Clad in a T-shirt proclaiming his past allegiance to former Vermont governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign, Ed Terry hovered yesterday in the back of a crowded ballroom where one speaker after another blasted the leadership of President Bush and Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Terry, a computer network administrator from Prince George's County, was among the more than 500 self-described "progressives" who descended on a Columbia hotel in an effort to shore up the liberal wing of Maryland's Democratic Party.
Meeting just a month before the presidential election, organizers said their immediate aim is to ensure that Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry (D) carries Maryland on Nov. 2. Beyond that, they pledged a sustained push to oust Ehrlich (R) in 2006 and exert a greater influence on the agenda in Annapolis in the meantime.
"We're in the Dean tradition of trying to take the Democratic Party back," said Terry. "By not being energized and not being prepared in 2002, we wound up with a Republican governor in Maryland. We're not going to let that happen again."
Registered Democrats in Maryland outnumber Republicans roughly 2 to 1.
Those who attended the gathering at the Sheraton hotel in were greeted in the hallways by vendors hawking "Re-Defeat Bush" yard signs, refrigerator magnets and condoms.
Outside the hotel, several dozen Maryland supporters of Bush's reelection bid placed numerous Bush-Cheney signs on the premises.
In a telephone interview, Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane predicted failure for the Democrats at yesterday's meeting.
"I don't think they're in touch with Maryland," Kane said. "It's a very liberal side of the party that has turned away their moderate base. If they're trying to come up with a statewide agenda, it's not going to work."
The gathering, organized by Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), comes at a time when Democratic legislators are deeply divided over legalizing slot machine gambling and more conservative members of the party have backed Ehrlich on some issues. Several former Democratic lawmakers have gone to work for the administration.
"The Democratic Party has to have a sharper edge and a more progressive edge," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), who was one of about a dozen legislators who attended the event, billed as the Maryland Progressive Summit.
A string of speakers touted the virtues of universal health care, a cleaner environment and lower college tuition.
State Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett, who spoke at the event, acknowledged in an interview that some might see the gathering as divisive. But he said that he believed it helped energize party activists.
"We have a very large tent," Leggett said. "Some have asked if this tilts the party too much to the left or divides the party, but I don't think so. . . . I think there's far more that unites us than divides us."
The event included speeches from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, two Democrats actively considering running for governor in 2006.
Duncan drew some of his heartiest applause for speaking against slots. "The future economy of Maryland should not be based on slot machines or casinos," he said. He said slots could lead to more crime, gambling addicts and failed businesses.
Several other speakers, including Franchot, also voiced strong opposition to slots, a stance that puts them at odds with several Democratic leaders, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert) and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, neither of whom attended yesterday.
In his speech, Duncan also touted several "progressive" initiatives he has championed in Montgomery, including the country's first local earned income tax credit, which helps low-income workers.
O'Malley told the crowd that he had brought progressive strategies to bear on Baltimore's problems with crime and drugs and praised the summit's organizers. "You are absolutely on the right track," O'Malley said. "To be progressive is to be an optimist."
Franchot said there are plans for a follow-up summit in January that will be devoted to honing a progressive agenda for the 2005 legislative session.
Among the issues likely to be included are steps to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and renew the state's commitment to preserving open space, Franchot said.
"These are issues that 99 percent of all Democrats are going to support," he said. "These are really mainstream issues."