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ANNAPOLIS, Md.– Maryland’s conservative grassroots turned out 270 strong this weekend for “Turning The Tides 2013,” a day-long conference in Annapolis dedicated to bringing like-minded citizens together and setting the agenda for the upcoming year. By the end of the day, the group’s priorities were clear: reforming education, fighting radical environmentalism, and protecting our Second Amendment rights. Strategy, on the other hand, remained a work in progress.
The event, organized by the Maryland Conservative Action Network, would have a rousing success for its energy alone. Two months removed from a disappointing election, and in the heart of the bluest of states, the crowd would have been excused for an apathetic or even somber mood. But a spirit of optimism permeated the room, one that seemed to be crying, “Let’s get back to work!” This crowd–representing all corners of Maryland as well as Virginia, DC, and Pennsylvania–had seen defeat before and was not easily kept down.
“School choice is the civil rights issue of our day,” said Daniel Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012 and maintains a dedicated following among Maryland’s grassroots. He described school choice, and broader reforms to our stunted education system, were issues that could bridge the gap between races and classes in Maryland. Specifically, education reform could provide a common ground for conservatives and low-income African-Americans, a group that has historically backed liberal candidates by overwhelming margins.
Other speakers took a more holistic approach to education reform. “If you can send your child to any college you want, why can’t you send your child to any K-12 school you want?” asked Brian Meshkin, a member of the Howard County Board of Education. “It is selfish and immoral to tell taxpayers where to send their kids to school.”
During open-mic periods, the crowd showed more enthusiasm for school choice than any other issue. In a state where conservatives have had little success in advancing free-market policy, speakers and activists alike saw education reform as a game changer that could upset the state’s political equilibrium by allying small-town whites with inner-city African-Americans.
The conversation about school choice, charter schools, and teacher tenure that began at Turning The Tides is likely to carry over into National School Choice Week (January 27-February 2), which many of the attendees had already marked off on their calendars.
Whereas the subject of education reform injected energy into the room, any talk of gun control was met with a far different reaction. Piers Morgan, the liberal CNN commentator who has spent much of the last month on an obsessive crusade for firearm restrictions, was roundly booed at a volume normally reserved for President Obama or Governor Martin O’Malley.
Supporters of the Second Amendment seemed more irritated than angry, however. There was a high level of confidence among attendees that gun control efforts would peter out, because, as one panelist termed it, “the facts and the Constitution are on our side.”
The most popular gun-related fact was a comparison between Baltimore City and Baltimore County (the latter excludes the city and is mostly suburban). The city has only one gun shop, used almost exclusively by law enforcement. The county has 10 licensed gun shops–yet its violent crime rate is less than 1/10th of the city’s.
Jim Warner, a decorated Marine Corps veteran who was taken as a POW in Vietnam, brought the audience to tears by speaking about the importance of the Second Amendment to our liberty. “The Second Amendment does not grant us the right to bear arms,” Warner said. “It prevents the government from taking away a right that comes from God.”
Energy and Environmentalism
Maryland conservatives may be upset at Gov. O’Malley for his tax hikes, out of control spending, or subservience to the state’s pubic-sector unions, but they seemed particularly teed off at his “radical green agenda.” The consensus among speakers and attendees was that O’Malley is using Maryland as a “Potemkin village” of environmentalism–passing green legislation to burnish his resume for a presidential bid in 2016, without a care for how his policies affect Maryland.
Much of what O’Malley is doing in Maryland mirrors the path liberals have taken nationally: using the environment as justification expanding government’s influence over the economy. As Mark Newgent of RedMaryland.com said, “”Their fondest dream is to saddle us with climate laws that give them control of the economy. It’s the best scam they’ve ever worked.”
While the crowd at Turning The Tides was committed to holding fast to principle in 2013, they were less certain about where to begin. After all, Maryland Democrats had registered 4 times the number of voters Maryland Republicans had in the previous decade, and while the numbers weren’t as drastic nationally, conservatives had certainly lost the engagement wars in 2012.
The solution? Organize, organize, organize, as one panelist said. She compared the other side’s approach to a “swarm of locusts,” with thousands of volunteers scattered throughout communities, making noise and spreading a positive message of change. They have a built-in advantage with union personnel and college students, both of which are easily recruited as canvassers. However, conservatives can think outside the box for recruiting new voters–for example, Bongino suggested that anyone who doesn’t bring voter registration forms to a gun show is committing political malpractice!
Above all, the message from the panelists at Turning The Tides was one of hard work and constant communication. As David Speilman said, “The left talks to everyone. We talk to each other. That’s not working.” Conservatives–both nationwide and in blue states like Maryland–need to be less risk-averse and more willing to talk to people from the other side and look for any common ground–even if that common ground may only exist on one or two issues.
2013 sits ahead of conservatives like an open book. It will be important to prioritize issues that are worth fighting over, like education reform, gun rights, and energy. But it’s also critical for the grassroots to reflect on the experience of 2012, to learn from mistakes, and to get back into the field and work each day to restore this country’s founding principles.
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