In 2014, I voted Republican for the first time in my life to disrupt Maryland’s racist Democratic political machine. For the same reason, four years later, I am supporting an upstart Democratic candidate for governor.
The lessons which brought me to these decisions are illustrative of how grassroots political power can build leverage through activism and tactical voting, helping to create space for solutions for our contemporary political stagnation.
In 2014, I went into a voting booth and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to do.
I had been working with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle for 5 years. We had helped stop a proposed youth jail in East Baltimore, worked on education reform and resisting the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex”, and continued educating young students through debate.
At every step of the way, despite the grassroots support we were building at the time, our opposition had been the state and local Democratic party, who had; proposed the youth jail, supported the police, and generally tried to control the flows of public and philanthropic dollars with their influence and networks.
As someone who became politically aware in college around the Bush-Kerry campaign, I had been taught to see politics as a “Blue Team Good, Red Team Bad” dynamic. Thus, I had always seen these actions as individual actions. But through my hands on experience, I began to see them as reflective of a more systemic problem within the party.
I’d never voted for a Republican in my life, but when I saw the name Anthony Brown, I, like many voters, didn’t see much in the mild mannered Lieutenant Governor. Instead, I saw his boss, and long time governor, Martin O’Malley.
I saw young Black men being illegally arrested en masse to make his political career. I saw Black elders who stood up to him only to to be ostracized by him and his political apparatchiks. I saw the Fraternal Order of Police, who had endorsed Anthony Brown and resisted the police reform efforts we had pursued.
For lack of a better word, I saw nothing. —No possibility of change, and four more years of an O’Malley political machine having a stranglehold on the state’s politics, continuing to offer the illusion of progressive change on meaningful structural issues of power while, in actuality, violently suppressing resistance to it within the Democratic machine.
I saw into a hopeless abyss, and, rather than voting for the devil I knew, I took the devil I didn’t know.
Today, reflecting back on it, I think I made the right decision.
For the same reasons, four years later, I’m voting Democrat.
National politics has been placed into a dichotomous, black and white, good/evil, dyad between the GOP and all those who form a so called #resistance to them. Every election (we are told) is the “most important election of our lives.” We are called to interrogate, examine, and even to resist the political inertia of the times, met by the masses with cries of betrayal, and “activist purity politics” (the bastion of a privileged set of young idealists unschooled in the hard boiled reality for power).
The reality is more complicated than this caricature. While this piece is written with the intention to engage questions around an upcoming state election in Maryland, it’s also designed to be more than that. This is not my first attempt at broaching a conversation around strategic voting, and the political and emotional content which go into the deeply personal decision of who to cast your ballot for.
While there has been a refreshing increase in conversations around questioning and qualifying the support of Black voters for the Democratic party, I have found that the focus on national politics, and the push towards personal narratives, has made it hard for a more in-depth contextual interrogation of the best arguments in favor of strategic voting, and for these arguments to be exposed to voters.
This piece is designed to fill that gap. It is targeted to voters who might otherwise stay home, believing in the inability of politics to produce genuine change because— “they are all the same”. It will not attempt to dance around that argument, but to embrace it. This essay aims to make a case for how we can strategically leverage our power as Black voters, despite the empirical and moral reality that both parties are deeply implicated in the construction and maintenance of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, which seeks to exploit Black voters, and marginalize and destroy Black communities.
As such, this essay is also designed for those who, in this most fraught of political times, would be more likely to preach “unity” around a simplistic notion of “strategic voting”, which would say; “get Democrats in power and negotiate with them after the election”. However, —this form of “pragmatism” has proven, specifically in the case of Maryland, to be the cause of, rather than, the solution to, many of the problems faced by Black communities, making Maryland a perfect test case for a deeper interrogation into the theory and reality of strategic voting.
To understand my choice in 2014 (and why it changed in 2018) you have to understand the mechanisms at work, and particularly how advancement for Black communities has functioned in the Post Civil Rights Era. Derrick Bell, a former civil rights attorney and Harvard Law School professor, popularized the term “Interest convergence” to explain how substantial changes for Black people in America typically come within the context of some powerful interest, having an interest, in granting whatever concession a particular group of Black activists is asking for, and while this presents opportunity to strategically use leverage to make change, it comes with the realization that, those in power are usually benefiting from this change as well.
