Four announced candidates for the unfinished state Senate term of U.S. Rep.-elect Jamie Raskin, D-Takoma Park, fielded questions for more than an hour and a quarter Thursday evening during a candidate forum that revealed virtually no differences among them on state, local or national issues.
“I think you’ll see very little difference on progressivism between us,” observed civic activist Darian Unger, who appeared before an overflow crowd at the Silver Spring Civic Center with the other aspirants: state Dels. David Moon and Will Smith and political newcomer Scott Brown.
But what did loom over the gathering was unhappiness in several quarters of the Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20—arguably the state’s most left-leaning legislative jurisdiction—over the method being used to replace Raskin. The latter was elected to represent the Montgomery County-based District 8 in Congress 10 days ago, succeeding U.S. Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen.
Candidates for the open state Senate seat include Del. Will Smith, left, civic activist Darian Unger, center, and Del. David Moon, right
The 28-member Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee will meet Dec. 7, moved up last weekend from an original date of Dec. 13, to choose Raskin’s successor, who will fill the final two years of his Senate term. Under the Maryland constitution, the MCDCC makes a recommendation to Gov. Larry Hogan, who makes the appointment. But that is considered little more than a formality: Although a Republican, Hogan is required under the constitution to appoint a member of the same party that previously held the seat.
The first question of the evening—from Mike Tabor of Progressive Neighbors, one of the more than half-dozen groups that sponsored the forum—asked the candidates, “If chosen—unfortunately, not elected—would you work to change the system that allows the Democratic Central Committee to make the choice rather than the voters of District 20?” All four candidates said they would, indicating they would work to replace the current appointment process with a provision for special elections.
The question also gave Unger the opportunity to highlight his status as the only declared candidate for the appointment who has vowed not to run for election to a full term in 2018, thereby potential creating a wide-open primary for the slot in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
“I’m changing the system in the way that I’m running,” Unger, a professor at Howard University’s School of Business, declared. “I am committing to not running for re-election because I think government by appointment is not healthy. I prefer popular democracy to committees representing people [doing the] voting.”
Added Brown, who runs an information technology consulting business, “Special elections cost money, but it’s the right thing to do.”
The question was posed again a short while later by former Obama administration official Will Jawando, who was in the audience. Jawando, who had been considered a potential candidate for the state Senate vacancy, took the opportunity to announce publicly that he would not seek the appointment. He suggested that the current process—in which Moon and Smith, as incumbent delegates, are seen as the frontrunners—had played a role in his decision.
“So everyone up here said you’ll work to change the appointment process,” Jawando declared.
“But I want to dig a little deeper and ask ‘How will you lead and get that done in Annapolis when a third of the people there are appointed, and there’s a vested interest in keeping it that way?” His reference was to the fact that many of the senators and delegates serving in the General Assembly first arrived there via the appointment process after a vacancy had occurred in their districts.
The initial email announcing the District 20 vacancy and seeking applicants for Raskin’s seat, sent out Nov. 11 by MCDCC Chairman Darrell Anderson, stated, “The MCDCC encourages and may give priority to applicants stating that they will fill the position on an interim basis until the 2018 election and will not seek the position at that time.” However, that language was absent when a revised email on the vacancy was sent out Sunday.
According to sources, the language was removed after Anderson took heat from Montgomery County’s state legislative delegation as well as some members of the MCDCC. The appointment process appears to have worked to the advantage of a large portion of the present county delegation: Eight members of the 32-person delegation first received their current posts by appointment, including three senators and five delegates. When Raskin’s successor is named next month, four of the county’s eight sitting senators will have been selected initially by the MCDCC, with three of those appointments taking place over the last three and a half years.
But efforts to change the status quo to provide for a special election in the case of a state legislative vacancy have failed to gain traction in Annapolis. Both the state Democratic and Republican parties have lobbied against the move, fearing a loss of leverage if the process is removed from the jurisdiction of county political committees.
A special election proposal sponsored in 2015 by Moon and Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Potomac—who first won his Senate seat by MCDCC appointment in 2013 after earlier being elected to three terms in the House of Delegates—failed to get out of legislative committee.
The field of contenders for the Senate appointment could grow before next month’s MCDCC vote. Two who have not ruled out seeking the appointment—attorney Jonathan Shurberg and Debbie Spielberg, an aide to County Council member Marc Elrich—were both in the audience Thursday night.
Shurberg and Spielberg are also considered possible contenders in what could be a crowded competition for an appointment to a vacant delegate seat if either Moon or Smith is elevated to the Senate. Jawando—an unsuccessful candidate against Raskin in this year’s Democratic congressional primary—said after the forum that he has not ruled out seeking appointment to a delegate slot if it comes open. He also acknowledged he is considering the possibility of waiting until 2018 and running for a seat on the County Council.
Not present Thursday, but also possibly in the running for the Senate vacancy, is former County Council member Valerie Ervin who, like Unger, has pledged to serve out the remainder of Raskin’s term and not run for re-election in 2018.
As the apparent frontrunners for the Senate appointment—MCDCC appointments to Senate vacancies in 2013 and last year involved elevating a sitting delegate—Moon and Smith sought to emphasize their progressive credentials and their ties to the popular Raskin. Both Moon and Smith served as campaign managers to Raskin before being placed on an informal slate with Raskin in 2014, helping them to come out on top of a crowded nine-way primary in which the candidates also included Jawando, Shurberg and Unger.
But Thursday’s forum also highlighted some differences in style between Moon and Smith, who took a couple of mild digs at each other.
Moon sought to position himself as an outsider willing to take risks. “The last 10 years before seeking office, I spent my time working as a paid grassroots organizer, political consultant, campaign manager, lawyer, blogger and all-around activist for social and economic justice causes,” he declared, adding, “I’m also one of the only freshmen who has dared to stand up on the floor of the House [of Delegates] and try to kill a bill that was sent there by the Democratic leadership.”
While Moon pointed to legislative accomplishments—noting that, as a freshman, he was the sponsor of a successful question on this year’s ballot amending the state constitution on how vacancies for attorney general and comptroller are filled—Smith, a former Obama administration official, sought to portray himself as the more effective legislator. He arrived at the forum armed with a 22-page glossy “candidate prospectus” containing his biography as well as a list of legislative accomplishments.
“David and I are pretty much neck and neck on…progressive platforms,” Smith asserted. “It’s a difference between being progressive and also being effective and getting things done. The legislature passed more of my bills than [those proposed by] any other freshman and, last year, I was No. 4 in the entire house.”
Moon later parried back. ”Effectiveness is measured in more than how many bills you pass. It goes down to whether you’re willing to spend your own political capital on things that you think are right, even when your own party is wrong,” he contended.
Smith’s opening statement included a subtle reference to a factor that may work to his advantage in the appointment process: If named, he would be the first African-American to represent Montgomery County in the state Senate. “We have a real opportunity for the next generation to send a voice that’s never been represented in the state Senate from Montgomery County or from District 20 before,” he noted. District 20 has a population that is about one-third African-American, the largest percentage of black residents of any state legislative district in the county.
The forum was preceded by remarks from Raskin, who, given the result of the presidential election, appeared a bit nostalgic at times about the Senate seat that he resigned last week. He first won it in a political upset in 2006.
“On the way in, somebody said to me, ‘Jamie, what are you doing here? This is to fill your vacancy,’ ” Raskin told the crowd, adding to laughter, “I’ve spent a week in Donald Trump’s Washington. I want it back.”