Jamie Raskin, Candidate for Congress (MD-08).
It was 2005 when Jamie Raskin decided enough was enough. His State Senator, Ida Ruben, was a conservative machine Democrat, a 32-year incumbent who had been in office since Raskin was in sixth grade. She had just been listed as one of the top ten least
effective Senators in Maryland by one newspaper. She supported the death penalty. She wanted to raise campaign contribution limits to make it easier for corporate money to flow into politics. And she had sponsored a pro-Iraq War resolution in the Maryland Senate. All the while representing an extremely liberal district.
So Raskin decided to do something about it. He decided to enter the Democratic primary and run against her.
Conventional wisdom considered it an impossible race for him to win. As the Washington Post reported at the time, "[Ruben] is the Senate's president pro tem, … serves as vice chair of a subcommittee that oversees state capital budget expenditures; and leads the Montgomery County delegation in Annapolis." She was the kind of politician who concentrated on cutting the backroom deals that allowed her to bring home the bacon. She was also well positioned to raise campaign contributions far in excess of anything an upstart challenger could be expected to bring in. How could he possibly run a competitive race against an opponent with such advantages?
There was also one other important difference between the two of them. Their political compasses pointed in very different directions. As Raskin tells it,
I announced on my front steps, and one of the things I talked about was marriage equality. And after my speech, one of my supporters came up to me, and she said "Jamie, great speech. I loved it. But take out the stuff about gay marriage, cause it's never going to happen. It makes you sound extreme, like you're not in the political center." And I had to swallow hard, because I didn't have that many supporters at the time, and I said, "I appreciate that, but I guess, when you put it that way, my ambition is not to be in the political center, my ambition is to be in the moral center. Because the political center moves around out there. So, we will stake our claim in the moral center and we will educate, and we will organize, and we will persuade and we will get the political center to move to us."
It was a tough race, one of many such battles in Maryland politics at that time that insurgent progressives were waging against entrenched incumbents, like Donna Edwards' long, hard fight to unseat Albert Wynn in the neighboring Congressional district. But by the time it was over, the impossible had come to look more like the inevitable. Jamie Raskin won that election, and won it handily, 67% to 33%.
Big and powerful opponents always look like Goliath in the beginning, but sometimes David wins.
And now, after nine years in the Maryland State Senate, Jamie Raskin is running for Congress, where many think he has the potential to become a progressive leader of national significance.
That stunning victory over an incumbent many said was unbeatable was no accident. Jamie Raskin is a native-born movement progressive who knows how to get things done. His father, Marcus Raskin, was an aide to President Kennedy on the National Security Council who became a leading antiwar activist in the 1960s, and co-founded of the Institute for Policy Studies, "Washington’s first progressive multi-issue think tank … and a policy and research resource for visionary social justice movements for over four decades." His mother, Barbara, was a best-selling novelist and the founding chair of the National Writers Union.
Jamie Raskin was awarded a Presidential Scholarship by the Carter White House while still in high school. He went on to Harvard, and Harvard Law, graduating magna cum laude
from each, and served as editor of the Harvard Law Review
(just a few years ahead of a fellow named Barack Obama. I wonder whatever happened to him?). After a stint as Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he served as General Counsel to the National Rainbow Coalition.
In 1990 he became a professor of constitutional law, the First Amendment, and legislative process at American University's Washington College of Law. He is the Director of the Program on Law and Government there, and is also the founder and director of the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program, which has sent hundreds of upper-level law students every year into public high schools in Washington, D.C. and Maryland to teach a course in constitutional literacy to thousands of high school students.
As a pro bono attorney, Raskin has represented clients such as Greenpeace, ACORN, the Service
Employees International Union, the Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Students United Against Sweatshops, local high school
students challenging school system censorship of debate about same-sex marriage on their cable program, thousands of Native Americans suing the federal government over mismanagement of Indian lands, and the residents of the District of
Columbia challenging the constitutionality of their disenfranchisement and non-representation in Congress.
He served on a Gun Policy Task Force and Election Redistricting Task Force in his own town, and a county Hate Crimes Commission. The Governor of Maryland appointed Jamie to be the first Chairman of the Maryland State Higher Education Labor Relations Board, which the legislature created to secure the right to organize on campus. Under his leadership of the Board, thousands of employees at institutions of higher learning in Maryland achieved collective bargaining rights for the first time in state history
Raskin is also a widely published author who has appeared frequently on national television and radio shows to discuss law and politics, and given testimony numerous times before committees of the U. S. Senate and House, and the Maryland General Assembly. He has become, as John Nichols put it in The Nation recently, "one of the nation’s leading advocates for voting rights, fair elections, and amending corporate cash out of politics"
Although warned on the campaign trail that he would never get anything done in Annapolis, because Mike Miller, the powerful President of the Senate, was a conservative Democrat who wouldn't let his liberal legislation through, Raskin proved to be more than just an advocate; he became a accomplished legislator. He has seen more than 100 of his bills passed into law over the last nine years, and currently serves as the Majority Whip in Mike Miller's Senate.
Raskin has sponsored and led the Senate floor fights for legislation such as marriage equality, the repeal of the death penalty, and the legalization of medical marijuana. He introduced the first benefit corporation law in America, which created an alternative corporate entity that would be committed not only to it's own bottom line, but also to the social and environmental bottom line, and he has seen the idea spread to the majority of the states. He's also fought for tough environmental legislation, and worked to pass one of the most comprehensive gun safety laws in America. And these are just a few of his legislative accomplishments.
