The county's Democratic Central Committee meets in North Bethesda on Dec. 13. Credit: Steve Bohnel

Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Dist. 17) is proposing a state bill to tweak that process for filling legislative vacancies should be handled once delegates or state senators resign, even as Democratic Central Committee members continue to debate the issue.

Under the current system, central committee members select a candidate, after a public interview process, to submit to the governor for confirmation. For the past several years, a majority of the selections have been someone who sits on the committee—which critics claim is undemocratic and creates conflicts of interest.

Some central committee members, including Liza Smith, have proposed rule changes that would require central committee members to resign before applying for vacancies. So far, they have not reached a final vote before the full committee, instead being referred to the body’s rules committee.

Palakovich Carr said in a recent interview that her bill would require central committee members who apply for state legislative vacancies to recuse themselves from voting for the vacancy.

She said central committees around the state, including in Montgomery County, need to decide on the broader question of whether special elections should be used to replace the current appointment process.

But she added with Gov. Wes Moore and Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller in office, the issue is “on a lot more people’s radars” because of the legislative vacancies that have resulted from their cabinet appointments

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Palakovich Carr said her legislation would also address the following areas:

  • Establishing a timeframe for how long the vacancy’s application period is advertised to the public
  • Requiring submitted applications be posted on the central committee’s website
  • Requiring the central committee to hold a public interview for the candidates (Montgomery County’s central committee has done this, including most recently for the House District 14 candidates)

Her bill has not yet been published on the state legislative website, but Palakovich Carr said she hoped it would be in the coming weeks.

Central committee members continue debate on vacancy process

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Alongside Palakovich Carr’s bill, the county’s central committee members continue to debate how the appointment process should be modified.

At a central committee meeting earlier this month, Seth Grimes, a member from District 20 (Silver Spring and Takoma Park), advocated for special elections and proposed the committee adopt the following formal position on legislative vacancies:

“The Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee supports special elections as the most democratic method to fill Maryland General Assembly vacancies that occur during the four-year legislative term.”

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The committee did not adopt that statement, and the overall debate continues, Grimes said in a recent interview.

Grimes said that as a representative of District 20, it isn’t proper for him to be voting for someone filling a spot in District 14, a different part of the county.

“It doesn’t seem a best democratic practice for me to have a voice in selecting another district representative,” Grimes said.

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When asked about concerns that few voters would turn out for an election for one legislative seat, he said it would still be better, for example, that 5,000 registered voters pick a District 14 member, rather than a few central committee members.

But some committee members at the meeting disagreed with adopting Grimes’ proposed position so quickly. That included Teresa Woorman, who serves on the committee as a District 16 (Bethesda, Cabin John, Potomac) member.

Woorman and others said they were concerned about potential voting disparities with elections, meaning that Latino voters and other marginalized groups would not turn out to the polls as much as white voters.

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In an interview, Woorman admitted that the current appointment process to fill legislative vacancies is not good, because it requires committee members—who some consider political insiders—to select a candidate for appointment instead of registered voters.

But she added that, given her experience working on local campaigns—including most recently on County Executive Marc Elrich’s re-election bid—it would take significant money to conduct outreach to marginalized communities about special elections.

It would cost at least $20,000 “at the bare minimum,” which is not an insignificant amount of money for a central committee to raise, she said.

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And because central committee members are some of the most active members of the party and reflect the diversity of Montgomery County, they have the qualifications, Woorman said.

“It’s an odd time to be creating this new barrier to somebody serving, when there is a central committee that is more representative of Montgomery County than ever before,” Woorman said, referring to the ethnic and racial diversity of the committee.

Grimes’ position statement is in the Democratic Central Committee’s rules committee for review.

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The central committee is taking applications for another vacancy—this time, in the state Senate in District 16. That position has opened after Susan Lee was appointed Wes Moore’s Secretary of State.

The central committee is accepting applications until 5 p.m. on Feb. 2.