The process of filling the seat to be vacated Sept. 1 by the resignation of District 15 Sen. Rob Garagiola has turned contentious, highlighting dramatic changes in Montgomery County’s racial demographics in recent years—and how well the county’s representation in Annapolis has kept pace.
When Garagiola announced early last month that he was leaving, the appointment of Delegate Brian Feldman to succeed him initially seemed as though it would occur by acclamation. But a letter from leaders of the District 15 Democratic Caucus, declaring their “unanimous support” for Feldman, was met with protests from some party activists in the district, who complained that minorities were excluded from the process.
“Until I received an email about it, I was not aware the [caucus’] letter had gone out,” said Vernon Ricks, a Potomac resident who is a board member of the county’s NAACP chapter. Added Tufail Ahmad of Potomac, who ran for County Council in 2006: “We were not consulted—and I’ve been a very active member of the Democratic Party.”
Ahmad, who took his concerns to District 15 Democratic Caucus Chair Jeff Williams, contended the Feldman endorsement had been made by just four board members of the caucus, none of whom is a member of a minority. “I told [Williams] ‘You have an exclusive caucus, 39 to 40 percent has no say in the process’,” said Ahmad. He was alluding to data showing about 40 percent of District 15 is comprised of minorities; the district extends from Potomac through northwest Montgomery County to the Frederick County line.
Williams was not available for comment, but Daphne Bloomberg, immediate past chair of the District 15 Democratic Caucus, said the decision to endorse Feldman had been made unanimously by all eight board members, not just the four on the caucus’ executive board. She added that two District 15 members of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee—including Sharon Bland, who is African-American—had been consulted and assented in the move. Bloomberg characterized the controversy as a “non-issue.”
By all indications, Feldman remains the favorite when the county Democratic committee meets in early September to make a recommendation to the governor. So far, no other contenders have surfaced. And Feldman is hardly without support from minorities: He recently received endorsements from County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council Vice-President Craig Rice.
Before his election to the council, Rice represented District 15 in the General Assembly. Meanwhile, Leggett, newly embarked on a bid for a third term, has to be thinking about the county’s clout in Annapolis. Backers have argued that Feldman, now part of the House of Delegates’ leadership, would help to compensate for the loss of two of the county’s senior senators: Garagiola and Brian Frosh, who is running for attorney general.
Nonetheless, about 20 representatives of minority groups inside and outside District 15 met late last month to discuss their concerns about the process of filling the Senate vacancy and to seek to identify interested candidates. That group has continued to talk, but no date has been set for a follow-up meeting.
Among those involved in the discussions is former Democratic Central Committee Chair Karen Britto, who briefly represented District 16 in the General Assembly in 2010. Last year, Britto organized sessions in Silver Spring and Germantown to discuss recent U.S. Census figures and the related issue of encouraging more minorities to seek elected office.
According to the latest census data, non-Hispanic whites comprise about 49 percent of the county’s overall population, down from 59.5 percent in 2000. African-Americans now represent a little more than 18 percent, with Hispanic-Americans just behind at 17.5 percent and those of Asian descent at about 14.5 percent.
Despite these figures, none of the county’s eight seats in the state Senate is held by a minority; in fact, a non-white has never represented Montgomery County in the Senate. The record is better in the House of Delegates: Of 24 current county legislators, six are minority — including District 15 Delegate Aruna Miller, who is backing Feldman.
If Feldman is appointed, history could still be made in November 2014, if District 16 Delegate Susan Lee captures the Senate seat being vacated by Frosh. Lee, who so far has no declared opposition in that race, would be the Senate’s first Asian-American.