While state Senator Catherine Pugh easily won last week’s mayoral election, Joshua Harris, the Green Party candidate for mayor, managed to poll about 10 percent of the vote.
“The third party candidate did very well - over 10% is a good, healthy number,” said John Willis, a former Maryland Secretary of State.
John Willis teaches public policy at the University of Baltimore and knows a lot about the history of local politics; he even wrote a book called Maryland Politics and Government – part of a national series on state politics. He says Joshua Harris’s showing “indicates a certain dissatisfaction with how political parties are operating and what they represent to the larger populous.”
The Maryland Green Party qualified as a recognized party in 2000, and this year was the first time they ran a candidate for mayor in Baltimore. Andy Ellis who co-chairs the Baltimore Green Party said Harris’ performance is a good starting point.
“One of the things that we’ve noticed on a state level is that every one of our candidates gets more votes than there are registered Greens in that area and by a factor of 7 to 10 times in some cases,” he said. “And what that says is there are a lot more folks out there who are interested in the message and the values than we currently have registered.
For a point of reference, Democrats outnumber Greens 200 to one in Baltimore City and 276 to one statewide. Republicans outnumber them 25 to one in the city and 100 to one in the state. Willis points that Democrats and Republicans tend to respond when third parties get more support.
“Third parties have a role beyond just winning,” he says. “They do push the issue agenda.”
In this case, Harris’s totals, along with former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s 22 percent of the vote from a late-blooming write-in campaign, cut into Catherine Pugh’s margin of victory.
“Well, I was quite surprised on election night when I saw the percentage for the Democratic candidate,” Willis said, pointing to several charts he had printed out. “That’s the lowest percentage for a Democratic candidate since the republican won in 1963.”
Theodore R. McKeldin was the Republican that year. Since then, Democrats have never polled less than 80 percent of the vote for mayor in Baltimore City. Former Mayor Martin O’Malley even took better than 90 percent of the vote during his 1999 campaign.
But Mileah Kromer, who teaches political science at Goucher College, says politics is “just about winning at the end of the day.”
And she points out there’s a distinction between Harris, who was a Democrat before he switched to the Green Party in February and the party’s infrastructure.
“I think a lot of the success has to do not just with the Green Party as an organization but the Harris candidacy,” she said. “This is somebody who could really talk to a lot the social justice issues in a way that were not fundamentally addressed by some of the other candidates running.”
She says the Green Party needs to have more candidates involved in the nitty-gritty of local issues - attending forums, community meetings - to bring new voters to its ranks.
“So I think for Joshua Harris it was a really great run for the mayor of Baltimore, which by the way is a big time position,” she said.
But if the Green Party wants to continue to be taken seriously as a third party option, she said, “they need to reinvest their efforts into getting elected to the city council which they did try to do in this election cycle. There were several seats contested by green party candidates and that perhaps is the path to legitimacy.”
Third parties need to start winning local seats and that shift could start to break down the national narrative that they are merely spoiler parties in presidential races.
Harris, for his part, says he’ll continue to stay active in local issues.
“For me it’s really about the work, and I’m going get to that work right now and evaluate what will be my next step,” he said. “There’s lots of people who are encouraging me to run again and that’s something I will take into consideration when the time comes.”
He says he’s already seen Democrats interested in elements of his platform