Future District 20 senator Will Smith

Will Smith, a former Obama administration official who was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates two years ago, was chosen Wednesday night to succeed U.S. Rep.-elect Jamie Raskin as the next state senator from Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20.

Smith, who defeated fellow Del. David Moon by a wider than expected 19-8 vote of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC), becomes the first African-American ever to hold a state Senate seat from Montgomery County. That precedent-setting move, along with the fact that District 20 has the largest percentage of black residents of any of the county’s eight state legislative districts, appeared to play a role in the committee’s decision.

“…We live in the most diverse county [in Maryland] and this is the most diverse district in that county,” Smith noted in addressing the MCDCC before the vote, held at the Silver Spring Civic Center. “A third of our population [in District 20] is African-American. We all know that when you send more diverse voices to Annapolis, you get better policy. I represent a voice that’s never been heard, that’s never been at the table.”

Under the Maryland constitution, the MCDCC’s recommendation of Smith to succeed Raskin goes to Gov. Larry Hogan, who has 15 days to make the actual appointment. But that is considered little more than a formality: While Hogan is a Republican, the state constitution requires him to name someone of the same party as the previous occupant of the seat. Only in extraordinary instances in the past have governors refused to go along with the choice of a local party committee to fill a state legislative vacancy.

Once Smith is appointed to the Senate, his resignation from the House of Delegates will create another legislative vacancy to be filled by a vote of the county Democratic committee. MCDCC Chairman Darrell Anderson indicated the committee’s goal is to name a replacement for Smith as delegate at its regular monthly meeting Jan. 10. As many as a dozen potential candidates had previously indicated an interest in a delegate seat if the MCDCC chose to elevate Smith or Moon to the Senate.

The fact that the Maryland constitution calls for legislative vacancies to be filled by appointment rather than by special election created blowback among some District 20 Democrats, and Silver Spring civic and political activist Darian Unger announced for the Senate vacancy on the condition that he would serve out Raskin’s term and not run again, creating an open seat race in 2018. But Unger failed to attract any votes from MCDCC members during Wednesday’s vote, as did two other longshot candidates: political newcomer Scott Brown and Arthur Jackson, who had been active in Prince George’s County and District of Columbia Democratic politics before moving into District 20 five years ago.

Smith and Moon were both elected delegates for the first time in 2014, after each served as a campaign manager for Raskin during the latter’s decade-long tenure in the state Senate: Moon in 2006 and Smith in 2010. Both began seeking support for the Senate seat more than seven months ago, after Raskin won the Democratic primary in the Montgomery County-based 8th Congressional District, thereby all but guaranteeing that he would succeed current Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen on Capitol Hill. Raskin resigned the Senate seat Nov. 10, two days after his election to Congress.

“This is the longest interview I’ve ever had for a job promotion,” Moon joked in addressing the MCDCC, referring to the lobbying of committee members that stretched from late April until early December.

During a question-and-answer period prior to Wednesday night’s vote, Moon indicated he had no plans to run for the Senate seat in the 2018 primary if he was not appointed by the committee. “If I am not selected…my plan is to continue being in the District 20 team in the House and running for re-election” as delegate, he said. Moon later reiterated that position when asked after the vote about his future political plans.

Smith had the endorsement of the county’s two most high-profile African-American officeholders, County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council member Craig Rice, in his pursuit of the Senate opening. Of the seven African-Americans who serve on the 28-member MCDCC, six voted for Smith’s appointment, with one abstaining. But Smith also received the votes of two of the three Hispanic-American members of the committee, even though Moon had the support of CASA In Action, the political arm of CASA, which advocates on behalf of Latino immigrants in Maryland, as well as council member Nancy Navarro, the council’s only Hispanic-American member.

While both Moon and Smith promoted themselves as strong progressives as they sought to represent what is arguably the state’s most liberal legislative district in the Senate, their differing styles often emerged as an issue in the campaign, with Smith portraying himself as the legislative insider, and Moon more as the outsider. The two continued to take swipes at each other on this front while addressing the MCDCC before the vote.

“…The big difference is that I’ve sometimes taken the very difficult task of butting heads with my own party on issues where I think our party needs to go to regain the middle class voters that we have been losing,” declared Moon, who was a long-time political operative before running for the General Assembly two years ago. Among his activities: a political blog, Maryland Juice, that regularly took sharp aim at legislators who are now among his colleagues in Annapolis.

Responded Smith: “…Yes, the next state senator must be willing to buck the party when necessary, but more important, the next state senator must willing to build the party for the next generation of progressives to come through.”

Smith also touted his membership on working groups during the last session that crafted legislation on high- profile issues ranging from police accountability to criminal justice reform. “That’s because of my leadership style and my ability to connect with people up and down the leadership chain and across the aisle,” he declared. “That’s emblematic of the type of working style that I have, being able to work together, to disagree without being disagreeable.”

These differences in style prompted speculation throughout the seven-month campaign that longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who had a sometimes bumpy relationship with the outspokenly liberal Raskin, would prefer Smith over Moon. Miller denied in late summer that he was involved in the selection process or planned to become involved in the matter, with several sources suggesting that any effort on his part to sway members of the MCDCC would have backfired.

However, District 39 Sen. Nancy King, chairman of the Montgomery County Senate delegation and a member of the Senate leadership, did lobby actively on behalf of Smith’s appointment, according to sources. All three members of the MCDCC from District 39, including Anderson, voted for Smith. 

Unger, who ran for the delegate in the 2014 Democratic primary in which Moon and Smith came out on top, said prior to Wednesday’s vote that he might run again for delegate if not selected for the Senate seat. In addition to Moon and whomever is selected by the MCDCC next month to replace Smith, the District 20 contingent in the House of Delegates includes longtime Del. Sheila Hixson.

Hixson, who turns 85 in 2018, and has been in the General Assembly since 1976, has not yet said whether she will seek another term, raising the possibility of yet more turnover in the District 20 delegation in the wake of Raskin’s election to Congress.