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Local Democrats Focus on 2006

At community center, party chair emphasizes inclusiveness.

When Maryland Democratic Party Chair Terry Lierman ran for the Maryland’s 8th Congressional District seat in 2000, an army of grassroots supporters spearheaded his campaign. Those supporters took him within 5 points of defeating eight-term incumbent Constance Morella — a narrow loss that set the stage for U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s victory in 2002.

WHAT LIERMAN did not have — and might have made the difference — was support from the organization he now chairs.

“I didn’t get one iota of help from the Maryland Democratic Party. I didn’t get a phone call, I didn’t get a piece of literature. I got a $50,000 bill to send them so they would put my name on the ballot,” Lierman said, speaking to local Democratic organizers at the Potomac Community Center July 14. “That’s what I got from the Maryland Democratic Party. And I vowed that if I ever had anything to do with the party, I’m going to fix that.”

Naomi Bloch had a similar experience with the Party last year. She led a meeting of 250 John Kerry supporters after the 2004 Democratic primary. Her then-group, Montgomery County for Kerry, had backed the eventual nominee for months before he was the front-runner, and rapidly gained steam as Kerry emerged.

Bloch was sitting on an energized group of active Democrats. She wanted to put them to use.

“It was like what do we do with these folks?” she said. So she called the Maryland Democratic Party.

Their response: we can’t help you. We can’t even give you advice. Until Kerry is the official Democratic nominee, our hands our tied.

“That was horrifying to me. That was jaw-dropping,” Bloch said.

ADDRESSING SUCH organizational shortcomings as the 2006 elections draw near was a central topic at the July 14 meeting of local Democrats at the Potomac Community center. Lierman — who left a meeting with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean to attend the Potomac meeting — spoke about the Democrats’ past failings and what he has done to reshape the party from the inside.

The meeting was organized by precinct 06-02 chairs Bilal Ayyub and Ken Giunta.

“Democrats have made some huge mistakes in the past. You’re sitting in one of them. The Democrats concentrated on Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore [in 2002 and 2004]. These are incredibly important counties. But when George Bush wins 18 of 24 jurisdictions in the last election, if that’s not a clarion call to wake up, I don’t know what is,” Lierman said before the crowd of about 35.

Lierman outlined three key principles for the Democrats in 2006 — inclusion, leaving no county behind, and letting no Republican go unchallenged.

He said that he has put 16,783 miles on his car since becoming party chair last December, driving to speak in the predominantly Republican counties of western Maryland and the eastern shore.

The Republican party was successful mobilizing those voters and wooing moderate Democrats and minorities when Gov. Robert Ehrlich was elected in 2002 — the first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

Lierman inherited a Democratic organization for which there hadn’t been much need during the last several decades. Now, he said, the party, as an organization is important again. He has overhauled the party’s Annapolis staff, adding several new positions, spent $95,000 compiling the most accurate and up-to-date voter rolls in the country, and fought to bring moderates, minorities, and erstwhile Republican voters back into the party.

“We want to talk about inclusion — very, very, very important,” he said, noting that percentage-wise, Maryland has the fifth largest African American population of any state.

“THE REASON [the Republicans] made inroads into the minority community is because they showed up,” Bloch said. “We’ve been a little too smug about saying that these groups must know or should know … that democratic policies — what we fight for — is going to help them.”

Lierman said he also plans to help establish a young Democrats club for every one of the 56 colleges and universities in Maryland. Currently only 11 schools have such clubs.

The crowd assembled Tuesday seemed a testament to that inclusive spirit — with statewide leaders from the Maryland Democratic Women’s Network and Pacific-Asian Democrats in attendance and a large contingent of Indians, Pakistanis and East Asians in attendance.

“[Lierman] is inclusive. He really means it when he says that,” said Tufail Ahmad, a Pakistani who came to the U.S. in 1973 and met Lierman while working on his Congressional campaign in 2000. “I am a minority actually in this district, and when I went to him he treated me equal as everybody, gave me the same status as everybody else. … He is a really decent man, a very good man, very devoted, very hardworking.”

Ahmad said that Lierman “adopted” him in 2000. If that was the case, Ahmad has returned the favor. He is now chair of the District 15 Democratic Caucus, leader of the Asian-Pacific Democrats group, and a major donor and organizer.

Ahmad said that “nobody can ignore” the Asian population, which now makes up about 12 percent of the population statewide, and Ahmad said was as much as 15 percent in Potomac and North Potomac.

“The Asian-American community embraces Terry’s nomination and election to the Maryland Democratic party chair,” said John Young, who ran for the a District 15 House of Delegates seat in 2002 and is planning another run this year. “He’s certainly been very, very active. He’s not someone that just sits in an office and you only hear through the press. … He’s someone our community is familiar with and strongly supportive of.”

TO WIT — an Asian-American Democratic event in Potomac last month raised more than $40,000 for the Maryland Democratic Party, according to Young.

Statewide, the party raised $700,000 in the first half of 2005, the best mid-year total since 1998 and more than the party's total fund-raising in 2003, the last non-election year.

But funding alone won’t make the difference for Democrats in 2006.

Lierman wants to see contested Democratic primaries for every vacancy and hard-fought elections that let no Republican go unchallenged.

“Competition is good. It’s good in business, it’s good in sports, it’s good in academia and it’s good in politics,” he said. “Let me tell you something. The state Republican Chair is not sitting in her office right now saying, ‘Leave those Democrats alone. They’re good people and I’m not going to go after them.’”

A particular target is Del. Jean Cryor (R-15), a moderate Republican with popular support, including among Democrats.

“Jean Cryor is just like Connie Morella was when I ran for office. Isn’t she nice? She votes with us sometimes. Sometimes? Think about it. We need the candidates to run against Republicans. I don’t care who they are or what they do. I don’t care if she votes right with us 49 percent of the time. We have got to go after Jean Cryor in this district,” Lierman said.

Cryor could be tapped for lieutenant governor if Lt. Gov. Michael Steele moves on to a U.S. Senate run, or Cryor could move on from the Maryland House of Delegates to the Maryland Senate.

If she stays put, she will likely face two or three attendees of the July 12 meeting.

“Jean is a very popular, a very articulate individual, who has served the district extremely well,” Young said in an interview. “[But] there’s some core differences, there’s some priorities, there’s some fundamental philosophical differences,” between Cryor’s positions and the Democrats’.

LIERMAN EMPHASIZED that for every office on the 2006 ballot, Democrats must remember that they’re on the same team. That means curbing attacks against Democratic opponents during the primaries, and uniting behind the Democratic candidate as soon as the primaries are over.

The primaries precede the general election by only six weeks. The Maryland General Assembly has considered moving the primary date back three months — a move that would predominantly benefit the Democrats — but the effort stalled near the end of the 2005 legislative session and appears unlikely to resurface next year.

“The party really counts this time … If we end up having six weeks before the general election [following the primary], if the state party hasn’t raised the money, hasn’t gotten the field staff out there … you know we’re toast no matter what,” Lierman said.

But most of the Democrats at the meeting July 11 were optimistic about the direction of the party.

“It looks very good in 2006,” Ahmad said.

Young had this assessment: “It’s sort of like a football team — it shows a lot of promise, but it has to deliver.”