To pass such legislation, Raskin has not only won over conservative Democrats, he has found support from conservative Republicans, as well. His Second Chance Act—which will allow Marylanders who have convictions for a non-violent misdemeanor offenses, like disorderly conduct, or possession of small amounts of pot, or prostitution, to get that shielded if they've been clean for a period of three years or more, so they can get back on their feet and have a second chance at life—was co-sponsored by a conservative Republican, as was his medical marijuana bill.
Some problems, however, are most effectively addressed at the national level. And Chris Van Hollen's entrance into the race for the Senate has provided Raskin with an opportunity to see if he can enter that arena and go to work tackling the biggest promlems of our time.
If elected to Congress, the number one priority for Raskin will be climate change. "It's the whole context within which we've got to decide everything else," he says. "We need a green deal in America. We need to realign national priorities so we're investing in alternative, renewable technologies and disengaging from the fossil fuels."
Fighting back against wealth inequality in America is his next priority. If elected, he promises to defend the right of working people to organize and engage in collective bargaining. He'll fight for a living wage, and for pay equity for women. He'll fight for the struggling small businesses that never get the billion dollar bailouts from the federal government. He'll fight for debt-free college education, and he'll fight for a progressive tax system that does not allow the country's biggest corporations to dodge taxes by shipping their profits off to tax havens all over the world.
The other big issue for Raskin is the role of money in politics. In his own races, he has always refused to take corporate money or partnership money or LLC money or lobbyist's money. ("Of course, none of those people want to give me any money any way, so it wasn't much of a sacrifice in my case," he always jokes.) In keeping with his grassroots approach to politics, his goal is to persuade a lot of people to make donations that add up to something big, rather than have the wealthy few underwriting his campaigns with the maximum donations allowable by law. In Congress, he will continue to advocate for campaign finance reform, such as an amendment to the Constitution reversing the Citizens United
It is also important to note, however, that the congressional seat Raskin seeks provides it's occupant with a unique opportunity, one that has a lot to do with why this race, and this candidate, is worthy of attention far beyond the borders of his district. Maryland's Eighth District is located right next door to Washington, D.C., so it’s representative in Congress isn't always jumping on a plane to fly back home at the earliest opportunity each week, only to fly back into Washington at the last possible minute to resume the people's business.
And because it's a safe Democratic seat, once elected, the Member of Congress from this district will be under far less pressure than most to spend their days dialing for dollars so they can build up the campaign war chest that too many politicians rely on to stay in office. With that time, and that freedom, if the Member has something to say, and knows how to say it, the seat becomes something special: a bully pulpit with a potentially national audience.
Imagine the possibilities that that could open up for changing the conversation in American politics if a progressive leader like Jamie Raskin were to have such a soapbox to stand on. Imagine the difference he could make.
But before he can take the lessons he's learned about coalition-building in Annapolis to the U.S. Capitol, before he can step on to that national soapbox, he first has to get himself elected, and because it's an open seat in a solidly Democratic district—a "seat-for-life"—there's all sorts of competition.
Six people are formally in the race at present, with a seventh announced and expected to make it official at the FEC any time now. Arguably the most serious opponent Raskin faces, however, is Kathleen Matthews, a long-time Washington, DC television news anchor, and, more recently, Chief Global Communications and Public Affairs Officer at Marriott International. Matthews is a multimillionaire Beltway insider, with a campaign built around other Beltway insiders, like Anita Dunn (strategist), Heather Podesta (fundraiser), über-lobbyist Tommy Boggs' widow, Barbara (treasurer), and last, but not least, Chris Matthews, of MSNBC's Hardball (husband), who is reportedly kibitzing nonstop.
It was 2005 when I decided enough was enough, too. After many years away from political work, trying to get a career as an historian off the ground, I found out that an exciting young progressive candidate had emerged in the district I grew up in to challenge Denny Hastert, the sitting Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, and I joined that young progressive's campaign as a volunteer researcher, telecommuting in from halfway across the country. Many netroots veterans will remember him, his name was John Laesch, and he was a bit of a sensation at Netroots Nation 2005. And, in no small measure thanks to the support John received from the netroots, he went on to give Hastert the closest race Denny had had in twenty years, and within a matter of months Hastert had resigned from office and skulked off to K Street.
Jamie Raskin and I have lived in the same small town here in suburban DC for about twenty-five years now. That State Senator he primaried and beat in 2006 had been my State Senator, too, and while my attention was focused on helping progressives back home fight the good fight, Jamie was doing the same sort of grassroots political work here in Takoma Park. When I heard he was entering the race for the seat Chris Van Hollen is leaving to run for the U. S. Senate, I realized it was time for me to finally start fighting the good fight in my own backyard.
But one thing I learned working with John Laesch is that the netroots can help a worthy candidate no matter where they are. Jamie Raskin is the real deal, and he's running in your virtual backyard, too. Check him out. If you like what you see, please share this post with your friends. Sign up for his mailing list so you can keep an eye on how the campaign is progressing. Volunteer. You can help phone bank from anywhere these days, freeing up the local volunteers to knock on more doors when it gets to crunch time. And if you can send a few dollars his way, please do. This is a campaign built on people power, not big money, but every dollar helps, so give what you can, and help Jamie move the moral center of American politics to where we all want it to be.