Jheanelle Wilkins, a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC) since 2014, was named Monday night by the MCDCC to fill a vacant delegate seat from Silver Spring/Takoma Park District 20—but not before a strong challenge from Takoma Park civic activist Lorig Charkoudian.
Wilkins scored a 19-9 victory over Charkoudian on the third ballot, after two previous rounds of voting failed to produce a majority for any candidate in the six-candidate field vying for the vacancy created by the elevation of former Del. Will Smith to a state Senate seat last month. Smith was named to fill the post formerly held by now-U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin prior to his election to Congress in November.
Besides Wilkins and Charkoudian, the field of contenders for the delegate seat included Yvette Butler-Yeboah, executive director of GapBusters, an organization seeking to address the “achievement gap” in public schools in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties; Amy Cress, director of communications for the regional Easter Seals organization; Daniel Koroma, an outreach manager for the Montgomery County government’s Office of Community Partnerships; and Darian Unger, an associate professor at the Howard University School of Business who previously sought a District 20 delegate seat in the 2014 primary election.
On the first ballot at Monday night’s meeting, held at the Silver Spring International Middle School, Wilkins led with 12 votes, short of the required absolute majority of the 28-member MCDCC. Charkoudian—executive director of Community Mediation Maryland, a group that seeks to promote mediation as a means of addressing social challenges—was close behind with 10 votes, with Koroma coming in third with four votes. Butler and Unger, each of whom garnered one vote, and Cress, who did not receive any support, were eliminated after the first round.
On the second ballot, Wilkins attracted 14 votes, one short of the majority needed, while Charkoudian increased her support to 12. Koroma, with two votes, was eliminated, setting up the decisive third ballot—during which something of a political bandwagon effect was evident. Wilkins picked up three MCDCC members who had supported Charkoudian on the second ballot, as well as Koroma’s two backers, for a total of 19 votes—as Charkoudian’s support dropped to nine votes.
Newly elected MCDCC Chairman Dave Kunes of Silver Spring cast his ballot for Wilkins throughout the three ballots while the committee’s vice chairman, Wendy Cohen of Bethesda, voted for Charkoudian on the first ballot before switching her support to Wilkins in the subsequent rounds of voting.
Cohen said afterward it had been a “tough decision” between “two excellent candidates.” Charkoudian, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, was said to have impressed a number of committee members with her performance at two candidate forums last week as well as her experience lobbying in Annapolis on criminal justice reform and other issues.
Wilkins, 28, a Silver Spring resident who is a senior field organizer for the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, is a Jamaican immigrant who arrived in the United States with her family when she was 5 years old. Appealing for support among her colleagues on the MCDCC Monday, she said she had “worked at the nexus of federal and state policy” in her role at the Leadership Conference, including “countless hours in Annapolis working to advance a broad range of issues.”
She said one of her top priorities in the General Assembly would be crafting legislation “to protect immigrant families from deportation” as well as “keeping District 20 transportation projects moving and pushing a strong economic agenda for working families that includes raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave and affordable child care.”
Wilkins becomes the fourth African-American in the county’s 32-member delegation in the General Assembly, a significant increase from prior to the 2014 election—when there was only one black member of the delegation in a county in which African-Americans comprise nearly 20 percent of the population.
The selection of Wilkins also is the second instance in less than a year of the MCDCC elevating one of its own members to fill a delegate vacancy; then-MCDCC member Pamela Queen last February was tapped for a vacant delegate seat in District 14 in the county’s northeast section. While this pattern prompted some complaints of insiderism in the jockeying over the vacancy, Wilkins sought to turn her tenure on the committee into a political plus in a final plea for support before Monday’s vote.
“I’m the only candidate who has been publicly elected for any position in this district,” declared Wilkins, saying her current post had made her more familiar with the needs of voters in the area. “Being elected to serve District 20 on the MCDCC is an asset that I wear proudly, and that has prepared me to serve.”
Under the Maryland constitution, the MCDCC’s recommendation will now be forwarded to Gov. Larry Hogan, who makes the appointment—but that is considered little more than a formality. Hogan, while a Republican, is required by the constitution to appoint someone who is of the same political party that previously held the seat. Only in extraordinary circumstances have governors refused to go along with the choice of the local party committee.
With Wilkins’ appointment, nearly one-third of the Montgomery County state legislative delegation (four senators and six delegates) will have initially acquired their seats through appointment rather than election, and the proportion of appointed legislators in the 188-member General Assembly as a whole is similar. But efforts in the state legislature to replace the current system with a provision for special elections to fill such vacancies has made little headway in recent years, due to strong opposition from the state party organizations.
At the outset of Monday’s session, Kunes highlighted recent moves by the committee to broaden the role of rank-and-file voters within the confines of the current regimen.
“For the first time, during the District 20 vacancy process, we posted feedback we received on our website for public review,” Kunes noted, also pointing to the sponsorship of last week’s candidate forums “to hear from and learn about the issues important to the district.”
Declared Kunes, “I truly believe that, thanks to these changes, we’ve heard from more community members about this appointment than ever, before resulting in several hundred endorsements [of candidates] we received from residents and organizations.”
District 20 has the highest percentage of African-American residents of any of the county’s eight legislative districts; approximately one-third of its residents are black. On the third ballot, Wilkins received the support of all nine African-American members of the MCDCC; on the two prior ballots, all but one of the nine supported either Wilkins or the other two African-American candidates in the contest: Butler and Koroma, who emigrated from Sierra Leone as a child.
Wilkins also had the support of the Latino Democratic Club of Montgomery and Gino Renne, president of UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO—which represents the majority of Montgomery County government employees. However, two of the MCDCC’s three Latino members voted for Charkoudian, as did MCDCC Assistant Treasurer Erin Yeagley of Rockville, who is a staff member of MCGEO.
Both Wilkins and Charkoudian appeared to benefit politically from a concern of some members of the MCDCC about restoring a gender balance in the four-person District 20 delegation, which has had a majority of male members since former Del. Heather Mizeur relinquished her seat in 2014 to make a run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Mizeur, who currently resides on a farm she owns on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, endorsed Charkoudian and actively sought support for Charkoudian’s candidacy.
Currently, the only woman in the District 20 delegation is veteran Del. Sheila Hixson, who turns 84 next month and has yet to say whether she will seek re-election in 2018.