Maryland socialists begin building statewide formation

Maryland’s various DSA formations — Greater Baltimore, a full-sized chapter of years standing, branches of MDC DSA in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and an organizing committee in Southern Maryland — have been conferring regularly for more than a year about how to leverage our numbers and apply our analysis to the so-called Blue state’s political realities.

Like any state, Maryland’s political qualities are its own, and finding the levers for change at that level presents challenges for any progressive-left formation or coalition-seeking socialist organization. Sussing out allies and enemies and power-mapping the terrain requires a different approach from change-making at the county or municipal level.

Socialists realize this most acutely at the points where the state constitution keeps its dead hand on the range of motion available to counties and cities. As in many such cases, capitalist practices provide the bonds and boundaries for local/state activism — a well-masked factor that we socialists are uniquely qualified to illuminate.

DSA membership both at-large and in branch or OC zones is spotty, ranging from a robust and engaged group in MoCo through a struggle in Prince George’s (branch) and Southern Maryland (organizing committee) to build the critical mass for functioning committees and campaigns. As shown below, Greater Baltimore DSA has (re)built a solid chapter organization with committees and campaigns that has managed well through the pandemic with some impediments.

In our statewide calls with national DSA regional organizer Eric W, strategy for retention and mobilization has been at the top of the list, and a survey was sent to at-large members throughout the state to build a sense of what issues and strategies comrades want to engage in. The statewide group began in December to build a legislative agenda for the Assembly session — now three weeks into a three-month journey — having gotten an earlier start and estimated the stance of allied organizations.

Though the Maryland General Assembly has a longtime Democratic supermajority, it has sparred with GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, a business-entangled real estate mogul, and not always to the Democrats’ advantage — because they are as ensnared by business interests as Hogan.

And though most of the population and the majority of Democrats are in Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, many of the state’s other 23 counties are controlled by Republicans. Hogan got two terms out of his skill with social-media disinformation (see “rain tax”), where Democrats are just catching up.

Hogan’s Teflon has worn thin during the pandemic, when he malevolently botched the highly critical unemployment compensation process, failed to protect renters from predatory landlords and eviction and flamboyantly spent big bucks on testing kits direct from Korea that turned out to be near-useless. He faces wide resistance to his current proposal that the federally fueled state budget surplus be diverted for tax cuts.

But there is a paucity of Dems willing to stand up to him, in part because a stunning two-year turnover of leadership in the Assembly’s chambers following the sudden death of longtime House Speaker Mike Busch and then of Mike Miller, the Senate President since approximately the heyday of big-finned Cadillacs. The new leaders were the products of compromise in a state Democratic Party increasingly split along progressive vs. neolib lines, with several scoops of racial rancor tossed in. They are competent rookies and will safeguard business interests.

Where our Virginia comrades must struggle with the overt barriers of a “Right to Work” state, Maryland’s union strength is significant but sometimes problematic. Teachers’ unions (the constant target of the Washington Post) have power in both likely and unlikely places and will gain as the big new schools funding package is debated.

Socialists working this terrain are quite dependent on statewide allies like Progressive Maryland, as we see below. But let’s review first the DSA elements of this growing statewide formation.

Greater Baltimore DSA’s local chapter has a long and deep history in Charm City, being originally a group founded mostly by members of the New American Movement (NAM) after its merger with DSOC that ushered in the modern DSA in the early 1980s. DC-MD-NoVA DSA (as MDC DSA was known then) had lots of contact with the Baltimore comrades and even joined them in ballpark fundraisers in the old uptown Memorial Stadium for Orioles games, where local organizations took over a concession for one game and earned revolutionary funds by peddling greasy and unhealthy food. But there was little statewide collective activity because of the gaping B-WASH corridor. Like MDC DSA, the Baltimore chapter had ups and downs and amounts to a mostly new formation kicked off by the Trump shock.

Most recently, GBDSA focused during the pandemic on mutual aid, in concert with existing mutual aid activist groups. As noted by GBDSA's mutual aid overview: 

Mutual aid is not charity. Mutual aid is ORGANIZING!

Continuing the legacy of marginalized communities and allies reclaiming their collective power to uplift and transform members of our communities, [we aim to] strengthen democratic counter-institutions.

Our mutual aid work started with members organizing directly within their neighborhood-level mutual aid groups, and bringing those skills back to provide mutual aid between our members. GBDSA works closely with the tenant organizers [and] made a concerted effort to support these organizations with our financial resources.

The chapter also maintains a substantial and impressive lending library, though during the pandemic direct lending has been suspended.

Montgomery County DSA, for decades a deep well of mostly paper DSA members, has built an activist branch whose pre-pandemic meetings drew at-large members from Prince George’s and Frederick counties. More recently, Prince George’s has won branch status and is carefully building a countywide organization outside its concentration in the mostly-white northern section of the county, looking for the weaknesses in an entrenched neoliberal Black political culture while diversifying its own membership. A Southern Maryland organizing committee based mostly in Charles County is experiencing similar mobilization issues.

Statewide discussions share priorities and tactics

In the December statewide discussion, MoCo reported they were still pushing a bill to stop country club tax breaks, which has high impact and is an easy sell among the county’s working folks. A committee leadership change may open more room for that bill. Additionally, statewide effort has brought public financing of local elections: now passed in Prince George’s and already in force in MoCo as well as in Howard County and Baltimore, it will now be on the ballot in Anne Arundel County. Allied organizations like Progressive Maryland are also pushing this initiative statewide, an appealing collaboration that could lead to public financing for state legislators and an end to the infinitely corrupting presence of candidate slates.

Though it is not an explicitly socialist organization, Progressive Maryland focuses on equity in healthcare, for major changes to policing and [Maryland’s] justice system, for meaningful drug policy reforms that acknowledge the failures of criminalization, and for measures that combat environmental injustice in its many different forms. Our statewide comrades find Progressive Maryland’s full legislative agenda compatible; PM, however, has paid staff that can organize around it year-round.

Our Revolution Maryland is also working on a host of issues that parallel DSA's,  A recent on-line meeting with legislators in Annapolis highlighted bills that will address police accountability and immunity, medicare for all, public official accountability and racial equity.  They have highlighted campaign finance reform in their work and been strong supporters of union rights.  

In Prince George’s, the strongest member response has been to an ecosocialist program, and it has had impact on the county’s commission developing a climate response plan. PG comrades are similarly articulating that work by pushing statewide climate issues in the Assembly session, building on a regional (multistate) power generation scheme that is cap-n-trade lite but gets tweaked more ambitiously every several years.

Nicole Z, co-chair of MoCo branch and a frequent leader in statewide calls, notes: “The 2021 session left a lot of unfinished business on housing justice (for example, passing but not funding tenant rights to council) and policing — for example, repealing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR)” (without neolib weakeners).

“We [MoCo] also focused a lot of our efforts last year on bills to tax the rich, which largely did not pass,” Nicole Z continued. “Those bills feel less urgent now that the state has a budget surplus and hopefully, that means that lawmakers aren't considering cuts to social services and such to make up a shortfall. That being said, of course redistributing wealth is evergreen.

“Another issue that we've discussed as a branch is public financing for state house of delegates and state senate races, which would make it easier for working class people (and hopefully DSA comrades) to run for office at the state level.” Nicole also noted in-county allies on policing, climate and housing issues whose Assembly agendas align with ours and have provided briefings at their recent monthly meetings.

Finding DSA’s footing at the state level in Maryland and leveraging our various strengths is a work in progress. But Maryland, faux Blue or not, provides attractive avenues for radical action that are distinct from those in DC or Virginia, and it is important that we establish power and strategies for change here.

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