Few political operatives can say they’ve worked on national, state, and local issues before their 21st birthday. Dylan Burns, lifelong resident of College Park, Maryland and a progressive activist, has done all three, and he’s just getting started. Commonwealth spoke to Burns in mid-August to get his take on his take on working in politics as a young person, Maryland politics, and what the left needs to accomplish.
In 2019, thanks to two high-school staffers’ savvy social media know-how, politician Mike Gravel became an internet sensation, again, whose campaign for President rocketed into the public eye. The campaign’s aim was to get the former Alaskan senator onto the debate stage next to the likes of, for instance, Joe Biden. The intent was to push the Democratic Party further to the left.
The Gravel campaign platform and modus operandi caught the attention of Dylan Burns, a lifelong resident of College Park, Maryland. Dylan had long been in favor of pushing the Democratic Party further to the left and ending American imperialism abroad.
Burns contacted the national Gravel campaign and who shortly thereafter made him state director of the “MikeGravelForMD” campaign. He got to work campaigning for Gravel on social media.
“One of the ideas was that, if Mike Gravel could go ‘viral’ on Youtube in his 2008 run for President, what’s stopping him from reaching even more people now that social media is so much more a part of all our lives?” said Dylan.
Dylan saw the Gravel campaign as more than an effort to push Democrats left on the national level; there was plenty of opportunity for the Gravel campaign to support and recognize local Maryland issues.
Burns, who had assembled a small team for the Mike Gravel for Maryland campaign, had the campaign support Johns Hopkins student and faculty who were opposing the creation of a militarized campus police force, “We do not need a private police force occupying the streets of our communities,” tweeted @MikeGravelForMD on May 8, 2019. “The Maryland Mike Gravel campaign stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at John’s Hopkins.”
Just a few days earlier, the campaign had announced support for University of Maryland students fighting to save the Maryland Food Collective on their campus.
Burns told Commonwealth, “We were one of the only campaigns to talk about local issues… to talk about corruption in Maryland… as well as national and international issues.” There was no gulf between state, local, national, and international politics for the campaign. Maryland was a unique state where this was possible. “Not every state has a foreign policy like Maryland,” Burns pointed out.
Burns referenced an executive order signed by Gov. Hogan in January 2017 prohibiting all executive branch agencies from entering contracts or conducting official state business with any entity unless they certify that they will not engage in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli occupation of Palestine during the duration of the contract. In effect, state contractors must give up their right to free speech against apartheid and war crimes if they want to do business with the state of Maryland.
“People have a right to boycott,” Burns said, without disclosing his personal position on BDS. He believes the executive order could be unconstitutional and wants to see Maryland Democrats push for its repeal. “We made this into a campaign issue when it wasn’t one.”
The campaign discussed the ties between Governor Larry Hogan and the highway and toll lobby and the so-called “moderate” Republican Governor’s retrograde positions on transportation, policing, and education.
Burns and his Deputy Director, Jake Burnett, also interviewed two Sudanese political activists involved in the revolutionary protests in Sudan.
It wasn’t always easy. The campaign drew the attention of conservative outlets like Red Maryland and Conservative Maryland. Sometimes the arguments grew heated. Once, after Jeffrey Peters of Conservative Maryland made offensive and inaccurate comments about the Holocaust, Dylan’s girlfriend, a tour guide at the National Holocaust Museum, offered the editors of Conservative Maryland a lesson on Holocaust revisionism. In response, the conservative outlet accused her of being an “anti-Semitic liberal troll.”
Asked to gauge his success with the campaign after the Gravel campaign wrapped up in August, Dylan said he was pleased with their work. He had wanted the Gravel for MD campaign to shift the Overton window in Maryland, not just push for Gravel himself to appear on the debate stage. More than any other candidate, in Burns’s view, Gravel had voiced the most progressive platform of any candidate: creating a Department of Peace (rather than “Defense”), passing a Green New Deal, affirming reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, supporting sex workers and sex worker decriminalization, creating a National Reparations Trust Fund, legalizing marijuana nationally (with criminal convictions expunged), and instituting a Land Value Tax.
Bringing Campaign Issues at Home
After the Gravel campaign wrapped up, Burns got to work on his next political project: running for College Park City Council at 18 years old.
Burns was born in College Park and raised primarily by his grandparents. His mother battled poverty, drug addiction, and homelessness—“It’s a matter of public record,” Dylan says. “I ran for office because I wanted to give back to the people and place that gave me so much growing up,” he continued.
Burns assembled a small team and constructed a campaign platform that included: investing in worker-owned cooperatives, create a publicly financed campaign system akin to Montgomery County’s, senior services, environmentalism, public safety, working with local artists on “beautification without gentrification,” and more. It is an inspiring and well thought out platform.
His ambitious campaign hit an early roadblock stemming from a hidden age restriction in College Park’s City Charter. “I registered to vote when I turned 18 back in March of this year but the Charter says that in order to campaign for office you have to have registered at least one year prior to the day of the election. So you see the problem!” he joked.
Under Maryland law, Dylan could have registered at 16 or 17, had it not been for several reasons. “For starters, most experienced politicians don’t know for sure they’ll be running one or two years in advance, let alone knowing at the age of 16 or 17,” he said, “and when this law was established it was primarily used to confirm residency in the city, which is not what it so doing currently.”
