Appearances to the contrary, Maryland’s Progressive Democrats have little to cheer about. The newly-elected Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez may hail from Montgomery County but the party establishment hand-picked him to run when it appeared economic populist Keith Ellison was likely to prevail. While over 60% of Marylanders are registered Democrats, Republican Governor Larry Hogan is enjoying “sky-high popularity.” Despite Maryland’s high cost of living, the intransigence of some Democratic legislators and executives has stymied efforts in Baltimore City, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County to raise the minimum wage to $15. Maryland’s traditionally excellent public schools are struggling to accommodate influxes of immigrants and increasing numbers of students from poor families.
The latest blow to progressives came March 1 courtesy of the Maryland Democratic Party’s eight member Executive Committee when it elected Kathleen Matthews to be interim chair. As the Post reported the following day in Maryland Politics, the vote was held after three powerful Maryland Democrats, Congressman Steny Hoyer and Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, asked Matthews to step into the shoes of outgoing party boss D. Bruce Poole. Matthews is well-known in the region as a former news anchor and, until 2015, Marriott’s Chief Communications Officer. In 2016, she ran and lost in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District Democratic primary.
The State Central Committee will decide in May whether to elect Matthews, who is planning to run, to a full term as Chairperson. Matthews promises an open and transparent process. Nevertheless, by installing Matthews as interim chair two months before the election, rather than appointing a current member of the Executive Committee, top party officials have made clear that she is their choice to lead the party over the next four years.
Matthews is a consummate Washington insider. Her duties at Marriott, where her annual salary comfortably exceeded $1 million, included overseeing “a political action committee that contributed over $1 million to House and Senate candidates.” She counts as friends and allies many establishment politicos from both parties who generously helped finance her unsuccessful Congressional bid.
Matthews did run for Congress as a Democrat last year and also served as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton. Still, it is difficult to discern any progressive tendencies in her record. During a July 2015 appearance on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, she admitted to contributing $2,600 to Missouri Republican Roy Blunt’s campaign and nothing to Planned Parenthood. Blunt is widely known for his hostility to women’s reproductive rights. Matthews explained that she wanted to thank Blunt for his work with her on issues dear to Marriott.
The Matthews pick exposes the obliviousness of Maryland’s top Democrats to the winds of change buffeting the party both nationally and at home. In the Presidential primaries, self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders inspired millions of young people and independents and nearly upset overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton. When Sanders withdrew from the race, much of the excitement on the Democratic side left too.
In 2014, Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown ran a singularly uninspiring race and lost. He had campaigned as a reasonable centrist standing between Marylanders and the allegedly right-wing Larry Hogan. Two years later, Jamie Raskin beat Matthews with an unabashedly progressive message and Bernie Sanders’ endorsement.
Former Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin expresses deep disappointment in the Matthews selection in a blog at Seventh State and an email. Ervin, who sat on the Council from 2008 – 2014, resides in Silver Spring. She notes that Matthews was selected by the “old boys network” and therefore represents a step back towards top-down governance in a Democratic Party where youthful party activists are demanding a “bottom-up” approach.
They are telling Ervin that the party will not attract new voters unless it becomes more “inclusive and progressive,” which means black, brown, young, female, and working-class leaders, she adds. As Senior Advisor to the Working Families Party which nominates progressive candidates for office in some states, she closes her email on an ominous note, “Democrats should be very nervous in Maryland.”
As the state struggles with sky-high housing costs, stagnant wages, and over-crowded public schools, Maryland progressives must look beyond the Democratic Party for political leadership. A party that values so highly a multi-millionaire news personality and corporate lobbyist with no commitment to progressive economic populism does not share our values.