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District 20—containing Takoma Park as well as downtown Silver Spring and adjacent residential neighborhoods—has long been regarded as the most liberal jurisdiction in the state’s most liberal county. That reputation was underscored Tuesday night, as seven Democratic contenders for the district’s three seats in the Maryland House of Delegates met in a forum less than two days prior to the start of early voting in the June 26 primary.

Several of the contenders advocated a renewed push for a so-called “just cause” eviction bill to protect apartment renters—legislation which failed to gain much support even from legislators representing other sections of Montgomery County this year. Critics have characterized the proposal as a backdoor effort to impose rent control, an idea long opposed by most of the county’s elected officials.  

Meanwhile, the two District 20 incumbents seeking renomination—Dels. David Moon of Takoma Park and Jheanelle Wilkins of Silver Spring—repeatedly boasted of their parting company from their House Democratic colleagues in opposing corporate tax breaks, including one passed this year that would benefit Bethesda-based Marriott International. And several of the non-incumbent contenders vowed to hold the line on or reduce taxes for individuals by subjecting more corporate income to taxation or levying fees on carbon pollution in Maryland.

The forum, sponsored by four local Democratic clubs and held at the Takoma Park Middle School, took place as the District 20 delegation has undergone a major transformation in recent years— most recently with then-state Sen. Jamie Raskin’s election to Congress in 2016 and Del. Sheila Hixson’s decision to retire this year after more than four decades in Annapolis.

Moon—who, if re-elected, would become the senior member of the district’s House delegation after just four years in the General Assembly—was forthright in discussing his transition from a political organizer to legislator, to say nothing of being a colleague to House members he once targeted.

“…Here I am, days before ballots are cast, and I’m concluding a four-year experiment,” he mused. “That experiment is something that people said couldn’t be done when I first ran— whether you could be a progressive agitator … and speak truth to power even when your own party is doing wrong, and still be effective in Annapolis.”

He continued: “Well, guess what? They made me a subcommittee chair, I’ve gotten 18 bills passed. And I did all that while voting down some of the bad bills the party put forward and [forming] a progressive caucus.”

If many political sources inside and outside District 20 expect Moon to run first in the Democratic primary in two weeks, the race for the remaining two delegate slots is widely seen as a competition among Wilkins and two long-time local activists: Lorig Charkoudian of Takoma Park and Darian Unger of Silver Spring. In the nearly two-hour forum during which no major policy differences emerged, the three sought to highlight their resumes and experience in the legislative process.

Wilkins, named to fill a delegate vacancy less than 18 months ago after then-Del. Will Smith was appointed to succeed Raskin in the Senate, spoke of “having to hit the ground running really quickly,” and pointed to having passed three bills during her first legislative session in 2017.

Charkoudian—who finished a close second when the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee voted to appoint Wilkins to the vacancy—cited her roles as executive director of a statewide organization that promotes community mediation and as a member of the board of a growing farmers’ market in Takoma Park.

At times, she sounded as though she was already serving in the House of Delegates.

“If you read Maryland law … you’ll see my influence on legislation and regulation,” she declared. “The bottom line is that because of the programs I’ve developed, and the legislation I’ve written, there are people living healthy, productive lives in their communities instead of in prison. There are students graduating from high school instead of being expelled and suspended. And there are families that have fresh vegetables on their dinner plates tonight.”

Unger—a Howard University professor who also sought the delegate vacancy last year after a previous run in the 2014 primary—touted his present role with the county chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“As chair of the ACLU, I led the fight against discrimination in all of its forms … and doing that by working hard in both Rockville and Annapolis,” he said. An environmental engineer by training, he described himself as “the environmental candidate in this race,” adding: “Do you know how much environmental legislation we were able to pass in Annapolis this past session? Zero. I was there; I was working on it with the Sierra Club. We are going to change that.”

While the overall tone of the forum was cordial, there were a few verbal jabs in the wake of last week’s move by the incumbents—Moon, Wilkins and Smith—to add Charkoudian to their primary slate.

