Give Kathleen Matthews a Chance

By Adam Pagnucco.

Former WJLA anchor and Congressional District 8 candidate Kathleen Matthews has been picked as the Interim Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.  And as someone who was asked to run by the party’s senior elected leadership – namely, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Representative Steny Hoyer – she seems likely to be named the four-year Chair as well.  That has set off a round of protest among some liberals in the party, with echoes of last year’s primary battles.

Two comments are noteworthy.  First, former Montgomery County Council Member Valerie Ervin said that Matthews’s appointment “missed an opportunity to open up the space for a new and different kind of leadership.”  That was essentially the rationale for the U.S. Senate campaign of Ervin’s good friend, Donna Edwards.  Second, Maryland Matters columnist Josh Kurtz blasted Matthews as “an especially thin reed” and “the wrong candidate at the wrong time” who could not connect with either progressives or Hogan voters.

In evaluating these criticisms, it’s worth contemplating just how much trouble Maryland Democrats are in right now.

  • Governor Larry Hogan has rung up a string of job approval ratings of 60-70% or more, including majority approval in some polls among Democrats. He is on pace to raise tens of millions of dollars for his reelection campaign.  He is absolutely dominant in social media.  And he is only seven GOP votes away from having his vetoes sustained in the House of Delegates.  If Hogan returns to Annapolis with enough Republicans to support his vetoes, Maryland will have a real two-party state government.
  • Outside Annapolis, the Democrats’ hold on county offices has collapsed since the 2002 elections. The Democrats are almost extinct in most of Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Harford County.  The Republicans firmly control Anne Arundel and are competitive in Baltimore County.  The Howard County Executive is a Republican.  The Democrats dominate in Baltimore City, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles.  That’s about it.
  • The Maryland Democratic Party apparatus has degraded. It could not help Anthony Brown get elected Governor in 2014.  Some local parties complain about lack of support.  The party’s federal receipts in the 2016 cycle ($2.8 million) were the lowest in any two-year cycle since 2004.  The party’s state-level account raised just $6,650 last year, about one-eighth of what the Republicans raised.  There is little in the way of an aggressive communications program on the Governor’s record in office.  Individual Democratic state legislators complain about issues like Hogan’s Facebook page and his executive order on Labor Day, neither of which will result in electoral harm to the Governor.  The party lacks a battle plan for taking on the Governor other than associating him with Donald Trump.  It needs a plan, and fast.

Enter Kathleen Matthews.  As a candidate in CD8, she did a lot of things right: raising money, getting the Washington Post endorsement and running a competent, professional campaign.  She lost because she did not have David Trone’s money, did not spend ten years building a grassroots base like Jamie Raskin and did not sufficiently address local issues.  Since the campaign, she has played a key role in helping women run for office through Emerge Maryland, unquestionably a hugely important exercise in the Era of Trump.  Let’s recognize that unlike many other losing candidates who disappear after the election, Matthews has remained engaged.

Some of the criticisms of Matthews relate to her positions and conduct as a candidate.  But Matthews is not going to be a candidate for government office if she is Chair of the party.  Other people will run for Governor, state legislature and county office and they will face the judgment of the voters.  As Chair, Matthews’s job will be to raise money and rebuild the party’s communication and field capabilities.  She is as plausible a choice as anyone to accomplish those tasks.

Consider this.  One of the most effective techniques of political communication is story-telling.  Imagine a video interview with a Baltimore City teacher or family affected by Hogan’s cuts to city schools.  Or an interview with a provider of developmental disability services who would earn fast food industry wages under Hogan’s budget.  Or a profile of a family who would lose Affordable Care Act health insurance coverage while Hogan stands idly by.    Or a story about a positive initiative from a local Democratic elected official fixing a problem for constituents.  Imagine a mass email and social media program spreading these pieces to hundreds of thousands of voters.  Who in the entire state party is better suited to this kind of video story-telling than Kathleen Matthews?

Of course, we’re the Democrats.  We often fight harder against each other than against Republicans.  We could criticize Matthews as not liberal enough, not working class enough or not local enough.  We could keep fighting the Bernie vs Hillary battles, the Donna vs Chris battles or the Tom vs Keith battles.  We could keep arguing over who’s perfect and who’s not.  Sure, let’s do that.  Hogan would love it.  That’s exactly what he wants us to do.

Or we could unite all of our various factions, our passions and our abilities and take our case directly to the streets of Maryland.  We could spread far and wide what we know to be true, which is that Maryland can do a lot better than Larry Hogan and Donald Trump.  And we could take advantage of the fundraising and media skillsets that Kathleen Matthews has to help us do it.

Democrats of Maryland, the choice is yours.