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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Big Story

Maryland State Senator-elect Jamie Raskin won 99 percent of the vote today -- this after a brutal primary in which pundits declared his chances of winning were "impossible." His victory is cause for genuine celebration, hope, and expectations of great things to come. Raskin – a professor of Constitutional Law at American University as well as a valued Nation contributor – offered these reflections on a night of political change across the nation as seen through his own experience running for State Senate.


"When I first announced against a 32-year incumbent who was President Pro Tem of the Maryland State Senate and Chair of the Montgomery County delegation in the Senate, all of the pundits and politicos said victory was impossible. Now they're saying it was inevitable. But of course it was neither--it was just possible, but it became increasingly likely with the infusion of incredible progressive energy and imagination from dozens and dozens of really fired-up Democrats disenchanted with lethargic machine politics and our constant right-ward drift. When I announced my candidacy, I had the support of no elected official and the incumbent already had more than $200,00 in the bank. We won based on relentless door-knocking and a grassroots uprising focused on political substance and hunger for change.

The big story in my mind is how the huge blue tide bringing in Democratic victories all over the country has been powered by less-visible grassroots insurgencies and progressive challenges within the Democratic Party animated by horror at the War in Iraq and the catastrophe of Katrina and everything it represents. Maryland's most populous jurisdiction is my county, Montgomery, which is home to more Democratic voters than any other county. Before the great victories of Ben Cardin for U.S. Senate and Martin O'Malley for Governor came tonight, there was a big progressive upsurge in our county politics over the last year against machine Democrats who are heavily influenced by development interests. In the September primary, two fine progressive candidates, Duchy Tractenberg and Marc Elrich, defied all the odds and took two at-large County Council seats away from candidates bankrolled by the developers. The newly elected County Executive in Montgomery, Ike Leggett, is the first African-American ever elected to that office; he challenged the power of the developers and organized the neighborhoods. Similarly, in my race, all of the huge landlords and apartment owners took note of my pro bono work for tenants in Silver Spring and contributed furiously to my opponent. They placed her Orwellian-sized campaign signs, complete with a yearbook-like photo, in front of their buildings while the tenants put my campaign signs in their windows! That juxtaposition captured a lot about the dynamics of my election. My part of the County also propelled Valerie Ervin, a brilliant union organizer and school board member, to the Council--Valerie becomes the first African-American woman ever to serve on the Montgomery Council.

The point is that the stunning upsets scored by so many progressive candidates in Maryland--and some near-misses, like Donna Edwards' astonishing 48% showing in the primary against Congressman Albert Wynn in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties--unleashed the energy, hope and new political activism that we needed to beat the Republican money machine statewide. Had our insurgent candidacies never happened, it would have been much harder for O'Malley and Cardin to pick up the momentum they needed. We brought in hundreds of new activists and thousands of new voters. Many of these people are disenchanted by machine politics and traditional partisan appeals, and they are unhappy with Democratic surrender to the Bush agenda on issues from war to energy policy to bankruptcy reform etc. They are hungry for a radical break from status quo politics. The Democratic leadership is waking up to this fact. A great leader for the future is John Sarbanes, the new Congressman from the 3rd district, who ran on a tough anti-war and progressive change platform.

Negative politics lost almost everywhere. Time and again the more conservative candidates--either Republicans in the general or machine Democrats--resorted to nasty personal attacks to cover up for their lack of a positive program. Voters weren't buying it. In my race, the incumbent's demonstrably absurd negative mailings (which twisted my First Amendment work to falsely depict me as pro-life despite my 100% NARAL Pro-Choice rating and endorsement by the National Organization for Women!) backfired and infuriated progressives who were not about to indulge the smear of a constitutional lawyer for standing up for the Bill of Rights. It was very important that we pointed out to people that negative personal politics and false advertising are the very opposite of progressive politics. We seek to build people up and spread solidarity while negative politics works to tear people down and undermine social trust.

People are finally seeing the ways in which Republican hypocrisy and cruelty support one another. Their whole ideological system--promotion of international and domestic state violence, homophobic moralism and religious zealotry, corruption and piety, prostitution of government to big business--is on the verge of collapse. Politicians and lobbyists on their way to jail, right-wing preachers paying for the kind of sex they denounce, rampant profiteering, a disgraceful and chaotic war--they all add up to an obsolescent governing model.

What will we replace it with? If you use the micro-example of my insurgent State Senate campaign, we must use a central focus on defense of the rights of the people; seriousness about climate change as the framing catastrophe-in-waiting that forces us to invent new models of transportation, growth and housing; comprehensive environmental protection and energy alternatives; strategic emphasis on grassroots political education and mobilization of young people and children to get involved in public life at every level; a refusal to condescend and patronize people or to dumb down our politics in Bush's dumbed-down culture; a sweeping challenge to corporate financial dominance of our politics combined with strong support for small business and a passionate commitment to universal health care; and a determination to make politics fun, multicultural and engaging for people at every turn.

I will continue to be a professor of constitutional law at AU and will teach a course on Legislation in the spring. I hope to bring my students to Annapolis to work on bills.

Thanks to you and the Nation community for your solidarity and encouragement from day one.

Yours, Jamie Raskin

PS: There is very little time to read on the campaign trail but I always kept up with the Nation, which is a fountain of creative political ideas and practical hope. Having drunk from the fountain a lot during my campaign, I hope to put something back in over the next four years!

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