Josh Kurtz: White Man’s Burden

By Josh Kurtz

It’s tough to be a white male in Democratic politics these days.

Just ask Brian Feldman, the state delegate from Montgomery County. And Attorney General Doug Gansler. And maybe even Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Feldman, who has one of the worst cases of, um, political congested prostate in Maryland, finally thought he saw a way out of the House when his senator, Rob Garagiola, announced he would be resigning on Sept. 1. Feldman instantly became the odds-on favorite to succeed Garagiola, whose replacement will be chosen by O’Malley based on a recommendation from the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.

But a loose coalition of minority community and political activists who have been agitating and organizing to get more minority candidates elected to public office in Montgomery County have different ideas.

Previously focused on the 2014 elections and beyond, this group, whose leaders include former Montgomery Democratic Chairwoman Karen Britto and County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin are beginning to pressure central committee members to anoint a minority candidate to replace Garagiola. Here is a perfect opportunity, they argue, for party leaders to right some historical wrongs — namely, in the long history of minorities being underrepresented in elective office in a jurisdiction that is now majority-minority, Montgomery County has never, ever, sent anyone to the Senate who isn’t white.

This is, undoubtedly, an embarrassment and a disgrace.

But one wonders — certainly, Feldman has to wonder –whether this is the time and place for the minority group to take a stand. An alternative to Feldman — minority or white — hasn’t publicly come forward yet and expressed an interest in Garagiola’s Senate seat. Feldman’s two seatmates, including Del. Aruna Miller, one of six minorities in the Montgomery County House delegation, have endorsed him for Senate, and County Executive Ike Leggett may follow.

District 15, which includes Potomac, a sliver of Bethesda, and parts of the Upcounty, has a minority population of about 39 percent, and Asian-Americans represent about 22 percent of the population. Five other legislative districts in the county have higher minority populations.

Montgomery County’s demographics are tricky. Though whites are no longer in the majority, they still represent a plurality of the population. Between African-Americans and Asian-Americans and Latinos — not to mention Africans and Middle Easterners and East Asians — there is no dominant minority group. Each legislative district has its own unique set of demographics. Matching national trends, Hispanics don’t vote in numbers proportional to population figures.

In 2014, Del. Susan Lee, who is Chinese-American — her appointment to a vacancy in 2002 made her just the second minority member of the Montgomery legislative delegation, and the first minority woman — is favored to win the Senate seat that Brian Frosh is giving up to run for attorney general. That’s in District 16 — the Montgomery district with the smallest minority population, about 18 percent. Right now the white incumbent senators are gearing up to run for re-election in the county’s seven other legislative districts. Most will be tough to beat.

At the very least, Britto’s group is hoping to spark a dialogue, and some soul-searching, among party leaders between now and the time the Democratic central committee meets to replace Garagiola on Sept. 10. And if a strong minority candidate emerges to challenge Feldman and he or she prevails, that would surely shake up the county establishment.

Nine of the 21 central committee members are minorities (there are two vacancies), and several white members are no doubt sensitive to the imbalance in minority representation in the county. Is Brian Feldman about to become collateral damage in a bigger political war?

Of course, these types of battles aren’t just being fought in Montgomery County. A similar conversation is taking place in Howard County, where more than half the legislative seats will be open in 2014, and in Prince George’s County, where voters in a jurisdiction that’s two-thirds African-American must surely be wondering why only three of their eight state senators are black.

In the gubernatorial race, Anthony Brown’s handlers will package his resume — his military experience, his Harvard education, his fluency in the issues before state government. But Gansler, his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, has to worry most about one thing: the potential for a huge African-American turnout, as Brown bids to become the state’s first black governor.

Brown’s appeal to black voters — and their loyalty to him — is a subject that will be endlessly debated over the next year, as Gansler and Heather Mizeur probe for signs of weakness and fight for African-American support. But the fact is that if black voters turn out in huge numbers for Brown, the primary’s over — that’s too big a structural advantage for his opponents to overcome.

Even further up the political food chain, could O’Malley be facing demographic problems of his own as he contemplates running for president in 2016? Possibly.

If you missed it, National Journal magazine last week put O’Malley on its cover, examining his record and his potential as a White House contender. It was a fascinating window into the way D.C. insiders are currently regarding the governor.

As interesting as the more than 5,000 words devoted to O’Malley in two articles were, even more revealing were the anonymous opinions offered in the magazine’s weekly insiders’ poll. Asked if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run for president where O’Malley would fit in the Democratic field, 33 percent of Democratic insiders said in the top tier, 44 percent said in the middle of the pack and 23 percent said he’d be a long shot. Among Republican insiders the numbers were 13 percent top tier, 45 percent middle and 42 percent long shot.

“No glaring weaknesses but will really seem like boring vanilla compared to the current POTUS and the candidate they really want,” one GOP insider wrote.

“Old white men don’t win Democratic primaries anymore,” another observed more trenchantly.

Is that a real trend, something O’Malley — who isn’t old — and white males everywhere need to worry about at every level of Democratic politics? What are the implications at the local, state and federal levels? And when does the inevitable backlash arrive?

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:

Brown-Ulman Pre-nup Dictated by State Election Law

‘Groundhog Day’ in Montgomery County

Republicans At the Starting Gate

Gansler Hires Campaign Manager

Will 2014 Be a Republican Year Nationally — and in Maryland?

Back to the Future

Conviction Politics