Credit: From left, David Moon, Jamin Raskin, Will Smith and Sheila Hixson

Even before District 20 Del. Heather Mizeur formally announced last summer that she was running for governor, a small crowd of candidates was taking aim at the General Assembly seat she is vacating. Then, the decision earlier this year by Mizeur’s colleague, Del. Tom Hucker, to make a County Council bid created Montgomery County’s most wide open contest in the June 24 Democratic primary — with eight non-incumbents taking aim at two vacancies in Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20.

Publicly, the race to represent what is arguably the most liberal district in the most liberal county in the state has been largely free of acrimony, even as candidate forums in some nearby districts have devolved into near-brawls. “We’ve been doing this for nine months together: We’ve really become a band of brothers – and a sister,” one contender, Will Smith, joked as the last in a series of District 20 candidate forums took place late last week. (The only woman in the nine-person field is Del. Sheila Hixson, the county’s longest-serving legislator.)

But, if the forum was noteworthy primarily for several candidates embracing avowedly liberal proposals – ranging from rent control to legalization of marijuana – likely to encounter opposition even in some other parts of Montgomery County, the behind-the-scenes jockeying in District 20 is intensifying as Primary Day approaches, with some muted sniping evident.

Over the past week, an informal slate of incumbents and challengers – including state Sen. Jamie Raskin and Hixson, along with Smith and veteran political operative David Moon – has emerged. The first flier promoting the four has been mailed out, with several more to follow, as the four also plan to coordinate as well on rallies, fundraisers, and get-out-the-vote activities. The first mail flier was akin to a mini-“Apple Ballot” – prominently noting that Raskin, Hixson, Moon and Smith have the influential endorsement of the Montgomery County Education Association.

Meanwhile, Moon – on his own – today is poised to become the first state legislative candidate in the county to go on TV this year, with a 30-second spot targeted to cable subscribers in the county’s eastern section.

While no formal slate committee has been formed, the cost of the informal slate activities are currently being divided evenly among the campaigns of Raskin, Hixson, Moon and Smith, sources said. This could change, particularly since Raskin – who has no opposition for the Senate nod — is sitting a campaign treasury of $143,500, by far the largest of the four candidates.

The launching of the informal slate follows a lengthy statement last month by Raskin publicly endorsing Moon and Smith for the first time.

Raskin is clearly the most influential political presence in District 20: He chairs the county’s Senate delegation in Annapolis, and hopes to succeed departing District 16 Sen. Brian Frosh as chair of the powerful Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee next year. His latest move appears to be an effort to use some of his clout to level the playing field for Moon and Smith – both former Raskin campaign managers – against two better funded contenders: former White House aide Will Jawando and attorney Jonathan Shurberg.

Despite this, Raskin went out of his way in his recent endorsement statement to praise the challengers other than Moon and Smith. He even defended Shurberg – who served as counsel to Raskin’s first campaign in 2006 — over the suspension of Shurberg’s law license in late 2012. Shurberg moved successfully to have the license reinstated before announcing his candidacy; the suspension stemmed from his mishandling of client funds, a problem he has attributed to distractions caused by the terminal illness of his late wife, Rebecca Lord.

“While he was found to have negligently misappropriated client funds, he was punished for it, no clients were harmed, and all funds were restored. In my opinion, this event should be viewed in the context of Jon’s significant public contributions to our community over 15 years on a number of fronts,” Raskin declared of Shurberg.

It was one of the few times that Shurberg’s license suspension – a subject of much private chatter in the District 20 contest – has been discussed publicly. Raskin’s defense of Shurberg is said to have triggered negative feedback from some local party activists.

Shurberg has sought to deal with the issue through an aggressive series of mailings to voters: He has sent out at least a dozen, including an eight-page glossy flier last week detailing his campaign platform. He has underwritten this effort with more than $230,000 from his own pocket, and is said to be planning to spend more – giving him at least a 4-1 financial advantage over Moon and Smith, each of whom has raised about $60,000.

While Moon had about $45,000 in his campaign treasury as of late last month, Smith had less than $9,000. Shurberg has declined to discuss the specific source of the personal wealth he is applying to the campaign, but it is said by others to come from an inheritance he received following the 2012 death of his wife.

Jawando, meanwhile, had raised about $170,000 and had about $65,000 in the bank five weeks as of the latest filings. With ties to Barack Obama going back to his work as an aide in Obama’s Senate office, the 31-year old Jawando has been able to tap into fundraising sources throughout official Washington and across the country. Closer to home he has been endorsed by Baltimore-based U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and Montgomery County Councilmembers Cherri Branson, Nancy Navarro, Hans Riemer and Craig Rice.

In an apparent manifestation of District 20’s insular personality – perhaps, in part, a reaction to the “People’s Republic Of Takoma Park” image that persists elsewhere in Montgomery County – Jawando has faced grumbling that he is an outsider with limited prior involvement in the district.

In comments that appeared aimed at Jawando, Moon, 35, and Smith, 32, took turns noting at last week’s forum that they had been born in local hospitals (Washington Adventist and Holy Cross, respectively), with Smith – a former official of the U.S. Homeland Security Department – listing several local groups on whose boards he serves. During the session, Shurberg, 51, added he had lived in and around Silver Spring for 24 years – “with a one-year exception when I lived in Rockville, and realized that was a mistake and moved back,” he declared to audience laughter.

For his part, Jawando emphasized his childhood upbringing in District 20’s Long Branch neighborhood and his service in the AmeriCorps program in Silver Spring after high school, as well as serving on the county’s Commission on Juvenile Justice while working in Congress and the Obama administration.

Saying he has lived in and around District 20 “most of my life,” Jawando declared in a subsequent interview: “I do take exception with those who would say that the amount of boards you’ve been on proves that you’re a community leader. I’m deeply rooted in our community, and have a background serving it.”

Jawando got a recent boost with the recent endorsement of the Washington Post, which also endorsed Hixson and Howard University professor Darian Unger, an environmental engineer who previously garnered the backing of the Sierra Club. He is clearly counting on these, along with his emphasis on the environment, to put his modestly funded candidacy over the top.

“I would ask you to keep one of your three votes for someone who takes the environment very seriously [and who] has the scientific background to actually make [Maryland] an environmental leader,” he said during the candidate forum.

Three other contenders – former congressional aide Justin Chappell, attorney George Zokle, and D’Juan Hopewell, most recently an official of an anti-hunger organization – have been hampered by underfunded campaigns and are considered longshots.

District 20, a majority-minority jurisdiction, currently has no minority group members in its delegation — but that could change this year, with Jawando and Smith, who are African-American, and Moon, an Asian-American, among the leading contenders.

The 81-year old Hixson, in Annapolis since 1976 and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee for the last two decades, is favored to win one of the three seats – but it’s not considered a lock amid the upheaval in the delegation. She has raised a modest amount for a committee chair – her latest filing showed less than $10,000 on hand — and her failure to receive the endorsement of the Gazette newspapers this year created jitters among some backers.

But she is likely to benefit from being the only one of her gender in the crowded field. “As you know, I am the only woman and only incumbent running in District 20,” she said to applause at the candidates’ forum. “I like that.”