“Our early and strong community support led to major endorsements from teachers, from labor, from environmentalists, and from my fellow firefighters and [emergency medical technicians],” said Unger, a volunteer firefighter and EMT. “I don’t take corporate contributions and I will always choose people over politics.”

The reference to corporate contributions was apparently aimed at about a dozen donations from corporate entities or corporate political action committees (PACs) that have gone to members of the slate of incumbents. According to State Board of Elections filings, the majority of these—ranging from Baltimore Gas & Electric to Lockheed Martin to PACs representing bankers and hospitals in Maryland—have gone to Smith, who has no primary opposition on June 26. A couple of the contributions in question, from AT&T and Pepco, have been given to Wilkins since she took office.

At the same time, Unger’s claim to have the backing of environmentalists was called into question after the forum by Charkoudian supporters: Of three environmental groups that have endorsed in the delegate race, two—the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and the Montgomery County Green Democrats—are backing Charkoudian over Unger.

The Maryland Sierra Club, which endorsed Unger in 2014, has indicated it plans to make no endorsement regarding who should fill the open delegate seat being vacated by Hixson and being targeted by Charkoudian and Unger; the Sierra Club previously endorsed Moon and Wilkins for re-election.

Throughout the forum, Moon and Wilkins boasted of battling tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations—including the break from which Marriott will benefit.

The two were the only members of the 24-person Montgomery County House delegation to vote no on that measure. “Only a handful of legislators voted against that, but I was proud to stand up against that legislation,” Wilkins said.

Both Moon and Wilkins did ultimately vote in favor of another corporate tax break: the estimated $8.5 billion in tax breaks designed to attract Amazon’s second headquarters to Montgomery County. Neither brought up that legislation—which has been criticized by several candidates for the County Council and the General Assembly this year—during Tuesday’s forum.

The questions posed to the candidates at the event did not include any related to the bid to lure Amazon, although there were a couple of oblique references to the matter.

One candidate, public charter school official Malik Lendzondzo of Silver Spring, urged creation of a fund to aid minority businesses, contending, “If we only give incentives like the one we are giving to Amazon, we will always find ourselves in a situation where the underserved community is still suffering [in terms of] economic growth. We need to find a way to jump-start the economy by investing in those people who actually need the help.”

Unger—whose work at Howard University involves supervising students who devise startup businesses—said: “It is empowering for the students, soon to be new business leaders, and it is empowering for whichever state … gets to host them. And there are many steps we can do to attract them to Maryland for just a fraction of the cost of the billions that we are offering to give away to Amazon.”

Two of the other candidates in the contest, attorney Fatmata Barrie of White Oak and Lendzondzo, both highlighted their immigrant backgrounds in a majority-minority district with an immigrant population; Wilkins also noted that she was a native of Jamaica.

Said Barrie, whose Silver Spring law practice specializes in special education as well as immigration cases: “As an immigrant myself, this is a community where I have felt welcomed.” She recalled, before emigrating from her native Sierra Leone, “the days when my mother … used to hide in the closet because we were afraid when somebody knocked on the door, they were going to get her.”

Lendzondzo, a data analyst originally from Gabon, declared: “I am living the American dream. Now, after 10 years of working on everybody else’s campaign in this district, it’s about time for me to step up and do something for my community.”

One of the most poignant moments of the forum came when attorney George Zokle of Silver Spring, who made a previous run for District 20 delegate in the 2014 Democratic primary field, described his experience as a victim of gun violence.

Wearing a sticker on his lapel reading “Survivor,” Zokle—responding to a question on the increasing problem with gangs in the county—recounted: “In September of 2005, I was watching a movie in my neighbor’s home and all of a sudden there was a gun at my forehead for two hours from a gang initiation. I was forced to strip naked—they were going to execute us against the wall, but they messed up because of their inexperience as a gang and we all survived.”

Zokle, currently deputy director of the Maryland LGBT Council, also asked for voter support “to elect the first openly gay male to the House of Delegates in District 20.” An openly gay female has previously served as a District 20 delegate: Heather Mizeur, who vacated her seat in 2014 to make a run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.