In the latest escalation of the increasingly heated Democratic primary contest for state delegate in Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20, a surveillance videotape captured John Rodriguez, campaign manager for candidate Darian Unger, throwing a box of literature belonging to a rival slate of contenders into a dumpster on Sunday.
Unger said early Thursday that, upon learning of the episode, he had fired Rodriguez, effective immediately.
The surveillance tape was recorded by cameras inside and outside the loading dock area of the Silver Spring Civic Center, an early voting site in the June 26 primary. The box of literature tossed out by Rodriguez had just been carried to the loading dock area for overnight storage by state Sen. Will Smith, who heads a slate of incumbents that also includes Dels. David Moon of Takoma Park and Jheanelle Wilkins of Silver Spring.
The three incumbents earlier this month moved to add Takoma Park civic activist Lorig Charkoudian to that slate; Charkoudian and Unger, a Howard University professor and Silver Spring civic activist, are seen as the leading contenders for the open delegate seat of retiring Del. Sheila Hixson in the heavily Democratic district.
A police report has not been filed in the matter, with Smith indicating late Wednesday that the incumbent slate was seeking a public apology and reimbursement for the literature that was thrown out in the episode. Unger, in a text message early Thursday, termed Rodriguez’s behavior “completely unacceptable,” adding that he had “reached out to the other candidates this morning as soon as I learned the news.”
In a Facebook post Thursday afternoon, Unger said he had apologized for Rodriguez's actions to the affected candidates, and "offered to compensate their campaigns for the cost of their materials," said to be worth at least several hundred dollars.
“I’m deeply saddened that a campaign has stooped to this level,” Smith said late Wednesday. “This behavior is antithetical to the type of principled and activist-driven politics our community is all about.”
He added: “Like most candidates, I spend a significant amount of time away from family and other obligations to raise money from people who work hard to earn a dollar—a dollar they invested in my campaign. The Unger campaign manager stole that money and that time from me.” While Smith is unopposed for renomination in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the slate of Moon, Wilkins and Charkoudian are among seven candidates—including Unger—vying for three available delegate nominations.
Sunday’s incident occurred as early voting at the Silver Spring Civic Center was closing for the day at around 8 p.m. Smith, Moon and Charkoudian are seen on the tape walking into the loading dock area, with Smith carrying a box of literature that he places with their other material for storage until the resumption of early voting the following day.
Less than a minute after their departure, the camera shows Rodriguez entering the area carrying a table. He stops to peer in the box that Smith had just dropped off, and then looks around several times, including making one trip back outside to the adjacent exit corridor—apparently to see if anyone else was coming. At that point, he picks up the box and goes outside—where a second camera captures him throwing the box of literature belonging to the incumbent slate into a dumpster before leaving the area.
Rodriguez could not be reached for comment Thursday. While Unger’s text message referred to him as a “campaign consultant,” recent financial disclosure reports filed by the Unger campaign with the State Board of Elections list him as the campaign manager.
Rodriguez has acquired a reputation as a political operative not averse to utilizing hardball tactics. A little more than a week ago, he engaged Smith in a testy conversation—witnessed by several on-lookers—immediately following a District 20 delegate forum.
“This hasn’t been my first run-in with the Unger campaign manager,” Smith acknowledged Wednesday. “Not only did John Rodriguez destroy our campaign materials, he’s made numerous veiled threats and insinuations.” Following last week’s candidate forum, Rodriguez “remarked that there would have to be ‘considerations’ and ‘resources’ dedicated to Darian Unger should he win—something reminiscent of Gov. Blagojevich,” Smith charged. It was an allusion to the episode a decade ago when Rod Blagojevich, then governor of Illinois, sought personal favors in return for appointing someone to fill the Senate seat of newly elected President Barack Obama.
“This type of politics has no place in District 20,” Smith declared.