Josh Kurtz: Left, Right and Center

By Josh Kurtz

When a judge ruled last week that political strategist Julius Henson had to pay the state $1 million for his role in the Election Day 2010 robocalls that sought to keep African-American voters at home, it was like a jolt of adrenaline through the veins of Maryland progressives – especially younger ones.

It’s hard to be anything but cynical about politics these days. And worse, it’s hard to think that the system is anything but rigged, with the Supreme Court deciding presidential elections, with the Bush Justice Department punishing U.S. attorneys who wouldn’t investigate left-wing groups conducting voter registration drives, with Republican state governments purging voter rolls and enacting voter ID laws.

Even in Democratic Maryland, there was a tendency among veteran political observers – even some party strategists – to shrug at the Henson-Paul Schurick voter suppression case. It’s just Julius being Julius, some said. We’ve seen worse political tactics through the years. Hey, Schurick is a good guy.

But the reaction among younger political activists to the Henson penalty has been notably enthusiastic. Voter suppression is serious business, and this feels like a measure of justice.

It goes without saying that that the political benefit for the Henson fine accrues almost exclusively to Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), who brought the case against the sharp-elbowed strategist, even as a criminal case against Henson was proceeding – and even as some old-timers accused Gansler of political grandstanding. This was the right thing to do, plain and simple. And it further solidifies Gansler’s status as the favorite of progressive voters heading into the 2014 gubernatorial election.

The real question is whether the publicity surrounding this case helps Gansler break Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s (D) solid hold on African-American voters at the outset of the contest. Julius Henson has helped elect a lot of black candidates in Maryland through the years – and he’s bloodied an equal number. But most voters have never heard of him – so the crime and the punishment get the headlines, and rightfully so.

Don’t weep for Julius Henson: Enough politicians out there are always looking for a practitioner of the dark arts. He has managed to reinvent himself from time to time – and he will work in this town again.

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We move now to a different aspect of the 2014 election, and Frederick County Commissioner Blaine Young’s (R) recently unveiled exploratory campaign for governor, by noting that an immigrants rights group, writing this week in the liberal Huffington Post, put Young on its second annual Local Hall of Shame. He’s there alongside Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who has made racial profiling of Latinos his modus operandi, and the governors of Arizona and Alabama, who signed harsh anti-immigration bills into law, among others.

This may be a badge of honor for a guy who is touting himself as “the conservative voice of Maryland.” And it’s sure to endear him to certain conservative, anti-immigrant voters.

But forget about making it through a general election in this generally Democratic and nominally liberal state. Young has first got to get through a Republican primary that could include Harford County Executive David Craig, with a long record of public service, and Larry Hogan, the former Ehrlich administration cabinet secretary who is mobilizing Republicans, Democrats and independents disenchanted with government spending and tax hikes through his group Change Maryland.

Someone who can rile up the base is always a force to be reckoned with in a Republican primary, so Young will be a factor. But Craig and Hogan are serious, substantive guys. None is a perfect candidate, and all three would start a general election as the decided underdog against the Democratic nominee.

But the onus is on Young to show what kind of candidate he plans to be and whether he ought to be taken seriously. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to beat the drum against illegal immigrants during the battle this fall over the referendum to kill the state DREAM Act. But will he expand his message beyond that? And how does he frame his appeal – to the GOP primary electorate and to general election voters?

An editorial that ran Sunday in the Frederick News-Post, the newspaper that knows Young best, may have said it best: “Had he walked a more moderate line with his county record, he might have been able to [broaden his appeal], but as hard-line as he’s been, we just can’t see it.”

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House Speaker Mike Busch (D) shows no signs of going anyplace. It’s likely he’ll be speaker until 2019, at least.

But that doesn’t stop people from constantly chattering about his successor.

That point was reinforced last week at a fundraiser for Del. John Bohanan (D) of St. Mary’s County. Bohanan, 53, is part of the next generation of leaders likely to rise into the top ranks of House leadership the next time there’s any movement – which isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Bohanan certainly has some powerful champions in the state – from his boss, Congressman Steny Hoyer (D), to Senate President Mike Miller (D), and others. At the fundraiser, Hoyer compared Bohanan to former House Speaker John Hanson Briscoe, another son of St. Mary’s County who held the gavel for six years in the 1970’s, while Miller praised Bohanan for governing “in the middle.” Bohanan has loosely tried to organize the Annapolis equivalent of Blue Dog Democrats.

There’s an irony here, though: Bohanan is in grave danger of losing his re-election bid in 2014. Back home, a lot of voters no longer see him as governing “in the middle.” They look at his votes for higher taxes, for gay marriage and so on, and wonder what happened. Remember, St. Mary’s state Sen. Roy Dyson (D) – Bohanan’s brother-in-law, who’s been around a lot longer than Bohanan – voted against the same-sex marriage law.

Some people can’t help wonder if Bohanan’s subtle shift to the left has something to do with the some future leadership battle in Annapolis – or a possible run for Congress whenever Hoyer finally moves on. In either instance, he will have to have some liberal credentials to credibly compete.

Hoyer would dearly love to will his seat to Bohanan – but there are a whole lot of ambitious politicians in Southern Maryland and Prince George’s County who have other ideas. And Hoyer’s district may be ripe for a serious minority candidate when the seat becomes open. Perhaps by then Julius Henson will be sufficiently rehabilitated to be a factor in that race.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Road to Succeed Pelosi May Run Through Maryland

A Change Is Gonna Come (And The Audacity of Nope)

Say Cheese

Taxman

Generally Speaking (Part 2)

Generally Speaking (Part 1)

Charm Offensive

Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

Heather Mizeur, Superstar