When state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park won a nine-way battle for his party’s nomination in last April’s primary, he immediately became the prohibitive favorite to be the next member of the U.S. House from the heavily Democratic 8th District. Consequently, local Democratic activists are now looking beyond the Nov. 8 general election and increasingly focusing on a late fall vote by the 28-member Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC), which will decide who fills the final two years of Raskin’s Senate term.
Two sitting state delegates from Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20, David Moon and Will Smith, appear to be the early frontrunners to succeed Raskin. Both have been actively courting MCDCC members since shortly after April’s primary. Moon and Smith are former campaign managers for Raskin; the incumbent has maintained a neutral stance as the two freshman legislators—first elected to their current positions in Annapolis on a 2014 slate headed by Raskin—have jockeyed to succeed him.
But nearly a half-dozen other possible contenders have publicly or privately expressed interest in the Senate opening in recent weeks. And, in a section of the county in which there is no shortage of ambitious activists, several more potential candidates already are lining up for the delegate seat that would become vacant if Moon or Smith is elevated to the Senate.
A behind-the-scenes effort to avoid a collision between Moon, 37, and Smith, 34—by elevating the remaining District 20 delegate, Sheila Hixson, to the Senate—has so far fallen flat. Hixson has spent 40 years in the House of Delegates and, in recent years, has chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “I think that’s the appropriate place for me to stay,” Hixson said, adding that “it is not my wish” to be appointed to fill a Senate vacancy.
Hixson expressed concern that if she left the House of Delegates, the Ways and Means chairmanship could go to a legislator outside of Montgomery County. The thinking behind the Hixson appointment scenario was that she would serve out the remainder of Raskin’s term, creating an open seat Senate primary in 2018. As for seeking re-election to her current post, the 83-year old Hixson said she has made no decisions, pointedly adding, “I haven’t said no.”
At least two other potential contenders for the expected Senate vacancy, Will Jawando and Jonathan Shurberg, are also said to be assessing possible 2018 runs for County Council—when a term limits referendum, if successful this November, could force vacancies in more than half of the council seats. Jawando and Shurberg both ran for delegate in the District 20 Democratic primary two years ago; Jawando also was among the candidates for the congressional nomination won by Raskin in April.
Jawando and Shurberg, both attorneys, acknowledged they are weighing their options and haven’t reached any decisions. “I’ll continue service to my community as a citizen, and am definitely open to service as an elected official,” Jawando said. Said Shurberg, “I am considering a number of possible options—the question is what I can do to make myself useful, to put my talents to work in the best way.”
Jawando and Shurberg could also seek appointment to an open delegate seat if one of the current delegates is tapped to take over Raskin’s Senate seat. But both could be at a disadvantage in the appointment process due to strained political relations with Raskin. The tension dates back to the 2014 primary, when Raskin passed them over in creating an informal slate consisting of himself, Hixson, Moon and Smith. Jawando returned the favor with a couple of pointed rhetorical shots at Raskin during the congressional primary.
Also interested in the Senate seat is Yvette Butler, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), as well as founder of GapBusters, a group devoted to combating the so-called achievement gap in Montgomery County public schools. Butler said she is “strongly considering” either the Senate appointment or a delegate seat if Moon or Smith is elevated, adding, “I’m trying to get feedback on what would be the best move for me.”
One well-known name who has taken herself out of contention for a Senate vacancy is former District 20 Del. Heather Mizeur, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2014. Now a resident of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Mizeur, in an email, declared: “I live on my farm in Chestertown. I have no house in Takoma Park, and I’m not interested in a potential District 20 Senate appointment.”
A second group of contenders for the Senate seat are offering themselves in a so-called caretaker role—with each pledging not to seek re-election to a full four-year term if appointed, in order to create a wide-open Senate primary in 2018. This group includes former Del. Bill Bronrott, ex-County Council member Valerie Ervin and civic activist Darian Unger who, like Jawando and Shurberg, competed in the nine-way District 20 primary for delegate in 2014.
Bronrott said his goal is to allow all candidates in a 2018 Senate primary to enter on equal footing, rather than giving a head start to an incumbent who was appointed by the MCDCC rather than popularly elected. "The thing I am most attracted by is making sure there is a level playing field come 2018,” said Bronrott—a Silver Spring native who represented Bethesda-based District 16 in the General Assembly for 12 years before moving into District 20 a year ago.
