Aug 01, 2011, 05:24AM

The Forces of Opposition

The supercharged 2012 ballot will challenge the limits of voter initiative and shape Maryland for years to come.

Martin omalley.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley

Imagine, if you can, the Maryland general election ballot in 2012, supercharged with President Barack Obama, the state’s version of the Dream Act, a new gay marriage law and the electorate casting ballots in eight newly drawn congressional districts. For as sure as God created referendums and the new Internet software, the issue of same-sex marriage will join the others for an up-or-down decision by the voters if it passes the General Assembly.

After wriggling and writhing on the issue for a couple of years, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has announced that he’ll use the prod of his office to push for legalization of gay marriage, playing tit-for-tat with New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) on the nation’s short list for higher office. O’Malley has even said he’ll study how Cuomo brokered a compromise with Republicans on the issue. That’s funny. In New York, the GOP controls the legislature; in Maryland, O’Malley and the Democrats are in charge by huge margins. During the last session, gay marriage legislation passed Maryland Senate, where it was expected to fail, and failed in the House of Delegates, where it was expected to pass. O’Malley pretty much sat out the kerfuffle. The first gay unions were performed, en masse, in New York on Sunday, July 24.

A couple of Republican xenophobes, Del. Neil C. Parrott, of Frederick, and Del. Pat McDonough, of Baltimore County, employed newly designed Internet software to petition the Dream Act to referendum. With swiftness and precision, and virtually no room for penmanship or other mistakes, they gathered 108,000 signatures, more than double the number needed to certify the issue and place it before the voters for judgment. And now, it’s a sure bet that if same-sex marriage survives the legislature, the pulpiteers and the foam-at-the-mouth crowd will attempt to replicate the fate of the Dream Act by taking it to the ballot via the Internet. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and many black churches have said they will once again oppose gay marriage from the pulpit and in the State House just as the gay community has found sudden optimism in O’Malley’s late epiphany, reprising last year’s clash of culture and theology.

The convergence of Obama, the Dream Act, gay marriage and new congressional districts on the 2012 ballot, and who knows what or who else, has the potential for massive voter involvement as well as intense passion and probably a much higher turnout than the normal record voting numbers in presidential elections, which usually average 60-65 percent turnout. The Dream Act, in Maryland’s rendition in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, along with same-sex marriage, are two of the most combustible issues in America. There is very little neutrality on the issues.

Homophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments are at a dog-whistle pitch because of desperate economic conditions across the country and the dramatic shift of the nation’s politics to the right edge. About a dozen states have approved laws allowing cheaper in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants, with California being the latest, and another dozen states have specific laws prohibiting the tuition breaks. And only six states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing same-sex marriage. Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler has ruled that Maryland must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states as legally binding contracts.

Congressional redistricting is a regular visitor every 10 years. This year, as a decade ago, two Republican-held districts are in play, the First and the Sixth, which means the other six must be elastic to allow the balloon-like squeezing required in the Democratic attempt to reclaim the GOP territory. All of which means many Marylanders could be voting in new districts. O’Malley has appointed a redistricting committee which is holding a series of public hearings. Republicans have released their model map, which is probably DOA, and a group of blacks in Prince George’s County is demanding that the new boundaries be drawn to award blacks a third member of Congress in direct proportion to their 33 percent population. In the end, O’Malley, with the help of Democratic members of Congress and the presiding officers of the General Assembly, will have the final say about shifting voters around like chattel. The General Assembly will consider the new map at a special session in October.

The Internet’s new-found use for harvesting voters’ names on petitions can also be employed effectively to rally and organize battalions of voters on election day in much the same way. To wit: A name on a petition is a safe vote on a ballot. And therein lies the great conundrum of 2012. Can the forces of opposition, i.e., Republicans, conservatives, Tea Partiers, the religious and cultural right, all of which make up today’s movable right-flank of American politics, coalesce in Maryland to become a major force of concern for the 2-1 majority Democrats and Obama.

O’Malley has proved to be an effective campaign organizer who can deliver the vote on Election Day. In 2010, he defeated former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich Jr. by 14 points, the widest margin of victory of any Democratic governor in the country. Obama, too, has displayed commanding vote-pulling power as well as effective use of the Internet to vacuum campaign funds which also translate into commitments to vote. Yet Obama is polling dangerously low in his presidency and voter confidence in his job performance is woefully in the red zone. But the day of reckoning is 16 months away and Republicans are visibly divided on a presidential candidate and worse, on who they are and what they represent. The GOP, for the moment, at least, is a captive of the Tea Party.

If the 2012 ballot holds up, and gay marriage joins in-state tuition on referendum, it has the potential to put cultural warfare on prominent display—fundamental religionists and cause conservatives vs. the Hispanic community and its supporters, Obama’s constituents (black and white) and the gay community who argue that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right just as any heterosexual couple enjoys. In many countries, and in many states, marriage as a civic affair precludes matrimony as a religious ceremony. City Hall takes precedence over church.

In any case, election 2012 will be a massive exercise in organization on both counts—organizing the vote and getting it out on Election Day. All of those small independent constituencies multiply into a singular large voting bloc. And a couple of enterprising Republicans have developed a new tool to facilitate the process and to give democracy in action a new dimension.

The voter initiative may be the voice of the people but it can also be the cry of an angry mob. Voter initiative is also a dangerous form of governance and that’s one reason Maryland doesn’t allow it but permits only a limited and very difficult form of referendum as an alternative to chaos. California, for example, adopted the voter initiative in 1912 as a reform measure against a corrupt legislature. It has been anything but reform and instead the source of the state’s massive budget problems. Fully 32 percent of California’s budget appropriations began as citizen initiatives and are locked in and untouchable by the governor and the legislature. Maryland law prohibits fiscal matters from being petitioned to referendum. Representative government means exactly that: Voters elect representatives to represent them in Annapolis. And it is axiomatic that people in public office are pretty much like the people who elect them. Next year’s general election ballot will test the point.


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