Unlike Gansler, whose freedom of speech has sometimes gotten him into trouble, the lieutenant governor is adept at talking without saying anything, and noted that three of us in line to talk to him were dressed in a shade of green that matched his tie.

So, how much will the not-good rollout he was in charge of hurt him?

“Marylanders look at the full context,” he said, of how the state was expanding access to health care even before the ACA. Asked what the June primary will turn on, he said, “You mean six months down the road? Who’s got the vision’’ and “who has a demonstrated record of accomplishment.”

Even as they picked at skinless chicken breast and chocolate cake, much of the room remained riveted, right through the speeches, by whatever was happening on their hand-held devices. Rep. Donna F. Edwards inferred that the attendees could have been a little more enthusiastic, too, after she wished them a happy new year and didn’t hear much back. “Oh my goodness,’’ she said, “that did not sound like a happy new year to me.”

They did applaud, though, when Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin announced that the Democratic majority in the Senate had found enough Republican help to stop a filibuster of a bill that would extend unemployment benefits.

And they rose to applaud the mid-lunch entrance of O’Malley, who paused on his way into the ballroom to take a couple of questions and talk up his efforts to raise the minimum wage. “We all do better when we’re all doing better,’’ he told reporters. Another of O’Malley’s major goals of the session, of course, will be helping his lieutenant governor look better.

He was introduced, by Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. — who opened with what I believe was an imitation of Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy, circa 1978 — as the best governor in state history. “I can tell by the looks on your faces,” the governor joked, “that some of you have already given it up for Mike Miller.’’

After touting a couple of his major accomplishments, such as passing the DREAM Act and a marriage-equality bill, O’Malley, who’s thinking of running for president in 2016, promised that a minimum-wage increase is coming soon, too. Afterward, he stuck around for a while as members of his party pressed their business cards on him and sought hugs and favors. One woman asked him to consider a law school classmate for a judicial appointment. “He would leave such a legacy for you,’’ she said.

As he heads into his final session, O’Malley is hoping he has that covered.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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