Burns’s high school didn’t host voter registration drives for its students. Dylan is also reliant on public transportation; getting to the DMV to register as a voter presented an added challenge. “Public transit is really closely tied to voting rights,” Burns explained.
Rather than back down and end his campaign, Burns turned the roadblock into the central issue of his campaign. He emphasized how the College Park City Council admitted that this oversight in the Charter allowed young people to fall through the cracks. His campaign earned the endorsement of the Frostburg State College Democrats, Salisbury College Democrats, and Jake Burnett, the youngest elected member of the Maryland State Democratic Central Committee.
Dylan organized young people to pack the College Park hearing room and address the College Park City Council during an evening meeting on Tuesday August 13, 2019. Jake Burnett drove to College Park from Howard County to attend, as did activists from all across Maryland, local College Park activists, and students. One supporter drove from Salisbury to College Park in solidarity with Dylan.
While the College Park City Council won’t act to address the Charter oversight in time for Burns to run an effective campaign for office, future young candidates will. “That’s what matters,” according to Dylan. The strategy to take a negative and make it into a campaign issue worked.
Not all was lost, however. Burns’s work on the Gravel for MD campaign was noticed by another young and rising political figure: Mckayla Wilkes, the insurgent leftist challenger to Steny Hamilton for the U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District Seat.
Wilkes is a 29-year old administrative assistant and mother of two. She takes classes for political science at Northern Virginia Community College. She’s also a victim of the vicious American criminal justice system. She’s running because there’s a disconnect between politicians like Steny Hoyer, who’s been a Maryland U.S. Representative since the 1980s, and everyday people like herself.
Dyland talked to Commonwealth about the unique perspective a Wilkes candidacy brings to the campaign. “She’s experienced the criminalization of poverty first-hand,” he explained and described how Mckayla – juggling school, a job, and two kids – fell behind in paying traffic tickets. She was eventually pulled over and had her license suspended for the outstanding payments due.
As with individuals across the country, Mckayla was ensnared in the system whereby the State and police institutions drown African American and Latinx communities with excessive traffic stops, traffic infractions, and traffic fines. Mckayla had her license suspended because of unpaid tickets. Driving for work, school, and her two-kids were still an everyday necessity, license or not. So she when police stopped her for driving with a suspended license, they put her in jail for the night, separated from her family.
“That’s the criminalization of poverty,” Burns repeated.
Wilkes’s platform places criminal justice at its chief issue but it resembles the insurgent campaigns that precede her. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes ran on a leftist platform against the powerful New York Democrat Joe Crowley and won. Likewise, Wilkes’s platform emphasizes a Green New Deal, a peace-based foreign policy, Medicare-For-All (which her opponent Hoyer infamously opposes), reparations for the descendants of slaves, and worker-empowerment. Like AOC, Wilkes got the endorsement of the organization “Brand New Congress.”
Eager to join the challenge to the centrist Democrat and U.S. House of Representatives Majority Whip, Dylan accepted a position on Wilkes’s campaign as foreign policy advisor. “I may be the youngest foreign policy advisor on a campaign ever and we have a peace-based foreign policy.” Burns said.” Which is good, because you don’t want the youngest foreign policy advisor to be another Henry Kissinger.”
Burns had experience in foreign policy not only from the Gravel campaign but also from pursuing a University of Maryland Young Terps International Relations program he completed before joining the Wilkes campaign. “Now I’m in charge of all the countries we don’t want to bomb,” joked Dylan.
So far, Mykayla, Burns, and the rest of Team Mckayla has knocked well over 2,000 doors in Maryland’s 5th District. You can read more about her campaign from Rachel Cohen at the Intercept, or Wilkes’s campaign website here.
The Left, Right, and Center in Maryland
Commonwealth asked Dylan Burns more about abstract political subjects, such as Democrats in Annapolis. He expressed that he believes they are too complacent regarding the Republican minority in the State Assembly and Hogan’s administration. “Look at the recent struggle for Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates” said Dylan, referencing the attempt by one Democratic contender for Speaker, Prince George’s Derrick Davis, to court the Republican minority to win the election. “We have to get over this cap in hand and mentality.”
According to Burns, there is a wing of the Democratic Party who works with the GOP, and thus facilitate Hogan’s administration, just to maintain power over the emerging left-flank of the party. With the Speaker’s race, Del. Adrienne Jones of District 10 became the first woman and the first African-American to serve as a presiding officer in the Maryland General Assembly.
Burns’s advice for the Democrats is to move leftward. Centrist Democrats should give up corporate donations and fundraisers in favor of small dollar donors and grassroots support. That would require embracing popular left ideas like renewable energy, the school funding recommendations of the Kirwan commission, legalization (and clearing of criminal convictions) of marijuana and more. “We have a situation where most of the Maryland population is moving left, our representatives are centrists, and our opponents are crazy!”
There are obstacles for the left, however, to gaining more power in Maryland. “We [the left] need to communicate better to organize better,” says Dylan. If the left could coordinate various local initiatives and issues between our different organizations, we’d be better able to offer a full and coherent alternative to both centrist Democrats and Republicans. According to Burns’s theory, an empowered and organized Maryland left can create and control the conversations surrounding major issues that resonate with everyday Marylanders.
We ended by asking Dylan what he thought about young leftists who are compelled to political action but aspire to move to the major political hubs such as Washington D.C. Burns said he has no intention to move out of College Park anytime soon. He emphasises that the action starts on the local level.
“You signed up to fight when you got into politics, and the fight is right in front of you.”