BALTIMORE – Determined to win a larger role in the state Democratic Party organization, Maryland’s labor unions are entering the 2018 off-year election season early, and betting on some of their own rank-and-file members for places in the state legislature and other local offices.
Some of the preparatory work began this past summer, says Charly Carter of Maryland Working Families, a union-backed political organization that will be aiding progressive, pro-worker candidates in the state’s Democratic primaries. Carter’s group, prominently supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), sponsored training sessions for union members and other progressives intent on getting involved in races for local elective offices for the first time. Some 300 people enrolled in the trainings, she says, including prospective candidates, would-be campaign staffers and other election activists.
“The Democratic Party is just not doing its job in Maryland,” in recruiting a new generation of party leaders who will defend progressive values, Carter tells In These Times. “They seem to regard their role as protecting incumbents, and nothing more.”
A lot of the progressives involved in the training were spurred to action by the example of the 2016 presidential campaign. The success of Donald Trump in winning the White House, and the failure of Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination, impressed on many the need to change the direction of electoral politics, Carter says.
For Alethia McCaskill, the 2016 presidential election was only the end point of a growing conviction that she should become more involved in local elections. The African-American neighborhoods around her home in the suburb of Catonsville have long suffered from neglect from their current officials, especially Democratic Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, she says. So the SEIU Local 500 member decided to take the leap and challenge the incumbent in the party primary coming up in June.
Unions in Baltimore were receptive to her ambition, she says. Some of them were unhappy with Nathan-Pulliam’s performance in the legislative fight over a Maryland paid-sick-leave law, where some Democrats quietly tried to weaken the new law, despite overwhelming public support for the measure. McCaskill counts herself as a passionate supporter of a strong bill, and also of a new $15-an-hour statewide minimum wage. She tells In These Times she is expecting official endorsements, as well as financial support for her campaign, from several unions that supported Nathan-Pulliam in the past.
The 10-year member of Local 500 says of her opponent: “We were expecting her to step up on paid sick leave. She tried to water it down.” More broadly, she sees her opponent as too passive in the legislative fights important to working-class voters. “I’m not a ‘sit quietly in your office’ kind of girl.”
McCaskill is being joined in challenging an incumbent Democratic senator by Cory McCray, a young legislator with roots in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). McCray, 35, was elected to the state’s lower House of Delegates in 2014 with support from Maryland Working Families and the IBEW, and is now ready to challenge incumbent Democrat Sen. Nathaniel McFadden. Like Nathan-Pulliam, McFadden is a veteran of the local political machine who has come under criticism for an overly conservative, go-slow approach to governance.
McCray is another supporter of a statewide $15 minimum wage and tells In These Times that now is the time to push it through. Although a higher minimum is opposed by Gov. Larry Hogan ®, the majority of state legislators are Democrats, and should be able to override any veto, he says. Conservative Democrats were responsible for too-generous compromises with pro-business lobbyists when Maryland passed its first-ever minimum wage law back in 2014, he says, but the state legislature should be in a good position to correct those errors after the 2018 election.
McCray was a freshman legislator in 2015 when angry protests against the police killing of African-American man Freddie Gray rocked the city. Since then, McCray has worked steadily to improve job opportunities for Baltimore’s African-American community, particularly with the unionized apprenticeship programs available through IBEW. “In my own life, a good solid union job made the difference. All the young men and women in Maryland deserve a chance at the same thing,” he says.
A similar ethic is inspiring Samir Paul, a high school computer science teacher from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Montgomery County. A child of immigrants from India, Paul is standing for election to the Maryland House of Delegates after several years as a public education activist and campaigner for Barack Obama.
“Donald Trump is a real challenge to American values. And there is a reflection of that here in Maryland with Gov. Hogan. In terms of (education) policy, Hogan and Trump are not that different,” says Paul, a four-year member of a local affiliate of the teacher’s union Maryland State Education Association (MSEA).
Paul tells In These Times he wants organized labor to “have a seat at the table” as the state legislature considers changes to public education law. Currently, a panel known as the Kirwan Commission is considering proposals for changes that are expected to be debated in 2018-2019, and Paul says it is vital that pro-worker, pro-union voices are heard in the closed-door meetings that typically take place in debates of this kind. “Hogan has not been a friend to public education or to teachers … I’d like to be in the room,” when new legislation is written, he says.
Paul is not challenging an incumbent but is running for an open seat in the House of Delegates. He says he has good prospects of getting formal support from MSEA in June’s Democratic Party primary, where the general election is usually decided in heavily Democratic Montgomery County. “It’s not automatic,” that I get union support, he says, “but my chances are good.”
Working Families’ Carter predicts 2018 will be a good year in Maryland for labor forces. The governor’s election will be the premier event and will energize the traditional Democratic Party. Trump’ unpopularity in Maryland will provide a favorable plating field, she says. “I think the Democrats will do well and the early preparation work should pay off for us,” Carter says.