Prince George’s County social justice activist Ashanti Martinez is poised to fill the District 22 House vacancy created when Alonzo T. Washington ascended to a Senate seat in Annapolis, bolstering the diverse group of voices representing county residents.
The Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee will hold a hearing Thursday evening where it will vote to send its nomination to Gov. Wes Moore (D), who will have 15 days to approve the nominee to serve the rest of Washington’s term. Once approved, the speaker of the House of Delegates sets a date to swear in the nominee for the rest of the term.
“It is all moving very quickly,” Martinez said in an interview. “Six months ago, if you would’ve told me there was going to be an appointment, I would’ve laughed at you.”
Washington (D-Prince George’s) was appointed to the state Senate by Moore and sworn in to office last month to fill an opening made when Moore appointed state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D) to head the Maryland Energy Administration. Washington, 39, is now the first Black senator from District 22 since it was created in the early 1970s — one of many local firsts ushered in alongside Moore’s administration, which boasts the state’s first Black governor, first immigrant and woman of color lieutenant governor and first female comptroller, among others.
Endorsing Martinez, who is Afro Latino and openly gay, portends a new crop of politician in a county with evolving demographics.
Martinez, who has roots in Prince George’s and in Puerto Rico, grew up in a working-class family in the county. He was bit by the political bug as a student at Parkdale High School in Riverdale Park, where he joined the Young Democrats. His mom served on a community board while he was growing up and is best friends with Arkansas Rep. Vivian Flowers (D), whom Martinez calls his aunt.
He has felt inspired by Flowers’s path but said he saw an absence of his reflection in political office until the elections of U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) and former congressman Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.).
“Those were the first real representations to see my full self at the federal level,” he said. “Even locally, we are woefully underrepresented, the LGBTQ community, in politics and the Latino community. Being a voice for all the spaces that I come from is extremely important.”
Martinez’s insistence on showing up as his full self is one of the reasons Washington said he supports him.
“I’m supporting Ashanti because he’s a lifelong Prince Georgian. He’s a grass-roots organizer. He’s a professional advocate,” Washington said. “He has stayed engaged in our community through his work at the county council as well as CASA, and our community will benefit from his experience and service.”
Washington’s public endorsement of Martinez prompted Baker and McKee-Seabrook to honor his choice for a successor, both told The Washington Post.
Martinez’s path to the delegacy echoes Washington’s own rise. Washington was just 29 when he became a delegate after Justin D. Ross (D) stepped down from office to focus on his family about 10 years ago. Like Martinez, Washington served as a chief of staff for former county council member Will Campos (D).
Neither man appears to possess fear about betting on themselves.
Martinez ran to represent District 22 twice, losing in the primaries of both elections. After his 2022 defeat, he became chief of staff for his friend Krystal Oriadha (D-District 7) — the first openly LGBTQ person to serve on the county council and one of three new council members to have African immigrant heritage.
The Howard University graduate has also worked for council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1) as a constituent services specialist and as a research and policy analyst for CASA, the largest immigrant advocacy nonprofit in the Mid-Atlantic.
The self-proclaimed “son of the county” never lost sight of Annapolis once he worked with Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) on her bid for Congress, then again with the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus. That experience put him “in awe” of what could be done at the state level, he said.
“Ultimately, you’re creating and crafting policy for the entire state,” Martinez said, adding that he has always seen government as an instrument for change. “Why not go to a place in a space where I feel like outside of the federal level, you have a pretty big tool to help our communities?”
When he wasn’t running for office, Martinez remained a presence in his district by helping to feed people during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and marching for police reform, Oriadha said.
He also remained committed to speaking with and talking to people about who he is — even if the conversations could become personal.
Martinez, who has been out since he was 13 in a very affirming home, said he didn’t mind talking to people who had questions about identity or who were uncertain about casting their vote for an openly LGBTQ person.
Though he has faced some discrimination in his hometown — such as a few years ago, when he was yanked from a speaking engagement at a graduating night school class for fear of him speaking on “the gay agenda” — he understands that patience and absence of malice are needed to connect with everyone.
“I had a lot of questions [from] older folks,” he said. “For a long time, a lot of older folks dealt with a generation of don’t ask, don’t tell. This was an opportunity to know other folks and how their lives are [for them].”
Oriadha, who had friends and political strategists advise her to not share details of her own life, said Martinez’s success is an indicator of progress.
“I believe people thought there wasn’t a space for people like myself and Ashanti,” she said. “I’m excited that we’re also seeing a shift of electing grass-roots organizers, … people that really care about this work. … What you’re going to get form Ashanti is someone that means this work and who will bring thoughtful ideas as a result.”