With the exception of a couple of electoral brawls in the 1990s, the quadrennial race for Montgomery County state’s attorney has rarely attracted much voter attention. The current incumbent, John McCarthy, has faced little or no opposition in winning renomination and re-election in recent years.
However, Thomas DeGonia of Olney—an assistant state’s attorney for eight years under McCarthy’s predecessor, Doug Gansler—is preparing to give McCarthy his first Democratic primary challenge since his initial election in 2006.
“I’m running—I just haven’t taken the formal steps,” DeGonia said in an interview last week at his law office, a half-mile from the state’s attorney’s office in downtown Rockville. “But I have certainly been doing all the things necessary to lay the foundation for a campaign.”
He said he expects to file for the office and make a formal announcement “within the next few weeks.”
The forthcoming primary could focus attention on recent trends in crime in an increasingly diverse county. DeGonia criticized McCarthy for not moving faster on a multifaceted approach to the recent spike in gang violence—a charge McCarthy vigorously disputed in a phone interview Monday.
DeGonia declared: “I would like to have seen someone take ownership of that issue a lot sooner. … I think we’ve had 20 [gang-related] homicides in the last two years. We didn’t need to get to that point before the move to some action on the problem.”
For his part, McCarthy, who filed in June to run for re-election, characterized himself as “probably the leading voice in Montgomery County regarding the uptick in gang violence.” He noted that he convened a task force that resulted in an enhanced gang unit in his office and increased outreach to the schools to stem gang membership.
“Two years ago, I was the only person in the county saying ‘Look, this is coming. We’ve got to do something,’” he said. “I talked to every single member of the County Council, I talked to the [police] chief, I talked to the county executive. No one disagreed with my assessment that we had to change our philosophy.”
If some in the county’s legal community wonder privately if McCarthy could have done more, sooner, to combat the mushrooming gang problem, the prevailing view in and around the courthouse in Rockville is that McCarthy—after nearly three terms in office—lacks a major political vulnerability.
“I don’t see any kind of headline issue. There’s nothing that’s a slam dunk,” said one long-time local attorney. This source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the view among fellow lawyers is “surprise” that DeGonia is taking on McCarthy.
DeGonia—a partner the past six years in the Rockville-based firm of Etheridge, Quinn, Kemp, McAuliffe, Rowan & Hartinger—acknowledged he faces an uphill battle.
“Concededly, John has been there, he has a lot of experience—and he is the incumbent,” he said of McCarthy, who spent nearly 25 years working in the state’s attorney’s office before ascending to the top job. “I’m not naïve about the uphill.”
“I feel like I’ve got some good support,” DeGonia added, declining to detail what, if any endorsements, he expects to receive. “I don’t expect I’m going to have all of the endorsements. I understand that incumbents are going to stick together, and that’s kind of the way it goes sometimes.”
The 2018 race could be generational battle of sorts between McCarthy, 65, and DeGonia, 46. “We can’t continue to prosecute cases the way we did. We’ve got to be more active, we’ve got to be more engaged,” DeGonia said. “We’ve kind of fallen back into letting prosecutors be case processors instead of problem solvers.”
Over almost the past five decades, just three men have been elected to run the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office, which currently has nearly 75 prosecutors: McCarthy, Gansler, and, before them, Andrew Sonner.
Sonner held the job from 1970 to 1996, and was long a behind-the-scenes political power in the county—even owning a share of a favorite watering hole for attorneys and politicians near the Rockville courthouse complex. He was regularly re-elected without opposition.
But Sonner ran into political trouble in 1994, in part due to controversy over his office’s handling of a Germantown rape case in which one of the accused was the son of the county’s then-superintendent of schools, Paul Vance. Sonner won a seventh term, but only after competitive battles in both the primary and general elections.
In 1996, Sonner resigned to become a judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and one of his deputies, Robert Dean, was appointed by the county’s judges as interim state’s attorney. It opened the way for one of the nastiest political races in county history two years later, when Gansler, then an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, challenged Dean in the Democratic primary.
Dean took aim at his opponent’s experience, noting that Gansler had never tried a case in Maryland. Gansler, in turn, slammed Dean for violating county policy when the latter’s campaign workers stuffed fliers into the mailboxes of courthouse employees.
