Even so-called Progressive Groups Shut out Progressive Candidates

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

At the first debate for left-leaning candidates for U.S. Senate to represent Maryland, there’s no place on the stage for the most progressive candidate on the ballot.

Dr. Margaret Flowers, the Green Party candidate, claims she’s been forced out because one of the Democratic contenders vying for the Senate seat objects to her presence. She’s blazing mad and vows to attend with or without the host’s blessing.

“I told them I am serious about this campaign. I want to win,” she said. “I’m going to fight to be heard in order to be elected. I’m going to show up there whether or not I’m invited.”

According to an email a steering committee member of Maryland group Progressive Neighbors, “[Rep. Chris] Van Hollen was balking” at an open debate which included Flowers.

Yet Darian Unger, President of Progressive Neighbors–an organization which he describes as dedicated to promoting progressive candidates for elected office on principle, not Party—categorically denies that either participant in the January forum wants Flowers excluded. “We have received no such pressure from either Representative Van Hollen or Representative Edwards,” he said in an email.

In fact, he said in a phone interview, the whole thing is a big misunderstanding. Flowers wasn’t invited to the January forum in the first place, so she couldn’t have been uninvited.

“Margaret, I really think that Margaret felt like she was invited and then dis-invited, right? And that wasn’t the intent. I understand that that’s how it came across,” Unger said.

But on October 7, steering committee member Deborah Schumann sent an email to Flowers about Progressive Neighbors’ “forum/debate” for the Senate race planned for early December. “Would you be willing be participate?” she asked. Schumann offered to accommodate Flowers’ schedule.

According to Unger, Schumann’s email didn’t constitute an invitation, or it was a mistake on her part. Progressive Neighbors, Unger said, had only ever considered inviting Flowers for a second event planned after the Democratic primaries were over.

“We might not have been the most organized about it, there were different people calling different campaigns about dates and stuff. So there was a little bit of confusion,” Unger said.

On November 4, Schumann sent a second email to Flowers: “The committee decided that we will have only people who are running in the Democratic primary,” she said. “Van Hollen was balking at a wide-open debate that included Greens and Republicans.”

Then Schumann asked whether Flowers would be willing to be a moderator for the debate. “[Y]ou would be perfect for asking about health care,” she wrote.

Flowers declined. “I am a candidate now and I need to be treated as one,” she responded.

Kevin Zeese, a Flowers campaign adviser, says that Progressive Neighbors is filled with Democratic partisans. He describes steering committee member Mike Hersh as “vehement,” “anti-third party,” and “pro-Dem.” He points out that Dana Beyer, another steering committee member, was co-chair of Cardin’s last re-election committee. Zeese believes that there are indirect ways for Van Hollen “to get the word out” that he prefers Flowers not to share the stage with him.

Sheila O’Connell, Van Hollen for Senate Campaign Manager, said that the Van Hollen campaign has had no contact with the group about Dr.Flowers’ participation. “We respect any decision that Progressive Neighbors makes about the forums they convene,” she said.

On October 7, Rep. Donna Edwards was asked on WEAA’s Marc Steiner Show if she would debate a Green Party opponent if she were to win the Democratic nomination. “Far be it for me to exclude anyone, anyone who is running to make sure that they get to communicate their views to the voters,” she responded.

It’s not exactly a crowded stage. At the moment, only two people have been invited to the January 17 forum: Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna Edwards, who are vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the race for the seat currently held by Democrat Barbara Mikulski. If Rep. Elijah Cummings declares his intention to run, he’ll also be invited.

In September, Progressive Neighbors successfully held a forum on environmental issues with eight participants, which attracted an audience of 200.

If Van Hollen doesn’t object, and Edwards doesn’t object, why not include Flowers? As for Flowers, it’s just one debate, and she’s been invited to participate in Progressive Neighbor’s forum planned several months from now.

But this is exactly how the system is rigged, says Flowers. The reason that a third-party candidate needs access to debates like these is to get her voice out early. Like many states, Maryland doesn’t publicly fund third-party primaries, while the two major party primaries are funded by taxpayer dollars. So far, Flowers has raised $18,000 dollars, all of it from individual donations.

Rep. Donna Edwards has raised $1.6 million during this election cycle. Twenty-nine percent of her donations come from small donors. Some of her large campaign contributions in 2014, however, were from aerospace defense contractors like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

Rep. Van Hollen has raised $5.2 million so far, mostly from lobbying firms like Arnold & Porter, Wilmerhale, LLP, and Deloitte, LLP.

“Unlike the Democratic candidates who are controlled by corporate money, I have not been compromised,” said Flowers.

She thinks she’s got exactly the kind of campaign that Progressive Neighbors ought to be getting out there. “If you look at what Progressive Neighbors stands for–universal healthcare, high quality public schools, public transportation, a clean environment–these are all issues that I have advocated for and written about,” she said. “I have a strong record of doing what it takes to fight for these issues, including taking direct action.”

Unger of Progressive Neighbors calls the Democratic primary “the election at hand.” In November, voters “are going to have a whole different set of choices…. In November, people get to vote for who they want,” he said.

That is, if voters are acquainted with who is on the ballot. “I have to be exposed to voters so they know what their full choices are,” Flowers said. She said she’ll be there either way on January 17, ready to take the stage. “It’s not right for them to exclude the most progressive candidate when that’s their mission,” she said.

Anne Meador is a co-founder of DC Media Group, a grassroots collective of journalists devoted to reporting news and issues from the people's perspective. Read other articles by Anne.