By Len Lazarick
Pat Murray, the new executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, hasn’t quite put together a grand scheme for reviving a party still licking its wounds from a humiliating loss of the governorship and legislative seats last year.
“What’s the plan?” Murray asked rhetorically at the Columbia Democratic Club Wednesday night. “It’s day 3,” said Murray, who started his new job on Monday, a point he repeated several times.
But Murray, a veteran political tactician who’s worked for both House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller, has clearly given his new job and the party’s role a lot of thought.
“It’s time to look at the next election, not the last one,” Murray said. But last year’s results did point to pressing problems that need to be solved, such as low voter turnout in Maryland’s largest and most Democratic jurisdictions.
Divided government, not Republican government
“We know that state elections are tougher for us than federal elections,” Murray said.
He pointed to Parris Glendening’s close call in 1994 (his contested 6,000 vote margin leads Republicans to still call Ellen Sauerbrey “governor”), Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s loss to Congressman Bob Ehrlich in 2002, and Larry Hogan’s defeat of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown last year, continuing the curse of the lieutenant governor’s office.
“I’m not scared that we’ve turned a corner,” said Murray. “Voters chose divided government, not Republican government,” with Democrats continuing to dominate the Maryland General Assembly.
“The world we’re living in is not a Republican surge, it’s divided government,” Murray insisted.
His selection as party executive director has made a bigger splash than most who have held the job in recent years, partly because the party plays a more important role when the current governor is not its titular head and the most popular elected Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, is hanging up her boxing gloves. Murray is also well-known to State House reporters as a political operative for Miller and Busch, and for the last few years as a lobbyist for the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
Welcoming back nonvoters
Murray’s basic notion for moving forward is to “throw the door open” for Dems who have been sitting out elections. He said this can be done through better, more persistent and personal voter contact, along with better data collection and voter identification.
“Democrats in this state have a reputation for working hard three or four months every other year,” Murray said. That needs to be turned into longer and more consistent commitment, though he concedes that elsewhere in the country, “a lot of people are struggling with [voter] disengagement” as well.
Among the changes he’d like to see is keeping party campaign workers closer to home.
In national elections, “where do Maryland volunteers go?” he asked. “They go out of state.”
In the last past two presidential elections, Maryland Democrats were taken by the busloads to Virginia and Pennsylvania to knock on doors and assure victory margins for Barack Obama, since Maryland was presumably already in the bag. They also worked phone banks calling into neighboring states.
The state party need to tell the national party, “we want Maryland volunteers working in Maryland.”
But Murray also emphasized that he was interested in listening to what party regulars had to recommend, like the 40 people who showed up in Columbia on a hot summer night to hear him speak (and get free ice cream).
Nancy Yee thanked him for his new leadership, but Murray, who lost an election for delegate in his native Harford County last year, demurred. “I’m not a leader, I’m a staff guy … I’m the chief of staff for the party.”
He said the real leaders are people like Howard County Democratic Party chair Abby Hendrix, who brought to dinner with him that evening a list of party-building projects and the people assigned to carry them out.
He asked the club members to “hold me accountable. We’re not going to be judged by what we say, we’re going to be judged by what we do.”