Will New Lawmakers Make Annapolis More Partisan?
When the Maryland General Assembly starts its session in January, it will be dealing with a new governor from a different party and about a third of its members will be freshmen. Between a Republican governor and a host of more left-leaning Democrats coming in, the next four years bear the signs of a more partisan landscape in Annapolis.
Buoyed by the popularity that propelled Gov.-elect Larry Hogan to victory, Republicans won big in legislative races this year – big, at least, for Maryland. A record 50 Republicans will head to the House of Delegates in January. Senate Republicans added two more seats to their caucus.
But Democratic House Speaker Mike Busch says even after losing a handful of seats, his party is still firmly in control – with 91 seats he can count on to outvote those 50 Republicans.
"[Democrats] have a supermajority. It’s 85 to pass emergency legislation or override a veto,” Busch says. “So there’s still a significant amount of democrats, and then to pass any bill you need at least 75 votes."
The last time Maryland had a Republican governor, Democrats relied on their supermajority in the legislature to overturn his vetoes. But Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has insisted he wants to work across the aisle and Busch says he doesn’t think the conflicts will be as bitter as they were during the Bob Ehrlich administration.
“It is smart of Governor Hogan to come in and start talking about working together because you can’t come in and make it happen all by yourself,” Busch says.
Democrats who lost their seats were mostly moderates from the more rural parts of the state. That leaves the new Democratic caucus centralized in the DC suburbs and the Baltimore region—denser, more urban areas.
Geography isn’t the only shift: new Democratic delegates skew more liberal than the lawmakers they replaced. That could leave the more centrist Democratic leadership to face off against not just Hogan, but also a more left-leaning batch of freshmen Democrats.
"They're younger, they are people who have been very, very active in issues in their communities," says Charly Carter, who heads the progressive labor-backed advocacy organization Maryland Working Families. "I think quite honestly the energy and the enthusiasm and the determination of some of these freshmen coming in is really sweeping up some of the incumbents who’ve always been really progressive but have just always followed the system rules."
The state elected a governor who ran on conservative economic principles, but Carter says more than two dozen Democrats were elected running on progressive economic policies. She says this more partisan state government is an opportunity for incoming Democrats to tilt the party to the left.
"Democrats will have to really demonstrate themselves as being the advocates and fighters for working people in this state, and I think this new governor presents a new foil for them to contrast themselves against," Carter says.
Maryland's not alone. Many states are winding up with more partisan legislatures as primary voters become more activist, says St. Mary’s College political scientist Todd Eberly.
"Primaries are generating candidates that are apart from the middle, and then when it goes to election time you’re choosing from candidates on the Democratic side that tend to be more liberal and republicans who tend to be more Republican," Eberly says. “So then no matter what you end up with a candidate who is outside the mainstream.”
So with more liberal Democrats and more numerous Republicans in the legislature, Eberly says, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should be cautious about pushing policies that skew too far from the center.
"Elections just tell us that people had a choice between candidate A and candidate B, and they chose one of those candidates," Eberlysays. “But it tells us nothing about the overall policy preferences of voters.”
There are nearly two months left before the General Assembly swings to life in Annapolis -- plenty of time for legislators new and old to size each other up and figure out how to play together.
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