His primary example is Brown vs. Board of Education; where Black activists sought to resist the dehumanizing reality of Jim Crow in schools, only to realize that those in power were far more interested in the Cold War propaganda value of the signal that Brown sent, than actually enforcing the decision, or, actually improving education for Black students.
Despite himself being a civil rights lawyer under the legendary Thurgood Marshall, and working on high profile desegregation cases, Bell used his academic career to push back against the dominant narratives of progress that so many had touted in the post-Civil rights era, arguing that; —strategies seeking to make lasting change, have to understand that various interests are constantly competing to co-opt change efforts and twist them to their own advantage, factors which must be taken into account.
The results of the election of 2014 in Maryland show Bell’s theory come to life; revealing the projection of the disruption of the Democratic party’s hegemony as “good” for Black people, to be largely proven true. Understanding interest convergence, my vote for Governor Hogan was based upon two assumptions:
The most important part of this political calculation was that there was no assumption that this “interest convergence” would just happen; but instead, that I, as part of a coalition of grassroots organizations who had been building capacity for years, could go to the state house and create the outcome I sought, if the political conditions were ripe.
The wasn’t a simple protest vote, or a blind hope for something better, it was a strategic gamble based upon a historic understanding of the political hydraulics around how progress for Black communities is made by gaining leverage over political elites.
On both counts, I believe my projections were proven true. In his recent book Worse Than Trump: The American Plantation, LBS director of public policy, Dayvon Love, recounts our argument around strategic voting through the lens of the past four years in Maryland, stating an example which implicates the larger question of strategic voting on a national level:
“…What I observed is that when a Republican in 2014 was elected governor of Maryland in a shocking political upset, that the Democratic legislature was more willing to pass progressive laws around criminal justice than they were under a Democratic Administration. During Larry Hogan’s tenure as governor, the Democratic legislature has passed a law that allows returning citizens the right to vote upon release which is a law that was put in the legislature before, but always rejected by the Democratic party before Larry Hogan came into office. Democrats also supported, during Larry Hogan’s tenure, the Justice reinvestment act, a piece of legislation aimed at decreasing the prison population in the state of Maryland. Also under Larry Hogan’s tenure there has been a move to try to open up civilian participation and oversight of law enforcement. All of these legislative efforts happened under a republican governor and a Democratic party dominated legislature. This is a clear example of how Democrats often have to be pushed to actually support laws that affects the condition of black people. This also demonstrates the leverage that black people can have over Democrats when there is not a guarantee that black people will vote for them.” (Love: 2018).
Audio of Dayvon Love at book talk in September 2018 (3 minutes 21 seconds). Full Interview available at imixwhatilike.org
While I realize there were risks to my decision, the benefits of this approach were clear, and I was found to my surprise other Black radicals around me who independently came to the exact same decision I did. Together, these strategic defectors, in addition to thousands of folks who simply refused to turn out for O’Malley’s hand picked successor, lead to a disruption of Maryland’s political landscape.
When the Democratic machine was successfully disrupted by the election of a new Republican governor, a new game began, a game which made traditionally antagonistic forces join sides, and leads me to my reason for my decision to vote for a Democrat in the 2018 governor’s race.
The Republican governor, instead of telling the truth that these concessions were forced out of Democrats by strategic voting and grassroots pressure, has claimed these advancements were the result of “the virtues of divided government”. Despite all the advancements made over the past four years, the limitations of the current arrangement are evident.
Hogan has used a playbook reminiscent of Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in Britain, to form public relations based on a false version of “common sense” policies which lack moral clarity or a vision for anything beyond how to keep his poll numbers high.
Most emblematic of this is Hogan’s decision to delay the start of the school year until after Labor Day, which the governor marketed to the public as a ‘return to tradition’, while extending summer break for students and parents. This policy has no real impact on education (young student’s simply have to make up for a later start by potentially ending school later in June) but the “illusion” of the governor “caring for the youth” scored him enough political points to avoid addressing the structural inequality in Maryland’s funding of education for his entire four year tenure.
