A dozen of Maryland's more liberal political leaders are pledging to shore up the "Democratic wing" of the Democratic Party, in part by staging a statewide summit aimed at unifying the party around a well-defined, progressive agenda.
Several members of the group said this week they are responding in part to disarray in the Maryland Democratic Party that followed the loss of the governor's office in 2002 for the first time in more than three decades, which became more acute as top legislative leaders battled over whether to legalize slot-machine gambling.
"The goal is to have no more accommodation and appeasement of this governor's conservative policies," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), who hosted a meeting at his Takoma Park home last week. "We're saying, 'Let's get together, arm ourselves with good strategies, and let's go take the state back.' "
Franchot and other Democrats -- including Montgomery County Council member Tom Perez (Silver Spring); former congressional candidate Terry Lierman of Montgomery; former state lawmakers Rushern L. Baker III and James C. Rosapepe, both of Prince George's County; and state Del. Salima Siler Marriott (D-Baltimore) -- met with the state party chairman, Isiah Leggett, to draft plans for the October summit.
That event is intended to prepare the party for the presidential election and draft a blueprint for the 2006 governor's race.
Aimed at unifying Democrats, the effort underscores a rift within the party that has left many prominent party members aligned more closely with the governor than with the party's progressive wing. Most hail from rural and blue-collar neighborhoods that have emerged as Ehrlich strongholds.
State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert) and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens have all at times found themselves at war with fellow Democrats over central issues facing the state.
Other Democratic leaders, most recently the House of Delegates majority whip, George W. Owings III (Calvert), have abandoned their elected posts to join the Ehrlich administration. Owings is now secretary of veterans affairs.
Owens called it "a huge gap" that stems from the stark differences between conservative suburban counties, such as Anne Arundel, and more liberal urban counties, namely Montgomery and Prince George's.
Schaefer said he believes the Democrats are experiencing a vacuum in leadership. "Since the Democrats were deposed," he said, "there was no one in a position to redefine the party. There was no one playing the supreme voice of the party."
Leggett agreed that the unrest has damaged the Democrats when they badly need to be unified. "There's no question we have been going in different directions as a party," he said. "In order for us to be effective, we need to have every wing of the party working together and unified."
Leggett said he believes the October summit will help accomplish that goal, especially if Democrats are galvanized by the national elections in the fall.
"I think we're taking advantage of the fact that George Bush has unified the Democratic Party and given us a very singular focus," Franchot said. "We're simply saying, let's extend this momentum to Bob Ehrlich."
U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings will be the featured speaker, and the event will conclude with the creation of a platform of key issues. While members said they expect the platform to be broad enough to lure conservative Democrats away from Ehrlich, the issues they mentioned mostly plant the party more firmly on the political left. Among them, said Tom Hucker, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progressive Maryland, are a statewide living wage law, increased funding for higher education, stronger environmental initiatives, a shifting of the tax burden away from the middle class and the promotion of diversity and tolerance.
John M. Kane, the state GOP chairman, said he and other Republican leaders see the effort as a sign of weakness.
"If anything, what's happened in the last three years is that the strength of the Democratic Party was shown to really be nothing more than a facade," Kane said. "Absent the governorship, people are scrambling to identify what the Democratic Party stands for. The Republicans, while cold, hungry and lonely in the desert for years, have started to create a competitive two-party system. And we're a lot closer than we were two years ago."