In candidate forums, Democrats running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District nomination almost always avoid direct challenges to opponents, talking up their own records instead.
Will Jawando tried a more aggressive approach Saturday, using the African American Democratic Club of Montgomery County’s annual State of Black Montgomery conference to call out State Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery) for a vote on a criminal justice issue.
The charge involved a tangled and technical dispute between Raskin and black Senate colleagues over a floor amendment last March. And it didn’t prevent some of them from later endorsing his congressional candidacy.
Jawando, a former Obama White House staffer and the only African American candidate in the field of nine, had been asked how to make the police and courts more accountable when he said:
“We need to elect different leaders who represent our community, who understand these issues. . . . I’m disappointed in Senator Raskin for voting against a bill last session that would have prevented juveniles from serving life sentences.”
The “bill” was actually an amendment to a measure sponsored by State Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford) empowering judges, rather than juries, to decide whether a person convicted of first degree murder should serve life without possibility of parole.
The amendment, offered by Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County), would have barred minors from receiving such punishment in Maryland courts.
“Humanity dictates it,” said Kelley, noting that the amendment was in line with the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole for juvenile murderers constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The decision said judges may still hand down such a sentence to minors but must take mitigating circumstances into account.
Kelley, who noted that a dozen other states have passed similar provisions, was supported by other minority lawmakers, including State Sens. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) and Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s), who argued that such severe sentences fall disproportionately on black juveniles, many from abusive backgrounds or suffering from mental illness.
The amendment touched off an emotional hour-long debate. Raskin said it was too significant a policy change to be dropped into Cassilly’s bill, which he described as strictly “corrective” and a “clean-up” measure to eliminate language that should have been dropped when Maryland abolished the death penalty in 2009.
When capital punishment was still on the books, juries decided whether a sentence for a murder conviction would be death or life without parole. Since the repeal, some judges have continued to allow juries to make the decision regarding life without parole.
Raskin, an American University constitutional law professor who led the floor fight to repeal the death penalty, argued that retaining the jury’s sentencing role in these cases was improper and that the question of life without parole should be left to judges. He called it “a clean-up bill” that was not the appropriate vehicle for Kelley’s amendment.
But Kelley and her supporters said that there was no legitimate reason for excluding the amendment and that the time had come to address this aspect of a broken criminal justice system.
“Most of the people who are incarcerated in the state of Maryland look like me,” Benson said.
“If not [now], when?” said State Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George’s). “Do we wait another year, two years and watch children get life without parole?”
The amendment was defeated, and Cassilly’s bill was returned to committee.
The skirmish apparently left no lasting damage. Kelley said Sunday she had no issue with Raskin, who signed this year as a co-sponsor of her newly filed bill to ban life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.
“He’s a lawyer and lawyers can ask tough questions. But I respect him,” she said.
It also didn’t stop others who voted with Kelley, including Ramirez and State Senate Majority Leader Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltmore City), from endorsing his congressional candidacy.
Jawando said Sunday he felt it was worth bringing the matter to light.
“My point was it’s great that he’s a co-sponsor now, but there are times when process shouldn’t get in the way of progress. Record is fair game.”
The forum was also notable for the absence of businessman David Trone. The Potomac wine merchant, who entered the race late last month with big self-financed ad buys and a vow to spend whatever it took to win, did an early morning drop-by to shake hands at the Silver Spring Civic Center prior to the State of Black Montgomery conference that preceded the debate.
Trone said he had other campaign commitments but would be joining the candidate forum circuit soon. The conference program listed him as a “platinum sponsor” for the event. Organizers said he donated $1,000.