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‘Political earthquake’: Progressives oust Democratic incumbents in statehouse primaries

President of the Maryland Senate Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) presides over the last day of the legislative session known as sine die in April.
President of the Maryland Senate Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) presides over the last day of the legislative session known as sine die in April. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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It wasn’t just the governor’s race.

In addition to powering Democrat Ben Jealous’s victory over establishment favorite Rushern L. Baker III on Tuesday, progressive voters in Maryland ousted at least four incumbents allied with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) — causing a shift in the state Senate.

“I call it a political earthquake,” said Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland, which backed candidates who defeated two powerful Democratic committee chairs and the Senate’s president pro tem.

Stafford said progressive activists will now have much more leverage to push for a $15 minimum wage, which has previously stalled in the General Assembly; universal health care; and “policies to better protect immigrants.”

Miller, the longest-serving state Senate president in the country, declined a request for an interview.

See full Maryland primary results here

Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said there is a bleaker possibility for Democrats, as well: Candidates nominated Tuesday may be so left-leaning that centrist voters will back GOP candidates in November.

“Maryland has always had a big-tent Democratic Party, with some moderate and conservative Democrats included,” Eberly said. “Those folks are waking up today and realizing the party they grew up with won’t necessarily be on the ballot in November.”

Some, but not all, of the successful challengers are unopposed in the general election. They include the young, progressive state delegates who defeated three influential Baltimore incumbents: state Sens. Joan Carter Conway, 67, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee; Nathaniel J. McFadden, 71, the president pro tem; and Barbara Robinson, 80.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, lost to Arthur Ellis, a veteran who describes himself as a progressive Democrat. Ellis will face off against Republican John Leonard this fall.

Union support was a key component in several of Tuesday’s primaries. The Service Employees International Union Local 500, which backed Jealous, spent more than $100,000 to oppose Miller and his lieutenants.

While Miller easily defeated his challenger, the ousted incumbents include several of his top allies, including Middleton, McFadden and Conway.

“Democratic primary voters are fed up with the traditional ways of doing business,” said SEIU 500 political director Mark McLaurin. He said the union will press for legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 and allow public sector employees to enter comprehensive collective bargaining agreements.

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State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who was easily nominated for another term, said the “number of respected legislators who were defeated is astonishing.” She said few in the Senate took seriously the challenge to Middleton, who was elected in 1995 and widely viewed as a potential successor to Miller.

Riccara Jones, the political director for SEIU 1199, said the union targeted Middleton’s seat after a $15 minimum wage bill that came before his committee did not advance to a vote. “We want people in place who don’t just talk the talk, but people who will put up progressive legislation and actually fight for it,” she said.

Not all Senate candidates backed by SEIU 500’s effort prevailed. In five races, progressives lost to candidates whom activists had tried to link to Miller: Sens. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County), former state delegate Melony G. Griffith, Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore Co.).

“Obviously, this wasn’t a magic bullet,” McLaurin said.

In Baltimore, McFadden, a senator for more than two decades, was soundly defeated by Del. Cory V. McCray, a first-term lawmaker who criticized McFadden for not doing enough to help their impoverished east Baltimore district. McCray had made headlines for pushing to restore full voting rights to ex-offenders — and for an investigation into his expletive-filled exchange with a female advocate.

Mary L. Washington, 56, a two-term delegate with a focus on housing and homelessness, appears to have edged out 21-year lawmaker Conway for the seat representing North Baltimore.

Robinson, who was appointed in 2016 to fill Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh’s seat and served for a decade in the House of Delegates, was easily defeated by Del. Antonio L. Hayes, 40.

In the House of Delegates, longtime state Del. Joseph F. Vallario (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Judiciary Committee, lost to Del. Marvin E. Holmes and business consultant Ron Watson in a seven-way race for District 23B’s two seats.

Vallario, a criminal defense lawyer who was elected to the General Assembly in 1974, has been portrayed by his critics as too easy on drunk drivers, rapists and spousal abusers. Vallario, who was known in Annapolis as “Mr. Chairman,” has been vulnerable since the 2014 election, when redistricting changed his district to include a northern part of Prince George’s in which he had not campaigned.

Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s), 70, was ousted by Julian Ivey, 22, a city council member in Cheverly and student organizer.

Stafford said he was confident the progressive nominees would do well in November, pointing to polling that shows most Marylanders support legalizing the sale and taxation of marijuana for personal use; offering free tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities; and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “The energy is key here.”

No Democratic challengers prevailed in nominating contests for six Senate seats that Maryland’s Republican Party is targeting this fall. The GOP wants to flip at least five of the seats — which are in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Frederick counties and the Eastern Shore, areas Gov. Larry Hogan (R) won by wide margins in 2014 — to break the veto-proof majority Democrats have held in the state legislature for nearly a century.

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.