But the race took on a tabloid twist when, just a week before the primary, Dean—a married father of six—admitted to an affair with a former colleague who, in a sexual discrimination lawsuit, charged Dean had fired her from the state’s attorney’s office for ending the affair.
Gansler won the 1998 primary by double digits over Dean and a third candidate. Gansler went on to capture a contentious general election race against Democrat-turned-Republican Thomas O’Malley, a Rockville attorney who was the father of future Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Memories of that election would later contribute to an often strained relationship between the younger O’Malley and Gansler when they served together in Annapolis as governor and attorney general, respectively.
When Gansler moved on to be elected Maryland attorney general in 2006, the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s race reverted to its traditional lower-profile status. McCarthy—then Gansler’s chief deputy—won the primary by a ratio of better than 2-1 and the general election by nearly 3-1. He had no primary or general election opposition in 2010.
In 2014, he overwhelmed a Republican opponent by nearly 70 percent to 30 percent after again facing no primary challenger.
DeGonia was hired as an assistant state’s attorney in 1999, soon after Gansler won while campaigning on a platform of “community prosecution.” It referred to a plan used to reduce crime in several major municipalities by assigning prosecutors by geographic area rather than by type of crime.
Before DeGonia left the state’s attorney’s office in 2007—shortly after Gansler’s departure to Annapolis—he headed a felony prosecution team for the police district centered in Bethesda (District 2). He wants to bring back that strategy if he is elected next year.
“I would certainly like to see prosecutors back out in the district stations, with a more community-based approach,” he said. “That was something that Doug Gansler brought in … and I think it’s kind of gone by the wayside.”
DeGonia added, “It takes the prosecutors out of the courthouse, and puts them back in touch with community leaders. They know the neighborhoods, they know the streets, they know the players. But it also puts them in closer contact with the police, making better cases.”
McCarthy, who lives in Gaithersburg, said that, under his tenure, community outreach efforts have been organized more along issue areas than geographic lines. “The philosophy is still there; we just execute it differently,” he said, asserting: “I’ve been here almost 40 years. I know what we did then, I know what we’re doing now. We’re doing far more now in terms of community outreach than this office has ever done before. It’s not even close.”
Prosecution of hate crimes could be another point of contention in the run-up to the primary election eight months away.
In the wake of the 2016 election, “there was an uptick in those type of crimes, whether it was graffiti, whether it was at schools and churches and synagogues,” DeGonia said. “That’s an issue we’re going to continue to face … and I think that’s an area where we need to re-engage, particularly with our faith-based organizations.”
DeGonia said Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger “did a great job—he came out strong on [the hate crime] issue,” but he contended McCarthy “should have had a stronger position on that.”
According to McCarthy, the latest statistics indicate the number of hate crimes in the county has not risen since 2016, when there were 16. He pointed to his office twice winning an award in recent years from the national Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, given to local prosecutors’ offices for addressing hate crimes.
“They gave us the national award two out of the first three years that they ever gave it to a local prosecutor’s office,” McCarthy said.
After leaving the state’s attorney’s office, DeGonia spent four years at Venable LLP, a large Baltimore law firm, before returning to a law practice in Rockville.
While at Venable, he was part of a civil rights monitoring team appointed to oversee a consent agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Detroit Police Department involving proper use of force. More recently, DeGonia was special prosecutor in a high-profile case in Prince George’s County in which a teacher’s aide, Deonte Carraway, was sentenced to 100 years in prison last month after pleading guilty to sexually abusing 23 children.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career, once I left the state’s attorney’s office, to still be able to maintain a strong law enforcement presence,” DeGonia said.
He is aiming to raise $200,000 to $300,000 for the primary contest, which he described as a “minimum buy-in for a countywide race.”
Montgomery’s new public campaign financing system covers only the county executive and County Council races, and does not extend to state’s attorney and three other courthouse elected offices: sheriff, clerk of the Circuit Court, and register of wills.
McCarthy raised about $200,000 and loaned himself another $20,000 during his last contested primary in 2006. His latest campaign disclosure statement, filed with the state Board of Elections last January, showed about $75,000 in his campaign treasury.