Saturday, March 15, 2014

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind - Maryland Politics Edition

The boffins call it crepuscularity, being active during twilight.   Alert drivers know that deer are more likely to amble near the roads at those hours. 

The opportunities of the day seem most promising at dawn; the possibilities of the night appear greatest at dusk.  At those times of transition, the mind is open to considering multiple riffs in response to the question: “What if?”

Even veteran politicos occasionally ask questions or hold positions that, on their surface, might appear silly or otherwise off base. At times, they are.  Other times, they are plugging into their life experiences and, knowing that the world can be very odd indeed, they speculate out loud on the possible…and realize that even the highly improbable can become Reality. They have seen it happen before.

It is with these thoughts as a prologue that I turn my attention to the Maryland gubernatorial campaign – specifically the Democratic primary.

Using Professor Skowronek’s classification system, the front-runner, Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, would probably best be described as an “orthodox innovator.”  Elect the ticket of Brown and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, and you can expect an Administration that builds upon the work of the outgoing Governor, Martin O’Malley.  Two smart, competent public servants who are pledging the equivalent of Keeping Maryland Moving.

The Brown/Ulman campaign is leading in the polls, has considerable establishment support, and is raising steaming heaps of cash.  

Unfortunately, the talent-heavy combo is running a bit too cautious.  Their new ad “Trusted” is a well-produced bio spot but it feels like a safe move to reinforce the brand.  This happens to front-runners.  Muskie ’72 took a similar path and that campaign found itself on the wrong end of a boot stomping…and when the electability argument falters, there had better be something to replace it. 

Perhaps their records are strong enough, and their vision will be clear enough, to surmount the inevitable challenges that will arise between now and the June primary, but I don’t think the duo is quite there yet.

If the Brown/Ulman ticket is Coca-Cola, the Gansler-Ivey team is Royal Crown.  Had Congressman Delaney or Congressman Ruppersberger…or Comptroller Franchot…entered the fray, the conversation right now would be focused on how Attorney General Gansler can break the 10% barrier and if he could pay his staffers their gas reimbursements in anything other than IOUs for bitcoins.

His “For Us” ad is not bad. It connects to voter concerns and hopes.  This is smart politics but also – in his case – necessary.  His Party Selfie Shown Round the World and allegations of being a bit less than levelheaded require him to shift the focus from “the man” to “our cause.”  While he can raise some funds, he feels too close to his ceiling (despite current polls showing him only in the 14% - 15% range).  With luck, his campaign would finish with 28% of the vote but I would wager that is the high-water mark for that ticket.  He probably ends up with closer to 24%.  By July, his running mate, Delegate Jolene Ivey, will have a much brighter political future than Gansler.

Delegate Heather Mizeur has embraced the insurgent, issue-oriented, progressive positioning.  As a general rule, such campaigns are fun to watch.  Also as a general rule, they usually don’t win (at the presidential level, Dean 2004 leaps to mind…interestingly, the organization that he founded, Democracy for America, is backing Mizeur).

Her selection of Reverend Delman Coates, much like then-Governor Clinton’s pick of then-Senator Al Gore as his running mate, represents a decision to double down on a narrative.  In the case of Mizeur-Coates: an Outsider/Anti-Establishment theme.

Which may be smart politics in 2014.  Voter anxiety levels are revved up.  As it is a non-presidential election year, turnout is unlikely to be high…with the more ideologically driven voters constituting a larger part of the electorate.  Frustration is not limited to Republicans and Independents.  There are Democrats who feel alienated from their government, from politicians who they believe do not listen, or truly understand, their problems.  If they are looking to send a message of change instead of continuity, a vote for Heather Mizeur for Governor would send such a message.

The challenge for Mizeur is to ramp up her profile to the point where voters can make the connection that her candidacy is the best vehicle for change.  Not just intellectually, but viscerally.  That requires some heavy lifting in a relatively short period of time.

And perhaps the majority of Maryland Democrats favor some version of the status quo. However, her campaign is based on the animating principle that the voters want a new choice and a different direction.   Is she right? It remains to be seen.

Which brings me back to where I started.  Although she is running third in the polls, and contrary to what passes for conventional wisdom these days, I believe that Delegate Mizeur might just pull off the upset and win the primary.  If so, it will be by the narrowest of margins over Brown.  More likely, she runs a very respectable second and becomes the instant-front runner for another public office in a not-too-distant election cycle….but there is a path to victory for her in 2014.

I may be wrong and events may follow a different course, but I am open to the idea of that improbability becoming a reality…and the sun is high overhead.

 Stay tuned, as more will follow.

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