Accusing incumbent state legislators in District 39 of “smoke-filled room” tactics, County Executive Ike Leggett on Thursday took aim at the process by which the lawmakers had chosen a non-incumbent candidate to join their slate in this year’s Democratic primary.
The simmering intraparty tensions over slating in the district—with an overlay of racial and gender politics—pitted Leggett against the chairs of the county’s Senate and House delegations, Sen. Nancy King and Del. Shane Robinson, both of Montgomery Village, along with Del. Kirill Reznik of Germantown.
“I think the county executive’s comments are out of line,” King responded late Thursday. “There’s sour grapes there because we didn’t go with the same candidate that Ike went with,” she added, while declaring, “He doesn’t dictate District 39.”
At issue is the decision late last spring by King, Reznik and Robinson to add Lesley Lopez of Germantown, who has served as director of communications for several Washington-based trade and advocacy groups, to their slate.
Dels. Kirill Reznik, left, Shane Robinson, center left, state Sen. Nancy King, center right, and candidate Lesly Lopez, right. Via Maryland General Assembly Website/ Twitter
In doing so, the incumbent delegates passed over several other contenders for the seat now held by Del. Charles Barkley of Germantown, who is running for County Council at-large this year. Among those passed over was Gabriel Acevero, a field representative for UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, which represents a large majority of Montgomery County government employees.
Leggett, appearing at an event at MCGEO’s offices in Gaithersburg on Thursday afternoon, delivered a full-throated endorsement of Acevero. “He’s not just a labor person,” Leggett said of Acevero, 27. “He has been actively engaged in the community for a variety of needs and purposes. I think we have the opportunity to elect one of the best representatives from Montgomery County in Gabe.”
And, while starting out by saying that “I am uniquely proud of the people who have represented [District] 39,” Leggett employed uncharacteristically strong language in proceeding to criticize the three District 39 incumbents and Lopez—without mentioning them by name.
“When our legislators decide in the back rooms, the smoke-filled room, that they’re going to concoct other candidates, some of whom we’ve never known or never heard from—their background and their status … questionable in terms of ethnicity and what have you [and] to say we’re going to do this over a qualified candidate who has been working for [District] 39 and for Democrats years on years, that to me is unacceptable,” Leggett declared.
Added Leggett: “I am here to say if you want to grow our party, if you want to ensure we have appropriate leadership, we have to say no to that and elect Gabe.”
His comments, met by applause from union members in the room, were an allusion to some of the criticism that greeted Lopez’s selection for the slate last year—that while she has a stepfather who is Latino, she herself is not of Hispanic-American heritage. Acevero is a native of Trinidad and Tobago.
Nancy Navarro, the only Hispanic-American on the County Council, was also on hand to endorse Acevero.
“It is time to open the gates for this new generation of talented, qualified, multidimensional leaders that can represent an area especially like [District] 39,” said Navarro, adding, “If you haven’t checked the demographics of 39, you would be really surprised.”
District 39 extends from North Potomac through much of Germantown, and includes Montgomery Village, Washington Grove, and a portion of Clarksburg. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, it is one of the county’s four majority-minority state legislative jurisdictions, with a white population of less than 40 percent; African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans each comprise about 20 percent of the district’s residents, with the remainder comprised primarily of Asian-Americans.
Montgomery County's legislative districts
Lopez, in an email late Thursday, said she has contacted Leggett’s office to request a meeting with the county executive. “I’d like a clarification on his remarks and an opportunity to better get to know each other,” she said. “I think once he becomes familiar with my background, he’ll understand how hard I’ve been working in our district and what my values are.”
In a phone interview, King acknowledged: “I’ve had people say to me ‘What do you have against a person of color?’ And my answer to that is ‘What do you have against women?’ Because we’re so short on women as it is in the whole Montgomery County delegation and here in the state.”
Currently, the Montgomery County delegation of 32 legislators (eight senators and 24 delegates) consists of 19 men and 13 women. Overall, the Maryland General Assembly is nearly 32 percent female, putting it 10th among the 50 states in terms of percentage of women in state legislatures, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
Robinson, in a phone interview, said: “I am personally very excited that Lesley Lopez is on the slate. It provides gender balance but, more importantly, in my view, she is the most qualified.”
He continued: “There are a host of qualified candidates in this race. That’s not the question—it’s not who’s qualified, it’s who’s the most qualified in my view. And that person is Lesley.”
As to how he, King and Reznik had reached that conclusion, Robinson said: “We did have a process—it was internal, of course. We looked at the known candidates; one or two names have come forward since we decided to slate with Lesley, but we took a very long time in making that decision. It was not one that we took lightly.”
At the time that Lopez, now 34, was slated late last spring, the field of Democratic primary candidates in District 39, in addition to Acevero, included Bobby Bartlett of Germantown, who helped to launch the Washington Spirit women’s professional soccer team, and Andrew Hoverman, a Montgomery Village attorney. Both remain in the race. The current field of Democratic delegate contenders also includes real estate agent Clint Sobratti of Montgomery Village, who filed earlier this month.
Another District 39 contender at the time of the slating decision, Hamza Khan, has since relocated to Bethesda, and plans to announce this weekend as a candidate for delegate in the District 15 Democratic primary.
“It was not done in secret or anything,” King said of the process that led to Lopez’s selection. “We talked to all the candidates. We met them all at various political events. And we chose Lesley. She’s got a resume that can match anybody’s.”
Lopez is currently chief communications officer for Run for Something, a national organization that seeks to encourage progressives 35 years old and under to run for office. She was previously communications director for the U.S.-China Business Council, and, prior to that, served in similar capacities at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which seeks to promote and support the election of the party’s state legislative candidates nationwide, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Referring to the District 39 delegation, King said: “We are a team, and the reason we didn’t choose Gabe is that he doesn’t even speak to any of us. It’s not like he wants to be a team member.”
UFCW Local 1994 President Gino Renne took a different view Thursday in joining Leggett and Navarro in endorsing Acevero. “He’s one of our own, he’s family,” said Renne. “This will be a priority race for the UFCW.”
In addition to two other UFCW units—Locals 27 and 400, both of which represent grocery store workers in the area—Acevero this week picked up the backing of another major local union, SEIU Local 500. The latter represents about 13,500 workers in Montgomery County, including about 12,000 support staff in the county school system.
“It will be a race where resources will not be an issue because we will make sure he has what he needs, both in shoe leather and funding to win this campaign,” Renne vowed.
Both Acevero and Lopez reported modest fundraising for 2017, according to campaign finance reports filed last week with the Maryland Board of Elections. Acevero collected nearly $18,200—including a $1,000 contribution from Leggett’s campaign committee—and reported a little more than $9,700 in his campaign treasury as of Jan. 10.
Lopez raised about $13,000 during the same period, with $11,203 on hand. Her slating with King, Reznik and Robinson will allow her to pool financial resources and share the costs of campaigning.
Thursday’s verbal sniping between Leggett and the District 39 delegation was not without its lighter moments.
“I don’t smoke—I have asthma,” Robinson wisecracked. “I definitely wouldn’t be in a smoke-filled room.”
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Gabriel Acevero is a native of Trinidad and Tobago.