This is reminiscent of sort of “small ball” politics popularized by Bill Clinton and his political advisor Dick Morris. After losing the midterms in 1994, Clinton brought Morris on to help instruct him on how to use focus groups to determine what policies would increase his popularity. It was found that, rather than big, sweeping reforms, small scale policies designed to assuage voter’s fears and anxieties, could have a huge impact on a politicians poll numbers with little political costs.
Video from the documentary “The Century of the Self” on Clinton and “small ball” politics. Clinton segment ends at aprox. Min 44)
Clinton used this strategy to win reelection in 1996, which included his support of putting “V chips” in televisions to block offensive content, and putting cell phones on school buses to keep parents connected in case of an emergency. Larry Hogan has followed this playbook.
The Governor has shown the ability to avoid controversy by presenting a consistent slew of pandering, pointless policies, designed to promote the image to his base that “things are getting done” when actually, these bills have little to no impact.
The most glaring example of this is the over 100 million dollar “revamp” of the Baltimore City bus system; a largely symbolic effort which replaced numerous, existing, high frequency bus lines, with new “colored” lines, which sacrificed convenience for efficiency for many riders, by making them take two or three buses when before they only needed to catch one or two. The money was not spent on buying new buses to booster lower frequency lines, but to attempt to revamp existing lines which were already carrying 100,000’s of people, to try to make them late less often. While it may arguably be a limited success in certain areas, it was hardly worth the 130 million dollar investment, much of which went to consultants and other technocrats and not to actually building any physical infrastructure in Baltimore.
As a bus rider, we all know the buses still come late and are still overcrowded, so what was the point??? What the governor gets from this, is a beautiful, multicolored map showing the snaking bus lines throughout the Baltimore metro area. To those not in the know, the fact that many of these bus routes already existed is masked. What they see is the governor going into the “chaos” of Baltimore City, and bringing order to it through the visual icon of a transportation map. Smart public relations, poor policy —textbook “small ball”.
The Dick Morris playbook, however, has another, darker side to it, which the governor has also followed. Morris recommend to Clinton that, in order to win swing voters, he would have to identify something which is seen by these voters as representing the “old way” of politics, and make a symbolic sacrifice of it. For Clinton, this was welfare reform. He instituted a drastic restriction of eligibility for assistance, work requirements, and a two year limit of service provision, calling it a “hand up”; to get people back to work, and thus replacing the previous form of welfare; posing it as an illegitimate “hand out” which risked promoting idleness among the impoverished.
This depiction replicated the logic of Reagan’s “welfare queen”, and was exactly the point of this policy—providing a subtle, more veiled nod of the cap to Reagan Democrats, that it was safe to come home to the party they had defected from, which would now symbolically represent their interests.
For Larry Hogan, this moment came in the from of the cancellation of the Red Line; a proposed light rail route which would have connected the west side of Baltimore with downtown, and part of Baltimore County. As other Republican’s did with their failure to expand Medicaid, the rejection of federal transportation dollars was a critical sign of resistance in the face of Washington D.C. ; coded in the minds of many with “wastefulness” and “inefficiency” as an outright racialized threat to white identity, specifically under a Black President.
I considered this risk when I voted for Hogan, and ultimately deemed it acceptable given that the Red Line, in my opinion, was oversold as a panacea for Black Baltimore and in many ways was another boondoggle for politically connected party elites. Still, Hogan’s cancellation of the project is telling, showing that the while the governor has made a conscious effort to distance himself from the rhetorical and stylistic mechanisms of how Trump governs, he plays on the same social anxieties, and racial framing logic which brought Trump to power.
This is not to accuse the governor of naked racial bias, but to point out the racialization of the seemingly race neutral “anti-tax” concept which has been the core of Hogan’s tenure. Over the past few decades there has been a shift in how conversations around civil participation are framed. “Taxpayer” has increasingly become not just a term which applies to everyone (as all individuals pay some form of tax), but been used to connote a specific form of political expectations of status and acknowledgment, particularly from working, and middle class white men.
