2017 | Politics

Montgomery Blair Teacher Latest Entrant in District 16 Delegate Contest

Samir Paul joins two other contenders for open seat as Frick runs for county executive

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Samir Paul

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Samir Paul, who teaches in the countywide math “magnet” program based at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, on Tuesday declared his candidacy for the state House of Delegates in Bethesda-based District 16.

Decrying what he termed “systematic and strategic disinvestment from public institutions”—particularly in education and mass transit—at the state and federal level, Paul joined four other candidates already vying for three slots in next June’s Democratic primary.

Incumbents Ariana Kelly and Marc Korman are seeking re-election. Paul, attorney Sara Love and civic activist Jordan Cooper—who unsuccessfully sought a delegate nomination in 2014—are taking aim at the seat now held by Del. Bill Frick, who is running for county executive.  

With less than five months until the Feb. 27 filing deadline, it remains uncertain if the current field of District 16 candidates will grow further. Several other Democrats have not ruled out joining the contest, but the final field might be smaller than in recent elections.

In 2010, 11 non-incumbent candidates went after a single open delegate seat in District 16.

In 2014, a half-dozen challengers targeted what were initially two open seats. That year, Frick abandoned a run for state attorney general and opted instead to seek re-election, leaving just one open seat.

Privately, local party insiders suggest that, for 2018, candidates who might otherwise have run in District 16 have turned their attention elsewhere. There are three openings for at-large seats on the Montgomery County Council, as well as the seat now held by term-limited District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner, who is running for county executive.

But these sources also contend that some potential delegate candidates are hesitating for fear that, like four years ago, Frick might abandon his candidacy for county executive and seek to reclaim his current seat in the House of Delegates.

Frick, currently the state House majority leader, on Monday appeared to firmly rule out such an option in 2018.

“There is no scenario under which I would return to the House,” he said in a phone interview. “I think it’s time for some new folks to get a chance. We have a lot of talent in our district.”

Frick declared: “I’m running for executive. I like our chances. I like our message.”

Paul, a Bethesda resident who grew up in Potomac, was once a student in Blair’s math magnet program. After earning an undergraduate degree at Harvard University and working at IBM, he returned to the Silver Spring school to teach computer science classes in both the math magnet program and among the broader student population.

Paul, 28, was one of two educators recognized by Montgomery County Public Schools as a “rising star teacher of the year” in 2016.

“I feel education is the most powerful tool we have to slingshot people into the middle class, but I see public schools as just one important part of an ecosystem communities can use to expand economic opportunity more and more broadly," Paul said in an interview. “There have been studies that say that, even more than public education, transit is one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility.”

Paul’s parents emigrated from India to the United States three decades ago. His father was an engineer. His mother, who had worked as a physician in India, owned and operated two coffee shops in the Washington area before returning to school to earn a master’s degree in public health and work for the federal government.

“In one generation, my parents immigrated to the United States, earned advanced degrees, built a business, served their country, and sent their two children to Harvard and Yale,” Paul said in a press release announcing his candidacy. “Montgomery County’s excellent public schools and public institutions made my story possible, and we have to fight to ensure the next generation can share that experience.”  

While Paul’s political experience is limited—he spent several months as a field staffer in Wisconsin for the 2012 Obama presidential campaign—he is likely to draw on a committed group of former students and their parents in building a campaign infrastructure.

Paul has been raising money with a goal of having around $100,000 by the time candidates for state office must disclose their campaign finances in mid-January 2018.

The cost of delegate elections in District 16 has steadily escalated. In capturing a seat for the first time in 2014, Korman spent a little more than $200,000, with about two-thirds of that from contributions and the rest from his own pocket. The runner-up in the 2014 Democratic primary, Hrant Jamgochian, spent about $220,000, with a majority of that coming from personal assets. Members of the House of Delegates will earn an annual salary of $50,330 in 2018.

Jamgochian, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2010, has been mum on a possible third try in next year’s primary. “I have not made any decisions yet about whether I will run … again,” Jamgochian, who heads a health care advocacy group, wrote in an email.

Another potential District 16 contender with a health care background, attorney Mindy Kursban of Bethesda, said Monday she is “considering running because I feel the voice of business in the Democratic Party is not represented in the Maryland Legislature.”

Kursban is vice president and corporate counsel of a Silver Spring-based home health care firm her mother founded nearly 50 years ago.

“While wanting to bring a strong business perspective to the race and to help the Democratic Party in Maryland to stop being seen as the anti-business party, I strongly believe in the core Democratic Party values—including equality and equal opportunity for everyone, protecting the environment, and gun control …,” she wrote in an email.

Although Kursban wrote “I believe I would be the only female Democratic candidate in Montgomery County with a strong business background,” sources said Bethesda-based real estate agent Bonnie Casper is also considering a run in District 16.

Casper, a one-time congressional aide, is immediate past president of the Maryland Association of Realtors. Her husband, attorney Mark Winston, was a candidate in the District 16 Democratic primary in 2010.

Also in the possible candidate mix is Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC) member Wendy Cohen, vice president of a Bethesda-based medical association. Cohen served as secretary of the MCDCC from 2014 until earlier this year.

The presence of Love—and, possibly, Kursban, Casper or Cohen—in the forthcoming primary could complicate the political calculus for Kelly, currently president of Women Legislators of Maryland, the 60-member women’s caucus of the General Assembly.

When first elected to the House of Delegates in 2010, Kelly was seen as having benefited from being the only woman candidate among nearly a dozen non-incumbents in that contest.

In the eight-way 2014 race, Kelly was the only competitive female contender; the other woman in the race, Karen Kuker-Kihl, ran a low-profile campaign before dropping out for health reasons.

Paul also is seeking to reach out to women in the primary—touting support from several well-known female Democratic activists in the district. Among them: Diana Conway of Potomac, a past president of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance; Susan Esserman of Bethesda, an attorney who was a top international trade official in the Clinton administration; and Lucy Freeman, long an influence in Chevy Chase’s Somerset community.

Kelly in late August joined Korman—who seriously considered a run for County Council before announcing his bid for re-election earlier this year—and state Sen. Susan Lee to form an incumbent slate in District 16, allowing them to pool money to share campaign costs.

They opted not to invite a non-incumbent candidate to join the slate, although such a move has not been ruled out, sources said. If it happens, it would not likely occur until after the Feb. 27 filing deadline.

No Republican contenders have emerged so far in District 16, where registered Democrats outnumber their GOP counterparts by a ratio of better than 3 to 1.