It wasn’t your typical Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee meeting.
The crowd alternated between loud booing and cheering. One candidate for committee chair pulled out a chain to symbolize the control she says the Democratic Party establishment wields over who holds office. After the other, establishment-backed candidate won the election, half the audience drifted out.
The contest Tuesday night between Cheryl Landis, who chaired the committee from 2014 to 2016, and Theresa Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, in some ways represented tensions playing out statewide as progressives and more moderate Democrats vie for power in the party.
“There is a great divide,” said Landis, who defeated Dudley 17 to 3 (three members abstained, and one was absent). “As leader of the central committee, I know we have to get ourselves in order. We have got to build a foundation so we are all on the same page.”
Observers said what happens on the 24-member volunteer committee, which organizes support for Democrats in county, state and national races, could have implications up and down the ballot in November.
Landis, a retired school system employee, voted for County Executive Rushern Baker III in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and was backed by many of the same county elected officials who supported his losing bid.
Dudley is a vocal supporter of Ben Jealous, a progressive former NAACP president whose platform includes single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and legalizing and taxing marijuana, and whose backing from teachers unions across the state was key to his winning the nomination.
Landis and Dudley said they are committed to helping Jealous defeat popular Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in November.
“It’s my number one priority,” said Landis, who described Jealous as a “phenomenal” nominee.
But some in the audience were skeptical. John Mitchell, who supported U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, said he had “concerns” about Landis’s ability to mobilize voters and worried that “enthusiasm will be gone if people can’t feel any ownership in the party.”
“We want to see health care for all and fair wages, but there is also a fundamental desire to have the party be more of a bottom-up organization,” said Mitchell, of Accokeek.
Dudley said substantive changes need to be made to the central committee going forward so it reflects the interests of county residents she described as increasingly progressive.
During the meeting, she unveiled a chain bought at Home Depot and said county officials, including those elected to the central committee, have for too long been controlled by “the master who lives in Calvert County,” referring to state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D), whose district also includes part of Prince George’s.
“This chain, we don’t need it,” she said to cheers from the audience, which was filled with members of Progressive Maryland and Our Revolution, grass-roots groups that helped propel Jealous to victory and oust key Miller allies in the state Senate.
The activists, several of whom spoke at the end of the hours-long meeting, said Miller and other state senators who represent the county wield too much power over who wins office by issuing official-looking “sample ballots” that endorse some Democratic candidates over others.
Dudley and others demanded that the committee condemn the ballots, which they said favor establishment choices and mislead voters into thinking they represent an official party slate.
“There was so much legitimate confusion,” said Wala Blegay, who unsuccessfully ran for state delegate and started a petition to end the use of sample ballots that has received nearly 700 signatures.
Krystal Oriadha, an activist who lost her race for county council by 30 votes, said the ballots are part of a “systematic effort to keep progressives from winning.”
Miller declined, through an aide, to comment.
In a speech after the vote, Landis pledged to create an ad hoc committee immediately to examine the issue.
Former central committee member Malcolm Augustine, who was nominated for a state Senate seat in the June 26 primary, said that although debate Tuesday was “spirited,” what matters most is that the party is unified behind Jealous.
“There was a lot of passion in the room,” he said. “We have to find a way to channel that passion in a way that’s inclusive.”