“As of right now, the process isn’t very democratic—and we should have government by democracy rather than by appointment,” declared Unger, echoing longstanding criticism of the system of filling vacancies. Under the Maryland constitution, a vacant seat in the General Assembly is filled by the party that previously held that seat; the county committee of the party in question makes a recommendation, and the governor formally makes the appointment.
It is currently unclear how much sentiment there is within the MCDCC to name a caretaker.
Meanwhile, Ervin, contending “the best approach…in this situation is to appoint someone who will leave when the term is up and have the residents of District 20 actually have an election for that seat,” charged this week that state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County resident, is seeking to influence the appointment.
“The fix I hear is that Miller wants to support Will Smith for the seat. But I’m not going to let that deter me from having an interest in it,” declared Ervin, who last year mounted a short-lived campaign for the congressional nod won by Raskin.
Her allegation was strongly disputed by Smith and Miller. “I’ve had no indication that [Miller] is going to be publicly supporting or privately supporting anyone in the race,” Smith responded. Miller, in a statement emailed to Bethesda Beat Tuesday, termed Ervin’s claim “outrageous.”
Miller, an Annapolis institution who has been Senate president for three decades, has had an up-and-down relationship with the outspokenly liberal Raskin. Moon would seem to fit into a mold similar to that of Raskin: As a campaign organizer before winning election to the General Assembly, Moon had a reputation for aggressively pushing a host of progressive issues.
In turn, this has prompted speculation in local Democratic circles that Miller might be happier if Moon did not get the appointment. But Miller insisted he is staying out of the matter, declaring in his statement: “I haven’t met with any members of the Democratic central committee nor do I intend to. My hope is that the central committee will pick the best qualified candidate for the seat.”
Lingering hard feelings from this year’s hotly contested U.S. Senate primary could also be playing into Ervin’s swipe at Miller: Along with much of the rest of the state Democratic establishment, Miller endorsed Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the primary winner, while Ervin was a leading supporter of Van Hollen’s chief rival, Rep. Donna Edwards, a long-time Ervin friend.
Edwards and some of her supporters have been slow to line up behind Van Hollen, who has represented the Montgomery County-based 8th District since 2003. Asked this week if she has endorsed Van Hollen to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Ervin replied: “I don’t think it’s necessary; he’s our nominee. I don’t believe he needs an endorsement from anybody like me.”
If the MCDCC does opt to elevate Moon or Smith to the Senate, there are at least a half-dozen contenders eyeing appointment to the open delegate seat that would result—a number that could quickly expand. In addition to Butler, Jawando, and Shurberg, those who have expressed interest in such a delegate appointment include Lorig Charkoudian, who runs a community mediation service and who narrowly lost a 2011 bid for the Takoma Park City Council; Daniel Koroma, an outreach manager for the county’s Office of Community Partnerships; and Jheanelle Wilkins, a MCDCC member who is a field manager at the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
In addition, attorney George Zokle, who ran for delegate in the 2014 District 20 Democratic primary, said he has not ruled out seeking the appointment if it becomes available. But another potential contender, Miti Figueredo—Raskin’s long-time campaign treasurer—has taken herself out of the running. Figueredo, until this week a vice president of the Chevy Chase Land Co., started work Wednesday as director of public affairs and communication for Purple Line Transit Partners, the consortium selected to build the light-rail system that will run from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
If the outcome of the jockeying for what could be multiple openings remains unclear, so does the precise timeline for a decision.
The tentative plan is for the MCDCC—which, under its bylaws, must advertise any Senate or delegate appointment for 30 days—to advertise immediately following the Nov. 8 election, when Raskin is expected to easily win over Republican nominee Dan Cox and two minor party candidates. This would put the committee on track to name a successor to Raskin at its December meeting; if Moon or Smith is recommended, a successor to one of them as delegate would then be selected at the January meeting.
But some MCDCC members are pushing the committee’s leadership to expedite the process—by selecting a successor to Raskin the week after the Nov. 8 election, with a possible delegate appointment coming in December. Their concern is to ensure both a new senator and delegate are seated before the General Assembly convenes in mid-January, when there are likely to be key votes to override vetoes by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of bills passed in the 2016 session.
To accommodate this expedited schedule, the MCDCC would have to conditionally advertise the Senate opening starting in mid-October, weeks prior to the November election. Advocates of this approach point to a 1999 state attorney general’s opinion that seems to open the door to this timetable. According to sources, MCDCC leaders plan to ask current Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office for an opinion, in order to clarify their options.