Why Democrats Won -- And What Do They Do Now?

By George L. Leventhal
Thursday, November 23, 2006

George L. Leventhal, president of the Montgomery County Council and a former leader of the county Democratic Party, was reelected to a second term this month as voters turned to Democrats to take over leadership of the county, state and federal governments. He writes about the impact of the changes on local and state politics.

When I took over as chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee in 1996, there were three Republican state senators and seven Republican delegates representing the county in Annapolis. Two Republicans sat on the nine-member Montgomery County Council. A decade later, no Republicans won election to any of those offices.

What accounts for this dramatic change in party fortunes? The county has been heavily Democratic for decades. Still, in the past, Republicans were able to mount competitive challenges, especially in the wealthiest and most rural northern and western districts.

Several factors combined to push county Republicans out of office over the past decade.

First, following significant Republican gains in 1994, the local Democratic Party smartly and strategically identified targets of opportunity, reducing the number of Republicans in each election. A cohesive local party organization worked with statewide candidates to field strong Democratic slates and then turn out the Democratic vote. Talented candidates, such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen and County Executive-elect Isiah "Ike" Leggett, appealed to voters across party lines. Energetic, moderate challengers such as Michael Knapp and Craig Rice defeated Republican incumbents in swing districts.

Second, the local Republican Party failed to establish a credible organization. Unlike the Democrats, county Republicans didn't provide even the minimum get out the vote efforts, such as mailing sample ballots to party members and covering the polls countywide.

Third, demographic change has meant that even in formerly Republican precincts such as Potomac and Darnestown, the number of African American and immigrant voters is increasing, and Democratic margins have increased correspondingly.

Fourth, times are good in Montgomery County. Rising property values, improving school test scores, a thriving cultural scene and the revitalization of Bethesda, Silver Spring, Wheaton and Rockville all persuaded voters that the county is in good hands under a local government dominated by Democrats.

Fifth, and finally, running as a member of President Bush's party was an albatross around the neck of Republican candidates this year -- even for popular moderate Republicans such as County Council member Howard Denis. Voter frustration with the war in Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina debacle and Capitol Hill scandals bubbled over at the local level.

Now that Montgomery County voters have expressed a preference for unanimous Democratic rule, what should we do?

We need to leverage our relationships with Maryland's Democratic U.S. senators and representatives, now in the majority, including House Majority Leader-elect Steny H. Hoyer. Also, we must strengthen our working relationship with our new Democratic governor. Martin O'Malley was elected with a strong margin of victory in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City. These three jurisdictions have a strong interest in mass transit, public school construction and higher education -- all of which were under-funded during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s four years in office.

We should develop an alliance with other jurisdictions to ensure that our priorities are addressed by Congress and the state. The election of Douglas F. Gansler as attorney general and Peter Franchot as comptroller, both of whom symbolize Montgomery County's growing clout and political maturity, strengthens our ability to develop this alliance. We should aim for a high-tech, high-wage, science-based, education-oriented future for our state, as opposed to economic dead ends like Wal-Mart and slot machines championed by the Republican governor.

Maryland Democrats can also lead the way toward access to health care for the uninsured and toward clean, renewable sources of energy -- both of which, I heard repeatedly during the campaign, are foremost in the minds of voters when they assess the failures of the national Republican administration.

The opportunities are great if we can work together to capitalize on them. A final word of caution, however, for my fellow Democrats. Republicans are good for Democrats. They help us stay unified against a common opponent. In the absence of any Republicans holding office locally, I am concerned that we may turn our aggression against one another.

In 20 years of active involvement in the local Democratic Party, I have seen too many Democrats conduct vendettas against other Democrats. That is not what the voters want to see. Even if we disagree on specific issues, let us earn the confidence voters have placed in us by uniting to provide excellent outcomes for the people we represent.

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