With focus on vulnerable House seats, Joshua Harris and the Green Party eye election upsets

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Joshua Harris. Image via Facebook.

On paper, the 32-year-old Joshua Harris boasts the kind of background Democratic strategists salivate over. Raised in poverty by a single mother in Chicago, he credits basketball with teaching him the skills that made him the first in his family to graduate from college. In 2012, Harris moved to Baltimore to work for a nonprofit that provides scholarships to African-American youth, and later served as a legislative aide to Democratic Del. Charles Sydnor in Annapolis. He started an arts-based nonprofit in Hollins Market, where he lives, and sits on the boards of numerous community associations, including the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, the NAACP’s Baltimore branch and Arena Players, Inc.

So his decision, in January of 2016, to switch affiliation to the Green Party amid an insurgent mayoral campaign was both something of a coup for the Greens and likely a strategic move for Harris, who never got off the ground in Democratic primary polls. In the general election, he pulled an impressive 10 percent of the vote, just slightly less than Republican Alan Walden.

The Green Party has never won an election for state office in Maryland, and has struggled to shed the image of performative protest. (Full disclosure: The local Green Party has advertised with Baltimore Fishbowl.) But this election cycle, organizers are hopeful that with enough ground game (8,000 doors knocked at last count) and by concentrating on smaller state delegate races, a candidate like Harris could actually win a seat in a district like the 40th, which comprises much of West Baltimore.

“I think the problem the Green Party has had in the past is that it focused too much on the ideas and not enough on recruiting people who are connected to the communities that those ideas are aimed to try to address,” said Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the grassroots think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

Between securing endorsements from SEIU Local 500 and the Baltimore chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Harris has generated the most traction of the Greens’ five candidates for the House of Delegates in Baltimore City, a group that also includes Glenn Ross, a prominent East Baltimore community activist, and Andy Ellis, a debate coach and former party co-chair (both in the 45th district).

Harris’ strong support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, vocal calls for police reform and criticism of Port Covington and other harbor-centric development schemes have drawn comparisons to the wave of new blood that entered the Baltimore City Council after the 2016 election.

“You do have in this city right now a younger progressive, energetic group of people who feel like the elected leaders that have been there for a long time aren’t serving them well,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the college of public affairs at University of Baltimore. “And we see all that in the [2016] City Council races with a lot of turnover, we saw that in legislative races with a lot of turnover.”

In deep-blue cities like Baltimore, Ellis envisions the Green Party as a hedge pushing Democrats to the left–and because Republicans are a non-factor in most city races, there is no risk of splitting the vote.

“Our goal [is] to make the Green Party the second party in places that only had one,” Ellis told Baltimore Fishbowl. “Any move toward making a progressive wing in power in the Democratic Party requires an external threat about some place else that people might go.”

In Baltimore, that means contesting longstanding Democratic incumbents in the House of Delegates like Curt Anderson in the 43rd District, and Cheryl Glenn and Talmadge Branch in the 45th District, who have held their seats for decades. Anderson was stripped of numerous leadership positions within the party after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment, but he won in the primary anyway (news of the investigation broke during early voting).

Ellis points to Frank Conaway Jr. in District 40, where Harris is running, as an example of a candidate who is coasting on name recognition while being largely absent from his district (incumbent Nick Mosby and newcomer Melissa Wells are also competing in the 40th).

“I don’t think that Frank [Conaway, Jr.] is very active, I don’t think he’s very effective, and I don’t think that he is personally very well liked by most of the people in the district,” said Ellis. “I think he’s vulnerable.”

Conaway, Jr. resigned from his job in the City Hall mailroom in 2014 over a series of bizarre, rambling YouTube videos where he discusses Sasquatch and mystical religious themes. Conaway, Jr.’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Baltimore Fishbowl.

While this is first time SEIU Local 500 has endorsed a non-Democrat for any office, the decision was a “fairly easy one,” said Mark McLaurin, political director for the union representing nearly 5,000 adjunct faculty and childcare providers in Baltimore City.

McLaurin cited tuition-free community college and a $15 minimum wage as issues where Harris has shown strong leadership.

He also expressed dissatisfaction with Conaway Jr., calling him “completely ineffective on issues that matter to our members, from the minimum wage fight to the fight against mandatory minimums.” He added that SEIU Local 500 has wanted to see Conaway, Jr. replaced since 2014, and backed Antonio Hayes in the last primary.

Though he demurred when asked if he was targeting any specific incumbent, Harris told Baltimore Fishbowl he thinks voters should demand more from their representatives.

“For me, it’s not about challenging a specific person or candidate. It’s about bringing solutions to the table,” Harris said. With a regressive federal government, he said, now is the time for progressives to take bold policy stances at the state level to protect those rights that are under attack. He has proposed policies including a public bank for Baltimore City, state investment in renewable energy and green jobs programs.

“This is not a time to have seat warmers and people who are just there to be there,” Harris said, in a sentiment that echoes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s line about “moral clarity in 2018.”

Candidates like Harris still face an uphill battle in Baltimore, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Greens 250 to 1, said Mileah Kromer, associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, which produces the Goucher Poll.

“It’s really difficult to win as a third party candidate, period,” Kromer said, adding, “most of these races are basically decided in the primary.”

Kromer praised the Greens’ strategy and Harris’ campaign. “Trying to run and win seats at the local level is the best way to start to build a statewide party infrastructure,” she said.

Two friends of Ellis, Catalina Byrd, a political consultant and former 2011 mayoral candidate, and Love, credit his leadership with building the capacity for the “more serious-looking and -feeling campaign” of candidates like Harris and Ross, who both have strong connections to communities of color. (Ross was the president of the McElderry Park Neighborhood Association for 28 years.)

“What Andy was able to do with Josh’s candidacy was rebrand the Greens to attract more people of color from impacted communities who have been disserved by Democrats,” said Byrd, for whom Ellis served as campaign manager in 2011.

Statewide, the party has grown and expanded in recent years, adding eight new chapters, including in Republican strongholds like Allegany and Harford counties. Across deep-red Western Maryland, Greens are running in elections where Democrats have given up and Republicans were otherwise running unopposed.

“We have more people that share that vision of being an opposition party as opposed to being a third party,” Ellis said.

The party is also running a long-shot ticket for the governor’s mansion, in the form of Ian Schlakman and Rev. Annie Chambers. Ellis admitted he only expects them to get about 1 percent of the vote, but said they are penned into running top-of-the-ticket races by state law. In Maryland, “non principal parties” must collect signatures from 10,000 petitioners, register 50,000 voters or get 1 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election to maintain ballot access. The Green Party has 9,185 registered voters statewide, 1,258 of them in Baltimore City. Ellis said the party has fought for rule changes that would allow the Greens to focus on local races, but the legislation stalled in Annapolis.

Even if they don’t win a seat this time around, the new strategy looks promising for the Greens, said Hartley.

“I think we’re seeing a different kind of Green Party candidate here in Baltimore, with a Harris and an Ellis and the others, that are really focusing on local issues and really getting an agenda out, and it’s not so much protest as much as it is ‘we want to do policy work.’ And if that trend continues, they’re going to be taken a little bit more seriously as a party.”

Kromer agreed.

“[Harris] is exactly the sort of candidate that the Green Party needs if they want to start making significant inroads,” she said.

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