The unspoken racial logic of the concept of “tax payer” is that some people, (those not making enough money to pay much in income tax, as well as those who do not own a home and thus are not paying property tax), have less of a claim on the benefits provided by the state, yet (as the narrative goes), seem to be getting a disproportionate amount of the government’s attention. In an American society beset with a history of racism and anti-Blackness, and as numerous scholarly works have persuasively pointed out over decades, this idea of a “non taxpayer” has been racialized to represent a subconscious projection of the “person looking for a handout”, that Clinton and Reagan promoted.
Finally, while he touts himself as “smart on crime”, his criminal justice policies reveal the extreme limitations of a new “bipartisan consensus” around criminal justice reform. While Hogan, like many politicians now, has supported less draconian sentences for non-violent offenders, his crime bill also included mandatory sentences for anyone who even carries a gun; adopting a form of sentence stacking which would have massively extended criminal sentences for anyone found with an illegal gun.
To be clear, despite the governor’s consistent statements around being more a “compassionate” brand of conservative, and taking credit for a Justice Reinvestment Act which itself was watered down, —in the face of an election, he produced a crime bill that includes provisions so ineffective and punitive, that even Alabama has started to move away from them.
“while Hogan has made a conscious effort to distance himself from the rhetorical and stylistic mechanisms of how Trump governs, he plays on the same social anxieties, and racial framing logic which brought Trump to power.”
It’s no surprise that, this time around, it was the Republican, Hogan, who got the endorsement from the state police union, an indication that his signals toward this segment of his “Law and Order” constituents were being clearly perceived, even as many moderate Democrats and Independents through the state still believe his rhetoric around having a balanced approach on crime and police accountability.
Through grassroots efforts, activists were able to gain leverage over the Democrats to prevent them from passing the worst versions of these mandatory minimums, but to constantly fight so hard to simply prevent the people of Maryland from losing ground on social justice is exactly the sort of frustration which turned so many against the Democratic machine of Martin O’Malley, and brought Larry Hogan to power in the first place.
The inability to believe that Black people in Baltimore can be a solution to their own problem, or that anything there is truly worth investing in unless someone “trustworthy” (read politically connected elites) have control over the project, has not been disrupted —it has simple shifted. In this new game, a bipartisan political elite are willing to horse trade with each other over their minor differences, and present these internecine battles as true political antagonisms; creating the illusion for the voters of Maryland that there really is a difference between these two visions of government, when actually, they are two sides of the same coin.
This is not, however, a piece condemning Larry Hogan. Quite to opposite, in fact. The reality is, that the racism he plays upon was already consistently stoked and subconsciously alluded to by the Democratic party on the national and state level. Hogan figure out that, given how the party had framed its message, there was no reason many Maryland Democrats actually needed the Democratic party to provide the sort of small ball politics they craved.
Hogan simply realized that, as a fiscal moderate, he could give them comfort by cutting government in the same way the Democrats on Maryland had tried to provide by token expansions of government, which were often nothing more than cronisitic “hook-ups” of friends, with lucrative government consulting, and fee for service contracts, completely deserving of the criticism and scrutiny Hogan provided.
The problem I have with Hogan is simply that he has outlived his utility. In a second term, and potentially seeking high office as a popular Blue state GOP governor (i.e. the perfect anti-Trump candidate for a scandal weary GOP), —a 2nd Hogan term could end up being far worse than the first.
Despite the state’s 500 million dollar surplus, I fear that Hogan will continue to speak about the “structural deficit” boogeyman/boogeywoman to try to push more service cuts in Maryland, for the sake of his legacy—supporting any future political ambitions for “streamlining” or “efficiency” that claim to support his measures.
That Hogan was the face of the bipartisan push to offer Amazon an 8 billion dollar tax incentive package does not bode well for any hope that four more years of a Hogan leadership Maryland will move away from its obsession with big business driven growth (The Jeff Bezos owned Washington Post recently endorsed Larry Hogan).
In the face of the slowing expansion of federal government employment, Maryland risks becoming so obsessed with its economic competitiveness, that it fails to deal with core issues such as housing, high costs of living, and basic rights for communities who have historically been marginalized.
