2022 | Politics

Some Democrats fault process of filling candidate vacancies, support changes after Al Carr’s last-minute withdrawal in District 18 

County central committees are currently given the power to fill candidate vacancies 

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Following state Del. Al Carr’s last-minute decision to withdraw from the District 18 delegate race on Friday, some Democrats in Montgomery County are criticizing or suggesting changes to the process for filling candidate vacancies on the ballot.  

The Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee has run the process to replace the Kensington Democrat on the ballot – and in this instance selected a member of the committee in his stead. Some observers faulted the process as undemocratic and cronyistic, and some of the candidates – including Aaron Kaufman, who was selected — voiced support for establishing other mechanisms, such as special elections, in the future. 

Carr announced hours before Friday’s filing deadline that he would not seek another term in the legislature, and would instead run for the new Montgomery County Council District 4 seat. Carr’s withdrawal left a vacancy on the ballot; if party officials wanted it filled, they had to make a selection by Wednesday. 

Under Maryland law, a vacancy in candidacy “shall be filled by the central committee of the political party in the county in which the office is located.” The law means that the central committees have the authority to fill a candidate vacancy after the filing deadline has passed, but if they don’t there’s no repercussions, according to Jared DeMarinis, the director of the State Board of Elections’ Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division. 

Following a meeting that lasted more than three hours Tuesday night, the central committee voted to nominate Kaufman, a political organizer and advocate for people with disabilities, to fill the vacancy left by Carr. If elected, Kaufman would be the only current member of Maryland’s state legislature with a disability, according to a list from the National Council on Independent Living. 

Kaufman was among nine candidates who applied for the vacancy in District 18. A tenth, Leslie Milano, withdrew from the race on Tuesday and endorsed Kaufman. 

Many attendees during Tuesday’s forum on Zoom posted comments in the chat criticizing the process for filling the vacancy, arguing that it favors party insiders and isn’t democratic.  

Some attendees also noted that Kaufman is himself a member of the Democratic Central Committee, and questioned whether it was a conflict of interest for him to vote for himself (Kaufman and Michael Tardif, both members of the committee, voted for themselves). This is the fourth time since 2016 that a sitting member of the Democratic Central Committee has been selected to fill a state delegate seat that opened up. The others were: 

  • Del. Pamela Queen, who was appointed to a District 14 seat in 2016 
  • Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, who was appointed to a District 20 seat in 2017 
  • Del. Linda Foley, who was appointed to a District 15 seat in 2021 

During Tuesday night’s forum, the candidates vying to the fill the District 18 vacancy were asked whether the process for filling candidate vacancies should be changed. Kaufman, along with candidates Jose Ortiz, Ron Sachs, Michael Tardif and Carlos Camacho all said they favored holding special elections to fill candidate vacancies. Cecily Baskir said she was open to the idea of a special election but wanted to learn more about the pros and cons first. 

“It certainly seems like an issue that deserves attention going forward,” she said. 

Another candidate, Joel Rubin, said Tuesday night that he thinks the Central Committee selection process works, but that there needs to be enough time for it to happen. 

“I think we can safely say that if someone drops out, they need to drop out in the manner of a timeframe that gives enough time for there to actually be an extended vetting period for a replacement,” he said. 

Candidate Marla Hollander said she wanted to explore how the vacancy filling process could be improved, agreeing that it should be longer. 

“It was very hard to prepare as a candidate myself within 24 hours… when usually running a campaign takes at least a year to get prepared and get everything lined up,” she said. 

Del. David Moon (D-Takoma Park) said in an interview Wednesday that, beginning in his first year in the House of Delegates in 2015, he introduced legislation to fix the replacement process for not only statehouse vacancies, but also the state attorney general, comptroller and U.S. Senate races. 

The latter three have been addressed, and there are now special election processes for when vacancies occur mid-term. But so far, there has been no success changing the statehouse vacancy process, he said. 

Moon has, in recent years, let Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard) lead efforts on changing the process. Lam’s bill has gotten out of the Senate but stalled in the House. It would create a process where the central committee would appoint someone to fill the vacancy, while allowing a special election during the presidential election cycle. 

The issue is more complex than people may think, Moon said. First, he said, some people have opposed the legislation because they are “democracy hard-liners” who believe nothing short of a special election–when turnout can be very low compared with other elections–is appropriate. 

Then, people defend the current process because the central committee can select from a pool of qualified candidates to fill the vacancy, he said. Moon said he fully supported Kaufman, the committee’s pick for District 18 on the ballot. He added he didn’t blame the central committee because the members are following a process laid out in state law. 

Moon, however, notes that the central committee process isn’t completely democratic. That’s because committee members, many outside of District 18, were able to vote on the nominee. And two members inside the district, on the committee, were able to vote for themselves. 

But the process has also led to greater diversity in the county’s delegation in Annapolis, specifically in getting African American legislators into office, Moon said. 

Moon added that Lam’s bill would not have addressed the current vacancy, because this year is a gubernatorial election, not a presidential one. There have been discussions about making changes requiring the state Board of Elections to extend the filing deadline, for scenarios like this one with Carr dropping out on the last day. Moon declined to say whether he would support this or not, adding it merits further debate. 

Another option, Moon said, is amending the process so that central committees can select more than one person to fill a vacancy on a ballot, meaning voters have a greater number of choices once they cast their vote. 

The overall issue is not going to go away, Moon said. That’s because when new governors take office, they often handpick state senators and delegates to sit in their cabinet, creating vacancies in various jurisdictions statewide, he added. It happened in 2015, and it will likely happen again in early 2023, he said. 

“There are multiple ways of approaching this and multiple opinions about what is the morally correct way to go,” Moon said of the overall issue. 

Reardon Sullivan, the chair of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, told Bethesda Beat Wednesday that the local party just recently filled a candidate vacancy for legislative district 17 using the same process. He said having central committees conduct the nomination is an efficient way of filling candidate vacancies. 

“I can see where someone would say it should be more open and more transparent… but this is process that we have. It’s not uncommon to be done,” he said. 

Sullivan said he worries that holding a special election to decide who should be on the ballot could delay a primary, noting that this year’s primary has already been delayed due to the state’s redistricted legislative map being challenged in court.  

“[A special election] would be a great thing to do. However, by the time you do that, it’s gonna push back all the other elections,” he said. 

Arthur Edmunds, the chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. 

District 18’s other two incumbent delegates, Emily Shetty and Jared Solomon, are running for reelection on the July 19 Democratic primary ballot. In the Republican primary, only George Cecala has filed for District 18. 

Bethesda Beat staff writer Steve Bohnel contributed to this story 

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com