A new political group in Maryland wants to make the state more progressive. They’re backing candidates for the General Assembly to make this blue state bluer. Maryland Working Families is focusing on economic policies like better wages, paid sick leave and other economic policies to help Maryland’s struggling middle class.
One of those candidates is Cory McCray, a union electrician and small business owner. Outside an early voting site in East Baltimore, with the temperature in the 90s and humidity oppressive, McCray is upbeat as he greets voters.
“I’ve heard of you,” one man tells him. Another woman he greets by name. McCray says his campaign has knocked on pretty much every door in the district, but he faces tough odds in his bid for a seat in the House of Delegates. Eight candidates are running for three delegate seats in the 45th district – two are incumbents—and the city’s Democratic establishment that did not back McCray.
“In Baltimore, we have machines. Machines that carry on the machine, which carries on the machine,” says McCray, who been active in the city and state Democratic Party. “A lot of times it’s hard for young people to cut through.”
McCray’s campaign is a mission to make Annapolis work for the people: He wants to see government contracts go to firms that hire locally and pay well, and thinks the state’s minimum wage should be a living wage.
“A family should be able to make a living wage, not go broke from healthcare and you should be able to retire with dignity,” McCray said. “And that’s progressive values right there – that’s what workers are about.”
Those progressive values earned him the endorsement of Maryland Working Families. McCray is exactly the type of candidate that Maryland needs more of, says Charly Carter, who heads the group.
“We have a lot of very effective progressive groups in this state, and we are doing a good job of passing socially progressive laws,” Carter says. “Where we are falling behind is passing economically progressive laws and policies.”
Carter points to this year’s General Assembly session as evidence misaligned fiscal priorities among many of the state’s Democrats. A bill to increase the state’s minimum wage faced huge opposition. It passed, though only after it was significantly weakened.
In the same session, a bill, sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch, changed the state’s tax code so that fewer millionaires pay the estate tax on inherited wealth. That bill was passed with only minor opposition.
“That is the opposite of the American Dream,” Carter says. “That’s crazy.”
Maryland Working Families takes its lead from New York’s Working Families Party, which started 15 years ago. There are sister organizations in Connecticut and Oregon. In all of these states, the organizations have worked on developing a pipeline of progressive candidates, supporting their bids for state and local offices, and building support among average people for fiscally progressive policies.
It’s a long game that has paid off in the New York, where the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio was a Working Families candidate, as is the city council president and the city’s public advocate, who is first in line to succeed the mayor.
The money comes largely from labor unions, but the group says the priorities are local and set in conjunction with a host of community and political organizations.
Carter says Maryland needs a progressive caucus in Annapolis to foster relationships between progressive veterans and lefty newcomers, and to push policies that help families still suffering the doldrums of a financial crisis and squeezed by growing economic inequality. Outside of Annapolis, the group envisions a grassroots movement that will counter the influence of pro-business lobbyists in the capital.
“From the first day that you’re elected and you go into that office there is constantly someone from the chamber or from the business community that is knocking at your door,” Carter says.
Washington College political science professor Melissa Deckman says that polls and research show growing concern about economic inequalities and difficulties confronting working families in Maryland and nation-wide, but she says it will be difficult to leverage that into average Marylanders getting more involved in advocating policy.
“It’s so hard to mobilize large groups of consumers whereas it’s much easier to mobilize narrow interests because essentially they can work under the radar,” Deckman says. “The fact is that most Americans are not aware of what’s happening in their state legislature.”
Deckman says there is a conservative Southern Democratic strain within the Democratic leadership, which creates some aversion to policies that are seen as antagonistic to businesses.
“There’s also this growing perception that Maryland has been losing out to other localities – Virginia and Pennsylvania and other places that have a lower corporate tax rate,” Deckman says.
But Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, who chairs the Budget and Tax committee, says that if the state’s Democrats tend toward moderation, it’s because they’re trying to balance a variety of interests. Progressive economic policies need to be balanced with those that help business owners, the senator says.
“Everybody has to be considered. So it looks easy from the outside but it’s not so easy as it appears,” Kasemeyer says. “In order to do all the things that you’d like to do, in terms of dealing with the various populations of people who need economic support, you’ve got to have a very viable business environment because probably the most valuable commodity today are jobs.”
But in Kasemeyer’s district, where there are thirteen contenders for three delegate seats, Maryland Working Families has endorsed two candidates, Clarence Lam and Eric Ebersole, in the hopes of pushing the delegation to the left.
Eric Ebersole is a high school math teacher in Howard County–he says economic disparities play out every day at his school when some lower-income students can’t take advantage of enriching after school programs.
“They may not have transportation,” Ebersole says. “They may need to get home to watch a younger sibling. They may have other familial responsibilities; they may have to cook dinner.”
Ebersole says when Maryland Working Families said they wanted to endorse him, he was intrigued. He says joining a progressive caucus could help shape his identity in Annapolis. And the organization is fielding canvassers to support him—no small thing for a campaign being run by his son and staffed by family and friends.
“You hate to use the word ‘grassroots,’ but are we ever,” Ebersole says with a laugh. “We don’t pay anyone, I’m sorry to say it.”
On the primary next Tuesday, Maryland will find out if Democratic voters want to see the more progressive candidates that Maryland Working Families is here to support.