These are issues no single candidate can solve on their own, but I am sure that the state will be better equipped to address them with an independent governor, untied to a political machine.
In this particular election, the candidate with the least ties to the state’s Democratic Party apparatus, Ben Jealous, won a surprising victory over the establishment’s chosen candidate, Rushern Baker.
This presents the citizens of Maryland with a rare opportunity to install a candidate not beholden to the state Democratic machine. This, surprisingly enough, is not the case with our current Republican governor, whose long family history of political engagement in the D.C. suburb of Prince George’s county brings him into direct connection with the state’s most powerful politician, Senate majority leader, Mike Miller.
While ostensibly in a political rivalry, being from two different parties which we are taught are so diametrically opposed, the rivalry in this relationship serves more like a THRIVE-alry, with the two parties negotiating and creating strategic points of tension which strengthen both of their positions, and gives the other strategic cover on hard issues.
In the fight in 2017 around bail reform, despite the clearly stated reality that the governor supported the position of the bail bonds industry, Democrats in the Senate and House gave him cover and allowed him to appear and stay above the political fray. This allowed political leaders to capitulate to lobbyists to take stances that were diametrically opposed to the interests of the poor black communities which were disproportionately impacted by the bias application of cash bail.
An independent candidate who supports issues of social justice, like Ben Jealous, allows the grassroots forces to shift from being on a defensive stance, —batting back regressive policy and strategically looking for moments of interest convergence with the Democratic establishment, to a more offensive stance, —forcing the Democratic establishment to respond to the agenda of the governor’s more progressive coalition.
A prime example of how a Jealous governorship would be better than a Hogan governorship is marijuana policy. With Hogan as governor, and with the Democratic establishment in power, there was influence from big money to decide who got the right to grow medicinal marijuana, with the governor’s administration stepping in to promote “geographic diversity”, and give growers in more republican parts of the state more access to the industry.
The Democratic leadership countered this with an attempt to expand racial diversity, which in reality amounted to empowering a small sliver of elite black business owners access to the cannabis industry. This narrowing of the scope of what is defined as “social justice” is exactly the sort of skewing of the political terrain which turns people off from politics.
Alternatively, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle has been pushing a radical cannabis legalization agenda which would allocate a significant portion of the tax revenue generated to a fund which would return these resources to communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.
Candidate Jealous has already stated his support for using “micro-zip code targeting” as a way to isolate the places where hyper incarceration has been most densely concentrated, and using the tax revenue from marijuana to promote programs which can improve conditions in this area.
Governor Hogan, per usual, has remained largely silent and generally vague on his position on marijuana legalization, and what he would use the tax revenue for, as on this issue, his “fiscal moderate” stance (i.e. wanting to generate tax revenue) clashes with beliefs in his law and order constituency (people who believe that folks smoking and selling weed are bad for society and deserve to be in jail, not legalized).
Ben Jealous speaking on cannabis legalization. April 2018.
A Jealous governorship would provide grassroots advocates more space to do the dirty work of making sure the laws are written in a way which actually gets money to the small, community led non-profits and groups who can make a real impact in community, as opposed to the real possibility that these funds being captured by the nonprofit industrial complex.
A Jealous victory would shift the political terrain to the left, and instead of trading off with grassroots movements (who in theory could demobilize under the belief that they have elected a leftist savior), they are freed up to fight more targeted fights to magnify the progressive impact they may have toward advancing the goal of community self-determination, and empowerment.
This shows the difference between Jealous and other Maryland Democrats. He’s made a concrete commitment to a specific public policy where the community can hold him accountable, and this policy could substantial enhance independent community capacity to address their own problems.
Additionally, if elected, Jealous will not owe his allegiance to Mike Miller and his political appendages, but the progressive voters who elected him, and thus will be more susceptible to grassroots pressure. This is necessary to ensure follow through on his campaign promises, as shown by the fact that Jealous has at times strayed from his promise to use cannabis taxes for “micro-zip code” targeting in order to promote a more Bernie Sander’s-esque “universalist” message around also using this money for universal Pre K.
This is a worthy cause which should be funded independently by the general assembly, but it must not trade off with reinvesting in Black and Brown communities impacted by the War on Drugs. This trade-off is a real possibility without the sort of grassroots pressure which turns political opportunity into political reality.
