When Larry Stafford heard that Sen. Ulysses Currie was retiring and Currie’s wife was being floated as his replacement, the political activist thought: “Here we go again.”
Earlier this year, after the death of Del. James E. Proctor Jr. (D-Prince George’s), the county Democratic Committee nominated Proctor’s wife as his successor, urged on by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Stafford figured the same would happen with Shirley Gravely-Currie, 66, who appeared to have the support of Miller, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and most of the county Senate delegation. And he wasn’t happy about it.
“It’s not their seat,” said Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland. “It’s the people’s seat.”
This time, the central committee apparently agreed. Its members were bitterly divided over whether to support Gravely-
Currie or one of three other interested candidates: former delegate Melony G. Griffith and Dels. Darryl Barnes and Angela M. Angel, both of District 25. They would be expected to run for a full four-year term in 2018 if chosen for the seat.
On Tuesday, after weeks of acrimonious indecision, Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) rescinded his resignation, saying he would rather stay in office an additional two years than have the committee appoint someone who would have a political advantage two years from now.
The unusual sequence of events illustrates the growing willingness of Maryland Democrats to challenge their party’s establishment, and the impact of that change on county politics.
For decades, when a statehouse seat became vacant, committee members from the affected county received phone calls from their state senators, telling them who they should nominate as a replacement. And support that person they did.
But when Currie announced his intent to step down after a 30-year career, Prince George’s committee members balked. It was the latest instance in which they have proven to be political upstarts, adamant about making their own decisions and questioning local Democratic leaders.
In September, the committee went against the will of most senators and voted not to endorse a position on ballot Question D, which asked voters to add two at-large seats to the nine-member County Council. The referendum, which was approved by the council and supported by party leaders, passed by a substantial margin on Election Day.
The committee members, elected two years ago, share some similarities with the freshman class in the Maryland House of Delegates, who have pushed back against the Democratic legislative leadership on issues ranging from which bills to support to who should take the lead in challenging Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Despite a push from the majority of the senators who represent Prince George’s, many committee members wanted to fill Currie’s seat with someone other than his wife. Two people familiar with the process said Gravely-Currie was running third among the four candidates under consideration.
“This is a new generation of the central committee,” said committee member Belinda Queen-Howard, who represents District 25 and was supporting Griffith. “Some were under the control of the county executive, some under the control of their senators. Now they realize they don’t have the control of the votes.”
One Democratic state senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss party business, said, “There’s been a little bit of a change in the times.” The senator suggested that vacancies should be filled with special elections, rather than appointments.
Queen-Howard and others said they were frustrated by Currie’s decision to rescind his resignation and worried about whether the veteran lawmaker, whose health is declining and who has rarely spoken in public in recent months, will be able to finish the rest of the term.
When he announced his plans to resign, Currie, 79, cited his health challenges in a letter to Miller and said he “can no longer serve with the strength and energy you all deserve.”
“Everybody knows his health is failing,” Queen-Howard said. “I’m disappointed because I really wanted my senator to leave with respect and dignity. At this point, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Stafford said he is proud that the committee took an anti-establishment stand rather than rubber stamping a vote for “the political favorite.”
“Maybe this signals a decline of a certain era of Prince George’s County politics,” he said.