Life as a Progressive Legislator
by Paul G. Pinsky
The Nation magazine, October 1, 2001
I am a Maryland state legislator. A Democrat. progressive.
And I am a worried man. I left this year's legislative session
convinced that the mainstream Democratic Party political vision
offers, at best, a torturous, contorted path to the more democratic,
sustainable and just future Maryland and the nation deserve. I
also left more convinced than ever that adding a few progressives
to the Statehouse legislative mix, in and of itself, is not going
to make much of a difference.
I serve in what should be the most progressive state government
in America. In Maryland, with a Democrat as governor and a hefty
majority in both legislative chambers, mainstream Democrats have
achieved the sort of statewide political dominance they can only
dream about elsewhere in the nation. What has this dominance accomplished?
By some measures a good bit. The legislative session before last
year's election, for instance, generated a new law that requires
trigger locks on all new handguns, the first such mandate in the
nation. Legislators also widened children's healthcare coverage
and guaranteed prevailing wage rates for school construction projects.
The state also stepped in with additional funds for teacher salaries
and expanded the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers.
And lawmakers earmarked cigarette litigation funds for smoking
prevention, cancer research and education.
Decent achievements? Absolutely. I voted for them all. But
a closer look does dim the luster. The trigger-lock legislation,
for instance, passed only after a filibuster threat had weakened
the original legislation. The expanded child health coverage comes
with no guarantee of quality care. Party leaders, meanwhile, pursued
precious few policies in the 2000 session that might have energized
their natural constituent base-working people-because those steps
might also have alienated corporate interests. Except for passage
of the state's first antidiscrimination protections for gays and
lesbians, the 2001 legislative session was more of the same: no
progress on a statewide living wage, no serious expansion of healthcare
coverage and defeat of a two-year death-penalty moratorium.
My Democratic Party colleagues think I'm living in political
fantasyland. When I suggest that our legislative ambitions could
be broader, "scale back" is their advice. "Don't
give corporate Maryland any reason to throw its considerable weight
fully behind Republicans." Comforting corporate interests
is, of course, the essence of Clintonism, and Maryland is perhaps
its perfect laboratory.
Maryland, after all, is "America in miniature,"
as the tourist brochures like to say. The state boasts sophisticated
city life, suburbs and rural communities. And the population is
diverse: a quarter African-American, almost 5 percent Latino,
with a rapidly growing Asian .community. To legislate for this
miniature America, Maryland legislators serve on a part-time basis,
in session only three months a year. But these three months are
increasingly frenzied. Twenty years of Reaganism and Clintonism
have devolved substantial authority from the federal to the state
level. To a large extent, states now determine which environmental
protections get implemented, how welfare operates and whether
healthcare regulations get waived.
In the course of making these important decisions, Maryland
lawmakers rarely see average working people. The Statehouse halls
belong to the power-suited, always-eager-to-be-helpful lobbyists.
Most large companies have full-time lobbyists either on payroll
or on retainer. If a legislator is confronted with an issue that
poses a stark corporate-consumer contrast, you can be sure that
a legislator will have heard the corporate side many times over
before any vote is taken. Consumer forces, on the other hand,
seldom sport any full-time lobbying presence at the state level.
Legislators do, to be sure, hear from constituents on some
issues, most notably the hot "social issues," everything
from abortion rights to gun control. But there's little likelihood
that lawmakers will receive any appreciable quantities of mail
on issues like electricity deregulation. And the constituent mail
lawmakers do receive on issues like these will, in all likelihood,
be stimulated by the industries most directly involved. On any
issue where constituents are silent and industry has made its
case-a case that usually boils down to "either go along with
the corporate solution or risk losing jobs"-the outcome is
assured. In state capitals like Annapolis, the good folks do not
beat the bad folks on issues that affect the corporate bottom
line. The Statehouse is their turf, not ours.
Maryland lobbyists actually tend to spend more of their time
battling one another, as gladiators for competing corporate interests,
than they do directly battling the interests of average people.
Legislative leaders have little patience for this intracorporate
squabbling. Work it out, they tell the competing parties. The
implicit message: Get together and work out legislation you can
all agree on, then we'll pass it.
For corporate Maryland, maintaining this suffocating presence
in Annapolis costs. In 1979 only $3 million was shelled out for
lobbying in Annapolis. Nine years later, 545 special interests
spent more than triple that amount. By 2000, 924 interests had
registered lobbyists, and total lobbying expenditures topped $22
million. But these expenditures pay off. Together with private
campaign contributions, they have created a corporate culture
that permeates every corner of state politics.
For progressive lawmakers, it's tempting to just vote "no"
on every flawed bill that this corporate-dominated culture produces,
but that's not legislating. To make any impact at all, a lawmaker
needs instead to be "part of " the process. So you try
to improve the junk that crosses your desk. Meanwhile, you feel
your time, your energy and your focus as a progressive slip away.
Constituents understandably want to see immediate improvements
in their respective communities. So my progressive colleagues
and I do our best to help. We work to gain funding for sound barriers
in traffic-packed neighborhoods and to underwrite redevelopment
projects in ignored older, often minority communities. We've even
had some success promoting solar energy incentives for public
buildings, and I've also been able to make some progress on insuring
that every classroom gets a quality teacher. Still, the general
knock on me, from my more mainstream colleagues, is that I spend
too much time on big-picture issues like single-payer healthcare,
a statewide living wage and public financing for state election
campaigns. If I were willing to compromise more to move up in
the legislative leadership, they indirectly suggest, I could achieve
far more legislative success. I've always rejected this purely
opportunistic approach. But I've also rejected the option of playing
the ideological purist. So I walk a fine line.
What have I accomplished? I've thought about that question
a great deal lately, ever since I found myself, not too long ago,
testifying in the trial of the state's most handsomely compensated
lobbyist. The lobbyist was being tried on charges that he had
duped his corporate clients out of $400,000 by, as the Baltimore
Sun put it, "concocting or exaggerating the threat of legislation"
that would have harmed his clients' corporate interests. I was
the threat. The lobbyist figured that he could parlay my radical
reputation into a hefty personal payday. He wrote to his paint
industry clients that I was about to introduce some major anti-industry
legislation, a situation that, if true, would haw triggered a
higher fee under his contract with the painting interests. Unfortunately
for the lobbyist, I never had any such plans, and that's what
My testimony eventually helped convict this errant lobbyist,
and I suppose I should have felt quite good about that. But I
didn't become a Maryland state lawmaker fifteen years ago to help
catch corrupt corporate lobbyists. I ran to challenge the corporate
power that, year in and year out, feeds those lobbyists and rots
our democracy. Now here I was helping a defrauded corporate special
interest win "justice."
I am now more convinced that ever that "justice"
isn't going to come from inside any legislative chambers. Making
fundamental change, even change that falls far short of redistributing
wealth and power, will only take place if a broad, active, well-organized
people's movement emerges.
In Maryland, an effort is now under way to build just such
a movement. The newly created group Progressive Maryland aims
to organize citizens statewide around a working people's agenda
and become the dynamic grassroots force needed to bring such an
agenda before the legislature. Progressive Maryland includes a
political action arm that will endorse and promote candidates
in targeted races. Ideally, the candidates will come from inside
Progressive Maryland's own ranks. Candidates from outside the
organization who seek an endorsement will be asked to join, to
make a commitment to promoting certain key issues and even to
participate in regularly scheduled meetings with organization
representatives. If promises are broken, the organization will
work to unseat the same candidate it helped elect. Progressive
Maryland will work between elections, as the Democratic Party
should do but doesn't, and strive to mobilize, at workplaces and
through door-to-door canvassing, a broad expanse of people around
issues of empowerment and economic democracy. At election time
Progressive Maryland will provide campaign support for those candidates
who take a leading role in advocating for this progressive agenda.
"Where" the electoral work takes place, inside or
outside the Democratic Party, remains an open question, dependent
on the political dynamics of each area and, most important, on
the strength of each area's progressive organizational base. Progressive
Maryland's strongest chapter currently is in Montgomery County,
Maryland's largest political jurisdiction. In late 1999 Progressive
Montgomery narrowly missed passing what would have been the nation's
highest living-wage mandate. That fight continues, with another
close County Council living-wage vote expected this fall.
Expanding Progressive Montgomery's effort statewide would
bolster those of us lawmakers promoting a progressive agenda in
Annapolis. One or two or four well-meaning, left-leaning senators,
or a dozen House members, aren't strong enough to counter the
current gaggle of corporate lobbyists and their industries. But
Progressive Maryland could change that equation. Mobilizing 10,000
people-voters-onto the state Capitol steps would go a long way
toward building momentum for much-needed change.
Activists in other states have, over the past two decades,
worked to build statewide organizations somewhat similar to Progressive
Maryland. LEAP in Connecticut, the New Party and others have explored
different versions of this accountability model, and second-generation
organizations like the Working Families Party in New York are
continuing the effort. Groups in states like Vermont and Minnesota
are all helping this work along, bringing together, as we've done
in Maryland, local labor unions and state labor councils, religious
and community organizations and their rank-and-file members, as
well as unaffiliated individuals. The basic strategy: Unite institutions
and individuals who believe in a progressive agenda into a multiracial
membership organization with enough resources to make it self-sustaining
for the long haul. All this action in Maryland and elsewhere is
heartening, but most states are nowhere close to creating a viable,
mass-based, progressive organization. That leaves huge numbers
of activists who embrace a progressive vision and are attracted
to electoral politics with no effective organization to act as
a guide or anchor. Having such organizations, I've come to believe,
is absolutely essential to making progressive social change. Individual
progressive lawmakers will never be truly heard until their voices
are rooted, mainstreamed in an organizational base. By mainstreaming
I don't mean watering down what progressives have to say. What
I mean is that we need to connect the work of progressive elected
officials directly to viable grassroots organizations. Only broad
public support can propel progressive initiatives into mainstream
political discourse. But progressive lawmakers will only be able
to build that support if they can count on a strong organizational
Progressive elected leaders come and go. To build an effective
progressive agenda, we need organizations that stick around. Without
such organizations, progressive lawmakers, no matter how politically
well meaning, remain exposed to legislative dynamics that may,
and usually will, throw them deeply off their original progressive
Paul G. Pinsky represents Prince George's County in the Maryland
Senate. He is also a founding member of Progressive Maryland.