Josh Kurtz: Working

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By: Josh Kurtz 

A non-descript College Park office with a view of a parking lot and the faint smell of ammonia hardly seems like the place to plot the political transformation of Maryland. But here, and in equally unexceptional office space on North Charles Street in Baltimore, the group Maryland Working Families is implementing its multi-pronged plan to make a blue state a truly progressive one as well.

There’s a short-term strategy – the group has endorsed 10 candidates in four legislative districts in this week’s Democratic primary – and a longer-term goal of becoming major players in the upcoming General Assembly term and an even bigger factor in the next elections.

“2018 rolls around, we definitely want to have credible challengers to those leaders who pride themselves on slowing down progressive legislation,” says Charly Carter, Maryland Working Families’ irrepressible new leader.

The organization has been around for the past 18 months, operating as an offshoot of the unions it’s affiliated with, mostly working on the push to raise the minimum wage. But in Carter’s view, that was just a warm-up, a trial run to push a broad progressive economic agenda to match, if not surpass, the progress the state has made in recent years on social issues (think gun control, capital punishment, same-sex marriage, the DREAM Act, etc.).

The inspiration – and guiding light – is the national Working Families Party, which sprung up in New York about 15 years ago and now is a driving force in state and city politics. WFP – an actual political party in New York, given the state’s quirky election laws – is closely associated with new New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). And earlier this month, the group pressured Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who is up for reelection this year, to support liberal Democrats seeking state Senate seats.

With Valerie Ervin, the former Montgomery County councilwoman, recently installed as the head of the Center for Working Families, the national Working Families Party’s 501(c)3, it’s all but guaranteed that Maryland will get more attention from national headquarters. But Maryland Working Families won’t be seeking ballot status.

“We feel like we can work within the system we have here,” Carter says. “We feel like it’s just about giving working families a larger megaphone.”

In this election, the group has endorsed a mix of incumbents and newcomers. In the crowded Democratic primary in District 12, a Baltimore-Howard County hybrid with three vacancies, the group Working Families gotten behind Clarence Lam, a physician and legislative aide, and Eric Ebersole, a teacher. In Prince George’s County’s 26th district, Maryland Working Families has joined the multitude of labor unions and other liberal groups that are backing Del. Veronica Turner (D) in her challenge to state Sen. Anthony Muse (D). In the same district, the group has also endorsed Del. Kris Valderamma (D) and David Sloan, a political operative and former aide to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) who is seeking a House seat.

In another Prince George’s district, 47A, the group is backing the two incumbents seeking reelection there, Sen. Victor Ramirez (D) and Del. Michael Summers (D), and is also behind Jimmy Tarlau, a Mt. Rainier city councilman with a long history in the national labor movement.

Working Families is also playing in Baltimore City’s 45th district, getting behind Del. Cheryl Glenn (D), whose husband is a union leader, and Cory McCrary, an electrician and labor activist.

The endorsements are backed up with manpower – door-knocking, phone-banking, and more. “We don’t do paper endorsements,” Carter says.

At the same time, Working Families is focusing on five districts represented by Democratic state senators who Carter deems “impediments” to a progressive agenda – John Astle in Anne Arundel County, Ed Kasemeyer in Howard and Baltimore counties, Delores Kelley in Baltimore County, Kathy Klausmeier in Baltimore County, and Mac Middleton in Charles County. The group isn’t working to defeat the incumbents this time around. But they’re amping up the pressure and putting them on notice that they could be targets in the future (coincidentally or not, all five are seen as candidates for retirement in 2018).

Working Families is hoping to install a Progressive Caucus in the legislature next year – it’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been one to date. Carter says some of the “liberal lions” of the Senate who don’t have to sweat reelection, like Jamie Raskin and Jim Rosapepe, are on board and are helping to get the new caucus organized, with initial meetings likely later this summer.

Knowing that a well-organized group like Working Families is behind them will embolden lawmakers to stake out bolder positions, Carter predicts. “We don’t want to leave them on their own out there.” And having a caucus in place, she says, helps ensure that “they get their marching orders from us before they get their marching orders from Mike Busch and Mike Miller.”

Beyond that, Carter says, the group wants to build a “candidate pipeline” to get more progressives to run for office. There will be a special emphasis, she says, on Baltimore City and Charles County. And the group, which has 10 paid staffers in the state right now – including seven in its field operation – hopes to expand to the Eastern Shore soon.

But even though Carter talks boldly about shaking up the Democratic establishment, she realizes that it’s still necessary to build coalitions, and that change comes gradually. She has worked in the labor movement up and down the East Coast, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and has been in Maryland for the past eight years.

“I get along with everybody,” she laughs.

NOTE TO READERS: I’ll be part of News Channel 8’s primary coverage on Tuesday evening, beginning at 8 p.m. If you have interesting insights or gossip to share while returns are coming in, please shoot me an email or a text message at 202-419-9119. Good luck to all candidates!

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.