Depending on which Democratic leader you ask, Maryland’s dominant political party is either fresh off some of its largest gains in years or flailing under division.
Those who are ecstatic cite the down-ballot victories in the recent midterms, in which Democrats picked up two county executive seats and eight seats in the House of Delegates. Those who are frustrated describe Ben Jealous’s 12-point loss to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the tepid support the former NAACP chief received from party leaders.
Against that backdrop, hundreds of rank-and-file members will gather at a union hall in Lanham on Saturday for a rare contested vote on who should lead the party over the next four years.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, founder of the consulting firm Global Policy Solutions, is vying to replace Kathleen Matthews as party chair, citing the party’s repeated failure to win the top job in a state with twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
“The gains from this cycle can easily be eroded if we fail to strategically position our Party,” she wrote in a letter to party members. “Larry Hogan would not have won reelection without a faction of Democrats splitting their tickets to support his candidacy.”
There is also an unusual number of contested races for other positions, including vice chair, secretary and treasurer. Some Democrats attribute the outpouring of candidates to activism sparked by national politics. Others say it illustrates divisions that, in part, have to do with the governor’s race.
“There is a significant amount of unrest,” said teachers union official Theresa Dudley, a member of the Prince George’s County Central Committee. “There are a lot of people who are disgusted in the way that the [Democratic elected leadership] conducted themselves in regards to supporting the top of the ticket.”
Matthews, a former Marriott International executive and television journalist, has led the party since 2017. She described Hogan’s win as “her biggest disappointment of 2018.” But she said the party met its goal of turning out more than 1 million Democratic voters, sending more delegates to Annapolis and deepening the bench for 2022.
“We did have a blue wave, we just didn’t have a blue tsunami,” Matthews said. “I’m running on a record of partnership and success in delivering Democratic voters and victories down ballot, but also with a plan for the future.”
Matthews compared the contest between herself and Rockeymoore Cummings to the election of a new Democratic National Committee chair following the 2016 election, a hotly contested race won by former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez.
“This is what democracy looks like,” said Matthews, who lives in Montgomery County and lost a bid for Congress in 2016.
Rockeymoore Cummings, who lives in Baltimore City, briefly ran for governor last cycle but ended her bid when her husband, longtime U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), was hospitalized.
She said she believes the Democrats need a bridge-builder as party chair and thinks she has “the experience, skills and history of working with various stakeholders to bring them together.”
Rockeymoore Cummings said unless Democratic leaders forge a strategy to unite the party, it runs the risk of becoming more fractured.
“I’m not denying Kathleen’s legacy, it’s about building upon her legacy,” she said. “There are skills that I have that I believe will take us to the next level of efficiency and effectiveness.”
Saturday is the first strongly contested election for party chair in recent memory, officials said. Matthews was recruited by top Democrats to serve as interim chair after D. Bruce Poole stepped down in early 2017. Months later, when she ran for the post, she had the backing of party leadership.
It will also mark the first time the other leadership positions have sparked so much attention, longtime officials said.
More than 20 candidates are vying for eight down-ballot jobs, including Del. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who will take a seat in the state Senate in January.
He was recruited by Matthews to run for vice chair, with hopes of securing votes in Cummings’s backyard. McCray, who has strong union support and ran a grass-roots campaign to oust Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore City) in the primary, represents the generational shift occurring in the party and the state legislature.
Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery), the outgoing House majority leader, said the unprecedented interest in the election party leadership dovetails with increased Democratic activism since President Trump’s election.
“It’s the same phenomenon that prompted 30 people to run for Montgomery County Council, the same phenomenon that’s happening all over the country,” said Frick, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for Montgomery County executive this year.
Greg Pecoraro, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a state party parliamentarian, has been involved in state politics for nearly 40 years. He said typically the Democratic governor recruits and nominates people to party leadership roles.
When there has been a Republican governor in the past, other top Democrats have convened a group to run the party: Then-U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes did that when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor, and then-U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski did so during Hogan’s first term.
Even though no party leaders took on that role this year, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said Friday that he supports Matthews’s reelection bid.
“The state’s other leaders have declined to step up and shepherd a group of people together,” Pecoraro said. “That’s not happening, so we’re having a real election.”