It’s because I am confident that groups like LBS, with community support, can bring this grassroots pressure that I am confident a Jealous regime would be good for Black communities.
These are the type of conditions which justifies tactical support a specific Democratic politician, even if there is justified skepticism of the party as a whole.
The alternative to election Jealous is the re-consolidation of the Democratic party around centrist hegemony. Almost inevitably, given the lack of a “bench” of strong successors to Hogan in the Maryland Republican party, the election for governor in 2022 would favor a Democrat. If Ben Jealous were to lose, this would certainly be used as a cudgel for the institutional Democratic party will bash the left wing of the party with, claiming “See! We told you only a centrist can win!”.
This will propel a slew of new moderate Democrats into the political forefront. For the next four years, the Democratic party would be inclined to “set up” these candidates in waiting, by pushing policies which fit the same sort of “small ball” template Hogan used, forcing grassroots advocates to push back against these actions to defend their political terrain.
An independent candidate… allows the grassroots forces to shift from being on a defensive stance, —batting back regressive policy…to a more offensive stance, —forcing the Democratic establishment to respond to the agenda of the governor’s more progressive coalition.
Can we imagine a world where Black communities no longer need to strategically vote because they have the power to meet their own needs? This is the sort of deep question that demands we play the political long game—to see the goal of community self-determination, and project backward from there, allowing us to orient our tactical decisions around the steps which bring us closer to that goal.
This is the sort of conceptual shift which could begin to address the low turnout among the young and the poor/working class Black folk. It’s what can maybe, just maybe, allow self-respecting Black voters to make the difficult existential decision to grant tacit legitimacy to a system which they feel, with reason, is fundamentally bankrupt.
It’s the reason, despite the polling, that I still believe Jealous has a chance to win, and since Jealous and his team can’t or won’t, make this argument, this peace is making this argument, not for them, but for the Black communities of Maryland —that we may have a chance to seize this unique opportunity to undermine politics as usual, or at least be fully prepared for the work we must take up, should this opportunity be squandered.
This piece is also for those who, with the best of intentions, implore others to rally behind the Democratic party based upon a limited view of history, abstract moralizing, victim blaming, or nostalgia for a long gone era.
Given the literal human rights abuses laid at the feet of the state Democratic party machine, its irrational and borderline inhumane to simply “rally the troops” behind the state Democratic party, unless you can show through strategic and tactical leverage (as this piece tries to do) that you have a plan to fundamentally undercut their hegemony and create policy outcomes fundamentally different that what we’ve seen over the past 40 years.
Politics may be ”war by other means”, but you don’t go to battle just because someone tells you to. You need a plan, weapons, and an end game. You need to survey the terrain, and know where to fight, how to position yourselves so you have leverage and maneuverability, and the knowledge of your opponent, to know where they are weakest.
In our “hot take” social media inspired generation, we have people claiming to be expert political operatives who have not understood the art of political warfare. These hot headed soldiers are so ready to call out perceived cowardice of those who do not vote, yet are failing to recognize when they are often being sent out as political cannon fodder.
Indeed, Black voters in Maryland have been put on the front lines again and again for a political agenda which is not in their control, made of rhetorical and ideological battering rams for political agendas which benefit a privileged elite and force Black populations to a mere instrumental, transactional status, as foot soldiers.
Calling out this dynamic is the opposite of naive, political cowardice, —it a manifestation of understanding of the depth of political history and shows a willingness, even when it’s hard, to stand your political, intellectual, and existential ground.
I’m voting for a member of the Maryland Democratic party this November, even though I see this entity as one the greatest impediments to the advancements of the Black people who I love, because I believe that it’s the best way for me to play the long game of moving this nation, against its wishes, towards a world where the humanity of Black people is no longer seen as something which can be played with.
Black lives are not a game, but as long those with power view them as such, it’s time we play for ourselves.
And it’s time we play to win.
Lawrence Grandpre is the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. His focuses include criminal justice, police accountability, and community-based economic/educational development. He is the co-author of "The Black Book" and his work has been featured in The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun.