Dave Kunes, a local party activist who is currently the chief of staff for County Council member Tom Hucker, Tuesday night was elected chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC)—but only after a contentious meeting in which tensions that have plagued the organization in recent years were on full display.
While Kunes did not have an opponent in the election by the 28-member MCDCC, two members of a Kunes-backed slate of committee officers were sidetracked by a dispute over the panel’s rules and bylaws—the subject of an often nasty exchange of emails within the MCDCC membership over the past week.
The nomination of Kunes, a former president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats, to chair the committee was ratified by a 23-3 vote, with two abstentions, for a term that runs through the 2018 primary election. Among the “no” votes was outgoing MCDCC Chairman Darrell Anderson, who left the meeting immediately after turning over the gavel to Kunes. The outgoing vice chairman, Arthur Edmunds of Laytonsville, abstained in the vote to approve Kunes as the new MCDCC leader.
Anderson, a former mayor of Washington Grove who has served on the MCDCC since 2007, unexpectedly took over the committee chairmanship two years ago after his predecessor, Kevin Walling, resigned under fire over problems with the printing and distribution of sample ballots in advance of the 2014 general election. In a telephone interview Wednesday morning, Anderson said he plans to remain a member of the committee “for the time being” adding, “For the next four or five months for sure, and then I’ll see what happens.”
Kunes—a Silver Spring resident who, at 27, becomes the youngest person to chair the MCDCC—said in an interview Wednesday that he is committed to “making sure all members have a chance to participate in meaningful ways in the committee.” He added, “I don’t believe in sidelining any members, and as we go through a strategic planning process to determine our plan through the 2018 election, I hope we’ll be able to bridge some of those differences.”
The turmoil within the committee goes back to at least 2012, when the MCDCC—in a move that put it at odds with the county’s public employee unions—voted to support a ballot referendum that repealed so-called effects bargaining for the county police force. The measure, backed by County Executive Ike Leggett and the County Council, was approved by voters in that year’s general election.
In an effort to repair the rift with the county unions, then-MCDCC Chairman Gabe Albornoz entered into negotiations to come up with a slate of committee members that union leaders would support in the 2014 primary election. Kunes, then head of the Young Democrats, played a prominent role in the formulation of what was dubbed the “unity slate.” Kunes himself sought an at-large seat on the MCDCC in that primary, finishing narrowly out of the running for eight available seats; he was appointed to the MCDCC in 2015 to fill a vacancy.
The election of the 2014 unity slate resulted in a generational divide of sorts on the MCDCC, with tensions since evident between many elected for the first time in 2014 and a number of the committee’s veteran members. Several in the latter group remain irked at Kunes for his role in a union-organized boycott of the MCDCC’s 2013 spring gala—the committee’s major annual fundraising event—in the wake of the dispute over the effects bargaining referendum.
Kunes acknowledged Wednesday that episode has been a factor in how he is viewed by some on the committee. While saying he had not organized the picketing of the 2013 event by county employee unions, he added, “But I felt strongly, along with many of our elected officials, that we were not comfortable crossing a picket line.”
Tuesday night’s flareup in the tensions between the two factions came in conjunction with a somewhat arcane dispute over rules governing so-called “gender balance” members of the MCDCC. Under state Democratic Party rules, the gender balance members are nominated by the MCDCC and approved by the state party to ensure there are an equal number of men and women serving on the county committee.
A change in rules last year gave gender balance members the right to vote on all matters to come before the committee, and the Kunes-organized slate of officers included two gender balance members: Emily Shetty for vice chairman and Mimi Hassanein for assistant secretary. Shetty, of Kensington, sought a nomination for state delegate from District 18 in 2014; Hassanein, a Brinklow resident, works for the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships.
Kunes and his allies contended that Shetty and Hassanein were eligible to seek election as committee officers because they had been given the right to vote on the committee—while Anderson asserted it would require a change in the MCDCC bylaws before they could be allowed to do so. In an effort to settle the matter with a minimum of public controversy, Anderson called an executive session to consult with the committee’s legal counsel shortly after the start of Tuesday’s night meeting.
But the bickering quickly spilled into public view after members of the public were readmitted to the meeting room after a nearly 40-minute executive session.
A motion to uphold Anderson’s position that the gender balance members were ineligible to run for committee office was defeated on a show of hands. But Anderson then ruled from the chair that the gender balance members could not run without a change in the bylaws. “The motion is opposite to our bylaws and I can’t agree to the motion,” he declared.
His position prompted outbursts of criticism from some members of the audience, including Nik Sushka, Kunes’ wife and herself a former president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats.
With Shetty and Hassanein ruled ineligible to seek committee office, outgoing MDCC Secretary Wendy Cohen of Bethesda was elected vice chairman, 15-9, over veteran committee member Alan Banov of Kensington. Brenda Wolff of Silver Spring was chosen as assistant secretary over Chris Bradbury of Brookeville in a 20-5 vote.
Both Cohen and Wolff said they would resign those positions as soon as the bylaws are changed to allow gender balance members to serve as committee officers. It was unclear Wednesday how long that process—which requires a vote of the Democratic precinct organization as well as the MCDCC itself—might take.
Members of the Kunes-organized slate elected without opposition Tuesday night included Johntel Greene of Silver Spring as secretary, Julian Haffner of Gaithersburg as treasurer, and Erin Yeagley of Rockville as assistant treasurer. Yeagley, who has held that position since 2014, is a field representative of UFCW 1994 MCGEO, the union representing most county government employees.
In an interview afterward, Kunes characterized the county committee’s financial status as “healthy,” but added, “I just think we can do more to maximize our fundraising efforts.” He said those efforts started Wednesday with a $4,000 contribution from U.S. Rep.-elect Jamie Raskin; Kunes said he is aiming to raise sufficient funds to add an organizer to the MCDCC payroll.
Asked about the recent dropoff in Democratic voter turnout in the county in off-year elections—less than a quarter of registered Democrats voted in the 2014 primary—Kunes said he plans to focus on strengthening the party’s precinct organization.
“I’d like to see the committee re-energize and re-engage our precinct officials,” he said. “I think they have a big role to play in the next year and a half to do real organizing at the neighborhood level. That’s really a priority for me to make sure they’re trained and have the resources to do more neighbor-to-neighbor organizing.”
But his first challenge appears to involve restoring a measure of peace within the fractious MCDCC. At the close of Tuesday night’s meeting, one member, Mumin Barre of Gaithersburg, publicly bemoaned the continuing infighting.
“I’ve been trying very hard to bring us together, to have a mix on the executive committee,” he told his colleagues, while acknowledging, “I failed in that effort.” Added Barre, “We need to let the past be the past…so that we can move forward.”