I am a Maryland state legislator. A Democrat. A progressive. And I am a worried man.
I left this year's legislative session convinced that the mainstream Democratic Party political vision offers, at best, a torturous, contorted path to the more democratic, sustainable and just future Maryland and the nation deserve. I also left more convinced than ever that adding a few progressives to the Statehouse legislative mix, in and of itself, is not going to make much of a difference.
I serve in what should be the most progressive state government in America. In Maryland, with a Democrat as governor and a hefty majority in both legislative chambers, mainstream Democrats have achieved the sort of statewide political dominance they can only dream about elsewhere in the nation. What has this dominance accomplished? By some measures a good bit. The legislative session before last year's election, for instance, generated a new law that requires trigger locks on all new handguns, the first such mandate in the nation. Legislators also widened children's healthcare coverage and guaranteed prevailing wage rates for school construction projects. The state also stepped in with additional funds for teacher salaries and expanded the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers. And lawmakers earmarked cigarette litigation funds for smoking prevention, cancer research and education.
Decent achievements? Absolutely. I voted for them all. But a closer look does dim the luster. The trigger-lock legislation, for instance, passed only after a filibuster threat had weakened the original legislation. The expanded child health coverage comes with no guarantee of quality care. Party leaders, meanwhile, pursued precious few policies in the 2000 session that might have energized their natural constituent base–working people–because those steps might also have alienated corporate interests. Except for passage of the state's first antidiscrimination protections for gays and lesbians, the 2001 legislative session was more of the same: no progress on a statewide living wage, no serious expansion of healthcare coverage and defeat of a two-year death-penalty moratorium.
My Democratic Party colleagues think I'm living in political fantasyland. When I suggest that our legislative ambitions could be broader, "scale back" is their advice. "Don't give corporate Maryland any reason to throw its considerable weight fully behind Republicans." Comforting corporate interests is, of course, the essence of Clintonism, and Maryland is perhaps its perfect laboratory.
Maryland, after all, is "America in miniature," as the tourist brochures like to say. The state boasts sophisticated city life, suburbs and rural communities. And the population is diverse: a quarter African-American, almost 5 percent Latino, with a rapidly growing Asian community. To legislate for this miniature America, Maryland legislators serve on a part-time basis, in session only three months a year. But these three months are increasingly frenzied. Twenty years of Reaganism and Clintonism have devolved substantial authority from the federal to the state level. To a large extent, states now determine which environmental protections get implemented, how welfare operates and whether healthcare regulations get waived.