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Can Kathleen Matthews heal Maryland’s Democratic Party?

The photo was as pleasing for Maryland’s Democratic elders as it was infuriating for their critics on their left.

There stood Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings — three men with an average age of 72 and a combined 87 years in Congress — smiling broadly alongside their new interim state party chair: former television anchor and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews.

The trio of lawmakers see Matthews, 63, as the jolt of energy the party needs as it heads into a crucial 2018 campaign season. “She’s a great communicator, and she knows how to raise money,” Cardin said.

For many in the party's progressive wing, however, her selection March 1 — and her likely election by the full state central committee on Saturday — illustrates a dispiriting adherence to the status quo: another anointment by the same circle of insiders who have run the state party for more than a generation.

"With Democrats like this, who needs Republicans?" said Adam Umak, Western Maryland chair of Our Revolution, the national organization that seeks to build on the success of Sen. Bernie Sanders's insurgent presidential campaign. He cited Matthews's leadership of Marriott's corporate PAC, which on her watch contributed tens of thousands of dollars to House and Senate Republicans. Matthews also steered money to Democrats, but that did nothing to temper Umak's disdain.

Despite a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans, Maryland's Democratic party is divided and depleted after a disastrous 2014 election that included the loss of several seats in the statehouse and the election of Gov. Larry Hogan, the state's third Republican chief executive since 1967.

Matthews says she is working to revitalize the party’s progressive base in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and Baltimore City, where turnout was poor when then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown lost to Hogan in an upset. She also is looking to build bridges to the state’s rural west, where alienated Democrats strayed to President Trump in November or stayed home, complaining they had been all but forgotten.

And she must try to close rifts in Annapolis, where bills aimed at helping undocumented immigrants and black business owners were defeated in the recently concluded General Assembly session — losses that left progressives vowing to seek revenge on some longtime incumbents.

Matthews has been reaching out to grass-roots groups galvanized by Trump's election, inviting Our Revolution, Indivisible MD and other groups to help shape the agenda and unify around the goal of unseating Hogan. She calls it her "inclusion revolution," a phrase she said she borrowed from Cummings's wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.

Jessica Geahlen, chief strategist for Indivisible MD, said her group is “interested in working with anyone who wants to help bring about a progressive agenda.”

“But we’re not interested in being co-opted,” Geahlen added. “And there’s been some animosity.”

First-term Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who won his seat in a district carried by Hogan two years earlier, said he is “rooting for” Matthews but remains skeptical. “If we define ourselves by who we’re not, we’ll keep losing,” he said. “Our party needs to stand up for vulnerable people.”

Matthews remains easily tagged as a political neophyte whose corporate background and A-list Washington pedigree (she is married to "Hardball" host Chris Matthews) outweigh a real understanding of ground-level Maryland politics. She labored to erase that image in 2016, when she finished third in the District 8 congressional primary behind David Trone and now-Rep. Jamie B. Raskin.

At the same time, Matthews is a grinder and nonstop networker who maneuvers unfamiliar terrain with a furious regimen of meetings, lunches and phone calls. After a series of conversations, she built an alliance with Scherod Barnes, the African American chair of the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee, who will run unopposed for first vice-chair of the party this weekend.

Once she sits down with skeptics, she likes to say, the stereotypes fall away.

“I don’t look scrappy, but I’m scrappy,” she said. “Ask my husband.”

While opposition from the left has been vocal, it has not produced a major challenger for party chair. Former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin, a senior adviser to the national advocacy group Working Families, said she considered running but could not afford to take an unpaid position. Others said the establishment apparatus of the party is too strong.

“They’re the bosses. They’re the machine,” said Joseph Kitchen Jr., president of the Young Democrats of Maryland.

Matthews will have only one opponent when she faces the state central committee in Greenbelt this weekend: longtime activist Tony Puca, of North Potomac, who acknowledged he likely will not win but said the party needs to see that there are other options.

“Her mind is in the right place, but she’s not progressive,” Puca said.

The divide within the party could figure prominently in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. Many Our Revolution members are boosting former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, who says he is seriously considering the race. Jealous could face up to three candidates from the establishment core of the party: Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who have all but announced, and Rep. John Delaney, who has said he will make a decision in June.

Also weighing runs are state Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery) and Baltimore attorney James L. Shea. Tech entrepreneur and former Obama administration advisor Alec Ross last week became the first candidate to officially declare.

The party that commands the governor's office in 2020 will play a lead role, along with the Democratic-majority legislature, in redrawing congressional and legislative district lines based on the new census. (Democrats have killed Hogan's proposals to hand redistricting over to a nonpartisan commission).

Thanks to their strongholds in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George’s, Democrats have maintained their lock on the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, seven of eight House seats and the statewide offices of attorney general and comptroller.

But slippage at the local level has been significant. In the rural west and the Eastern Shore, Democrats are becoming as seldom seen as a pay phone.

Democrats controlled 11 of 24 county councils or commissions in 2003 but were down to seven by 2015, according to an analysis by Democratic consultant and blogger Adam Pagnucco. County executives' offices in Howard, Anne Arundel and Wicomico shifted from Democratic to Republican during that same period.

In 2006, 34 Republicans ran unopposed for county office. By 2016, the number of seats uncontested by Democrats was 54.

Matthews pledges to rejuvenate county central committees and nurture new candidates, especially in what she called the “orphan counties” outside the Montgomery-Prince George’s-Baltimore axis. “That’s where you have basically atrophy going on,” she said. “We’ve got to rebuild from the bottom up.”

She will confront an energized state Republican Party with its eyes on a new target: eliminating Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the state Senate. The party is lining up Senate challengers in nine districts that Hogan carried in 2014 and needs to win five currently Democratic seats to achieve its goal.

Matthews has pushed back on the narrative that she was anointed for the party’s top post. She said she was casting around for a way to stay in politics after her loss in the congressional primary last April. Cardin suggested that she work for Maryland’s “coordinated campaign,” the combined general-election effort of state and county organizations.

Matthews also appeared as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, knocked on doors for candidates in Pennsylvania and Virginia and joined the board of Emerge Maryland, an organization that mentors women interested in running for office.

When she heard that state party chairman Bruce Poole would step down in early 2017, Matthews met with Cardin, Hoyer, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and others. All, she said, encouraged her to run.

They liked her communication skills, fundraising connections and the opportunity to put a woman in a high-profile role. There was also her willingness to work full time without pay — and the fact that no one else of stature wanted the job. Both former representative Kweisi Mfume and Courtney Watson, the Clinton campaign’s Maryland co-chair, were approached but were not interested, party officials said.

In the end, Cardin said, Matthews “was the most aggressive” in campaigning for it.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who endorsed Raskin over Matthews in the 2016 primary, thinks she has what it will take to lead Democrats to a better place.

“I’ve watched dozens of persons who have had this job, and it is wearing,” Miller said. “It is very tough, like herding cats, because our party is such a broad tent.”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this story.

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