2021 | Politics

Waldstreicher challenged on left by activist Democrat in state Senate race

Socol hopes grassroots activist support will outmatch benefits of incumbency

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Jeff Waldstreicher (left) and Max Socol

File photo (left); submitted photo

This story was updated on Nov. 19, 2021, to correct the age of Max Socol. It was updated again on Nov. 21, 2021, to correct a reference by history professor James Lee Annis about candidates in the 1990s.

State Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Kensington) is burnishing his credentials as a progressive Democrat as he faces a primary challenge from the left.

That challenger is Max Socol, 35, of Silver Spring, who, for years, has helped progressive candidates try to win local and federal elections across the country.

The candidates offer voters clear choices in political styles and certain issues, including housing and police reforms. Waldstreicher’s advantage as an incumbent, and his prowess at raising campaign cash, and Socol’s support among grassroots activists could make this a high-profile race.

Until he left his post at the end of July to run against Waldstreicher, Socol was a national organizer for Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that says it is “focused exclusively on progressive social change in the United States.”

Socol said he’s one of the original members of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, which aims to “reduce the presence of police in our communities and eliminate violence and harm by police,” and he is active with other progressive groups.

He’s been arrested several times at rallies and demonstrations for immigrant rights, most recently last month. That happened at a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol demanding Congress approve President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which includes immigrant protections, as well as climate action and increased health care.

Socol has raised $40,000 to launch that challenge. Waldstreicher has reported having $235,000 in cash on hand in January. Since then, his efforts included an October fundraiser hosted by Attorney General Brian Frosh, who endorsed Waldstreicher, 41, as “a champion for progressive values.”

Waldstreicher, an attorney, served a dozen years as a state delegate before winning an open state Senate seat in 2018. He was elected by fending off two Democratic opponents in a primary and winning the general election unopposed.

He is running jointly with delegates who represent the 18th District — Democrats Al Carr, Emily Shetty, and Jared Solomon.

Waldstreicher has begun campaigning for June’s primary election early, trying to shore up support by going door to door in the 18th District, which includes Kensington, Garrett Park, Wheaton, most of Chevy Chase and parts of Rockville, Silver Spring and Bethesda.

He said he’s “proud of my record of fighting for progressive values, including cracking down on gun violence, investing in our schools, and addressing climate change.”

Waldstreicher said he looks forward to “continuing to deliver for Montgomery County” as the vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Waldstreicher’s role in that powerful committee prompted Socol to run for public office.

Socol accuses Waldstreicher of voting with Republicans in the Judicial Proceedings Committee to water down a package of police reform bills. The state legislature passed the package in April in response to the social justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn.

“It was my ‘aha’ moment,” Socol said. “It was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Waldstreicher dismissed allegations that the bill was too weak.

“I’m proud of the Maryland Police Accountability Act, which was shepherded by two historic figures: Senator Will Smith and Speaker Adrienne Jones. Both are the first African Americans to hold their positions,” he said.

Waldstreicher said The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times have praised the bill, with the Times saying it “placed Maryland at the forefront of police accountability.”

In 1974, Maryland was the first state to approve a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which offered protections when officers face criminal prosecution.

In its far-reaching policing package, Maryland was also the first state to later repeal a police bill of rights. The package also also limits “no-knock” warrants and imposes prison terms of up to 10 years if an officer is convicted of hurting or killing someone while using excessive force.

Waldstricher declined to respond to an email about a June op-ed in Maryland Matters written by Socol and some of his neighbors that alleges the senator blocked key proposed reforms on the policing bill — including one that was debated on and voted down in the Judicial Proceedings Committee that would allow local jurisdictions to create civilian oversight bodies of their police force.

Democratic incumbents in Montgomery County have, from time to time, lost their seats. For instance, in 2006, Jamie Raskin, who now represents a large section of Montgomery County in Congress, defeated veteran state Sen. Ida Ruben.

“It’s always difficult to take on someone who’s been elected before, but it’s happened in the county,” Montgomery College history professor James Lee Annis said.

He cited the losses of anti-abortion candidates in the county to pro-abortion challengers in the 1990s.

Socol is part of a Democratic Party movement created by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), which is credited for sweeping in progressive “Justice Democrats” such as U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York into Congress.

But Justice Democrat challengers don’t always knock off their more conservative Democratic rivals.

In 2020, progressive Democrats targeted six Democratic incumbents in the U.S. House. They won three races and lost the three others.

Socol said he’s campaigning on the need for more affordable housing in the county. He’s  promoting “social housing,” a concept popular in Europe.

For example, instead of dilapidated public housing projects, residents in Vienna, Austria, and other European cities live in attractive apartment buildings on government-owned land that is sold to a private company that owns and manages units that attract tenants of all incomes. Those with higher incomes pay more rent and subsidize the rents of lower-income residents.

In Maryland, Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Derwood) is introducing legislation to create the state’s first “social housing” program. 

Socol said a “kitchen cabinet” of members of progressive organizations is helping his campaign.

“We’re going to have a whole army,” he said.

Meanwhile, Waldstreicher said his priority is serving his constituents.

“I have a sharp-eyed focus on the kitchen table issues that families are concerned about —increasing gas prices, the high cost of living, and schools that aren’t always responsive to the needs of parents,” he said.

Since he assumed office, some Waldstreicher bills that have become law include measures that increase the tax deductibility of organ donations, expand grants to nonprofits that provide behavioral health to veterans and increase money to prenatal care programs.

He avoided attacking his challenger – at least, not directly.

“Unfortunately, there are some who want to divide us,” he said. “I reject the politics of negativity, division, and hate. I care deeply about fighting for our community, not fighting with other Democrats. Only together can we work each and every day to pass progressive policies that empower all Marylanders.”

Waldstreicher was born in Silver Spring. He’s married with twin daughters and a son and has served as a substitute teacher at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from Emory University and a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. 

Socol is married with two small children. He’s originally from North Carolina, but said he’s lived most of his adult life in either Washington, D.C., or Maryland. He purchased a home in Silver Spring about 3 ½ years ago. Socol is a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis.