Maryland voters elected a wave of younger, more liberal lawmakers to the state legislature last fall for the second time in five years, building a force theoretically poised to reshape the politics of the General Assembly.
So far, however, the Democratic Party’s liberal wing has had limited success.
Many of the marquee wins heralded during the legislative session that concluded Monday were watered down by moderates, or will be implemented over a lengthy timeline.
Other top goals failed completely.
Still, the flood of new lawmakers — who arrived at the cusp of leadership change in Annapolis — managed to tug the legislature slightly to the left, laying groundwork for landmark legislation that could legalize marijuana and change access to health care by the end of their four-year terms.
“The committee system and the leadership system has kept them tamped down,” House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said of the growing liberal flank, which is most pronounced in the 141-member House of Delegates.
Kipke, a 12-year lawmaker, said he doesn’t necessarily expect the restraint to last, even in a blue state whose top Democratic and Republican politicians describe it as a “state of middle temperament.”
The unexpected death this week of Michael E. Busch, the longest-serving speaker of Maryland’s House, will hasten the ascension of a new generation of leaders in his chamber. Meanwhile, longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a centrist, is battling Stage 4 prostate cancer and says he will gauge his health this fall before deciding his political future.
Potential successors will need to court liberal support.
This year, the General Assembly passed a $15 minimum wage; the nation’s first board designed to cap prices on prescription drugs; the country’s first statewide ban on Styrofoam containers; and a requirement that half of the state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030.
But the moderate — and more seasoned — Democrats who have long controlled both chambers took a cautious approach, ensuring, for example, that the drug price board only affects people employed by state or local government, rather than all employers. They insisted the $15 minimum wage take effect starting in 2025 — behind Massachusetts, New Jersey and the District, and much slower than advocates wanted.
Perhaps more telling are the bills that failed, for: background checks on all rifles; safe places for people to shoot up drugs; allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients take their own lives; helping felons find jobs; and increasing police accountability.
As the legislature has grown more liberal, Kipke said, he has started viewing more-moderate colleagues in a new light.
“There used to be guys I’d say, ‘Gosh, you’re so liberal, and I can’t work with you,’ ” Kipke said. “Now I think, ‘Gosh, you’re so normal. I’m so glad you’re here.’ ”
This year, for the first time ever, he recalled, “someone said, ‘As a socialist’ on the [House] floor.”
That was Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), one of two freshmen who consider themselves “democratic socialists,” in the mold of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Acevero was among those who pushed for implementing the $15 minimum wage more quickly and indexing it to inflation. But he noted that as recently as two years ago, Democratic state lawmakers were advancing proposals that explicitly prohibit local jurisdictions from adopting a $15 wage.
“I consider it progress,” he said. “It’s not the pace we want.”
Clinton Macsherry has worked as an advocate in Maryland politics for decades, often on the losing end of efforts to expand access to affordable child care. This year, lobbying for the Maryland Family Network, he thought he had a slam dunk for the newly liberal legislature: an unemployment-type program that would give 12 weeks of partially paid family leave to all new parents. Maryland granted the benefit to state employees last year, and 85 percent of residents supported it.
The bill did not get a committee vote in either chamber.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, we have to get in line behind the ‘Fight for Fifteen’ ” Macsherry said, referring to the minimum-wage bill. “It just shocks me that more people aren’t behind this.”
In late March, when the renewable energy bill was stalled in the House Economic Matters Committee, Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network groused that the leadership was “trying to pace progressives.”
A majority of delegates had sponsored the bill, but that doesn’t ensure majority support in a particular committee.
Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis noted that the liberal newcomers have not set policy into action and said there is a reason House leadership has traditionally taken an incremental approach.
“Once you get down here and you learn more, you get a fuller picture of what can and cannot be accomplished,” said Davis (D-Prince George’s). “You want to make sure you’re doing no harm.”
Davis said he watched some liberal freshmen demand quick, sweeping policy changes four years ago and then publicly complain or retaliate when the bills didn’t pass.
“They came in without a plan,” he said. “A lot of those people aren’t back and burned a lot of bridges.”
This freshman class appears, so far, to have a different strategy, Davis said. Or, “maybe they’re just figuring out how to maneuver.”
When Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) joined the legislature in 2010, he was the young liberal affectionately dubbed “the baby senator” by Miller. He was an outlier — talking about universal prekindergarten and green jobs.
“These were out-of-nowhere ideas when I got here,” Ferguson said. “Now they’re vanilla.” Both concepts were embraced by the legislature this year.
Ferguson says he quickly learned an important lesson: The big stuff doesn’t come easy.
It should be relatively straightforward to enact bills passed this year to create gender-neutral driver’s licenses and require diaper-changing facilities in all state-owned buildings, for example. But broader liberal goals such as restructuring health care, reducing income equality and making sure people have strong job skills is an entirely different endeavor.
“Big structural change doesn’t happen overnight,” Ferguson said. “The progressive movement generated a lot energy, but the ship is slow-moving.”
Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) was a part of the wave of liberals who arrived in Annapolis five years ago. Seeking camaraderie, he and a group of others formed a “book club” that served as a de facto liberal sub-caucus, which infuriated senior Democratic leaders.
But he learned how to navigate rather than aggravate the power structure, and by this year, Moon was being embraced as a potential leader. At the start of the session he was tapped to renominate Busch as House speaker.
“We had some members who were around for a long time,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Eric G. Leudtke (D-Montgomery). “The Democratic Caucus today, I think, better represents Maryland and where people are.”
More than the entrenched power structure, though, the reality that big ideas often have big price tags could be the largest hurdle for swift policy changes.
This session, the General Assembly passed a landmark plan to funnel $800 million more into education in the next three years, a “blueprint” for the future that took over five years to develop.
To help pay for it, lawmakers are expected to push for legalizing recreational marijuana and sports betting next year. They may need other ways to raise revenue as well.
In an interview three weeks before his death, Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the education plan would have ripple effects, including a possible tax increase on the wealthy or budget cuts.
“They know they’ve got tough decisions next year,” he said.