District 20 delegate candidate Lorig Charkoudian (second from left) has joined the slate of state Sen. Will Smith (far left) and Dels. Jheanelle Wilkins and David Moon. Credit: VIA DAVID MOON

With less than two weeks to go until the start of early voting in the June 26 primary, three incumbent Democratic legislators seeking re-election in Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20 have tapped Lorig Charkoudian—a Takoma Park activist who heads a statewide organization promoting community mediation—to join their slate.

The move effectively offers Charkoudian the endorsement of the incumbents—state Sen. Will Smith of Silver Spring and Dels. David Moon of Takoma Park and Jheanelle Wilkins of Silver Spring—for the House of Delegates seat left open by the retirement of long-time Del. Sheila Hixson of Silver Spring. And while there are no plans to create a formal slate committee this late in the primary season, the informal slating is designed to give Charkoudian a boost by including her in canvassing and mailing efforts by the incumbents ahead of the primary and the start of early voting June 14.

Smith, appointed in late 2016 to fill the Senate seat formerly held by now-U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, does not face primary opposition this year in his bid for a full-term in the most heavily Democratic of the county’s eight state legislative districts. But Moon, Wilkins and Charkoudian are among seven delegate candidates competing for three nominations June 26 in a field that also includes Howard University business professor Darian Unger of Silver Spring—who also ran for delegate in the 2014 primary—as well as attorney Fatmata Barrie of White Oak, public charter school official Malik Lendzondzo of Silver Spring and attorney George Zokle of Silver Spring, the latter another 2014 primary contender.

“I have a long working relationship with Lorig, especially within the realm of criminal justice reform with her community mediation,” Smith said in a telephone interview of the decision to line up behind Charkoudian. Since 2002, Charkoudian has been executive director of Community Mediation Maryland, which develops ways to use mediation to address social challenges and works with state agencies to implement these approaches.

Said Moon in a Facebook post: “I’ve also worked these last few years with Lorig on criminal justice reform and know she shares my commitment to driving down mass incarceration in Maryland. She used to live on my block in Takoma Park, and I’ve gotten to see her passion for justice issues up close.”

Meanwhile, after Smith was named to the state Senate, Charkoudian competed for the appointment to his vacant House of Delegates seat—losing narrowly to Wilkins in a January 2017 vote of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. “I think Jheanelle and Lorig really came together after the appointment process,” said Smith, adding that the slating move “was kind of a natural fit for us.”

District 20 becomes the county’s third state legislative jurisdiction—joining Gaithersburg/Rockville-based District 17 and District 39 in the Germantown/Montgomery Village area—where sitting legislators have opted to slate a non-incumbent to run with them during the current election cycle. But the slating decision in District 39 occurred nearly a year ago, and the District 17 slating announcement was made in early January.

Asked about the lateness of the District 20 move, Smith said: “I think it’s a matter of just all of us getting organized, and everyone showing that they have a real campaign apparatus up and running.” Of Charkoudian, he added: “Not only is she serious about policy … she’s shown herself to be a serious candidate. She showed she could raise money, she’s been knocking on lots of doors, and has received a lot of endorsements. So it’s a natural coalescing of events.”

However, the slating decision also appears to be an 11thhour effort to sway a tight race in Charkoudian’s direction in the wake of Unger picking up some key union endorsements.

The move has echoes of four years ago, when Raskin, then seeking a third term in the state Senate, created an informal slate of candidates in the closing weeks of the primary campaign. That move was intended to bolster Moon and Smith—both former Raskin campaign managers then seeking their first terms in Annapolis—in the face of well-funded challenges by the late Jonathan Shurberg and former Obama administration official Will Jawando. The latter is seeking nomination to a County Council at-large seat in this year’s Democratic primary.

While several political sources regard Moon as a strong favorite to win renomination to a second term this month, they see a tight battle among Charkoudian, Unger and Wilkins—who will be facing rank-and-file voters for the first time since her appointment as delegate—for the two remaining District 20 delegate nominations.

Unger, a long-time civic activist, finished fifth in a nine-way primary for delegate four years ago, and later competed for appointment to both Raskin’s Senate seat and then the delegate vacancy created when Smith was named to succeed Raskin.

Unger declined direct comment on the incumbents’ slating move, but issued a statement reading: “I have been working hard to build strong community relationships, which led to my earning all the major endorsements including 14,000 Montgomery County teachers, SEIU 500, and 32 BJ, progressive groups, and my fellow firefighters. The community knows and trusts me as a firefighter, a Howard University professor, and a lifelong progressive.”

The Montgomery County Education Association and SEIU Local 500—which represent teachers and support staff, respectively, in the county school system—have lined up behind Unger as well as Moon and Wilkins in the delegate contest. But another major county union, UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents a majority of county government employees, has endorsed Charkoudian in addition to the two incumbents.

Unger also has the backing of SEIU 32BJ, which represents property service workers in the county, and the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association; he is a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. However, Charkoudian’s backers are hoping her addition to the slate will swing a few other pending endorsements her way—notably the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters, both of which backed Unger four years ago. This year, they have endorsed Moon and Wilkins, but not announced a choice for the remaining seat.

The latest campaign financial reports, submitted in mid-May, show Moon and Charkoudian with the most money in their campaign treasuries heading into closing weeks of the primary—with each reporting about $37,000. Wilkins reported just $18.600, behind Unger, who had $27,800 on hand. Of the remaining three delegate candidates, Barrie reported $15,100; Zokle, $12,700; and Lendzondzo, $530.

In addition to the three legislative districts in the county where sitting legislators have slated with a non-incumbent, there are three other districts where incumbents are running as part of a slate—but have declined to anoint a choice for an available open delegate seat.

These include District 15, where Sen. Brian Feldman and Dels. Kathleen Dumais and David Fraser-Hidalgo are facing primary opposition; Bethesda-based District 16, where Sen. Susan Lee is unopposed for renomination but Dels. Ariana Kelly and Marc Korman are part of an eight-way Democratic delegate primary; and District 19, which extends from Silver Spring to Gaithersburg. In that district, Del. Ben Kramer is unopposed in the primary in his bid for an open Senate seat, but Dels. Bonnie Cullison and Marice Morales are also in an eight-way contest.

The open seats in those districts are the result of District 15 Del. Aruna Miller running for Congress, District 16 Del. Bill Frick seeking his party’s nomination for county executive, and District 19 Sen. Roger Manno also running for Congress—prompting Kramer to give up his delegate slot to run to succeed Manno.

Sources in all three of these districts say that, unlike District 20, there are no plans to name a  non-incumbent to the delegate slate prior to the primary. In some instances, there are private concerns among incumbents that adding a non-incumbent risks a backlash among primary voters—who could perceive it as an attempt to dictate to them.

In District 17, Dels. Kumar Barve and Jim Gilchrist moved to add Rockville City Council member Julie Palakovich Carr to their slate early this year after Del. Andrew Platt unexpectedly announced his retirement. In District 39, where Sen. Nancy King and Dels. Kirill Reznik and Shane Robinson tapped communications specialist Lesley Lopez in June 2017, the move has set off an intraparty war of words. County Executive Ike Leggett subsequently backed a rival delegate candidate, union organizer Gabriel Acevero, while accusing the District 39 incumbents of “smoke-filled room” tactics.