Maya Rockeymoore Cummings was elected chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party. (Brian Witte/AP)

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a onetime candidate for governor in Maryland, was elected chairwoman of the state Democratic Party on Saturday, ousting incumbent Kathleen Matthews after a debate over the party’s future.

In a decisive 438-319 vote, Democratic activists meeting in Prince George’s County chose Rockeymoore Cummings to lead the party as it tries to reclaim the governorship in 2022. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) defeated Democratic nominee Ben Jealous by double digits in November, leading to soul-searching among Democrats, who hold a significant edge over Republicans in voter registration.

Rockeymoore Cummings said she wants to unite a party that has lost three of the past five gubernatorial elections.

“We have a structural problem when it comes to the top of the ticket,” she said in a passionate speech before the vote at a union hall in Lanham. “And that structural problem will create a downward spiral for our party if we don’t fix it now.”

Rockeymoore Cummings, who is founder of the consulting firm Global Policy Solutions, will serve as party chair for four years. Her deputy will be state Del. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City), an incoming state senator whom Matthews recruited to run for vice chair.

Matthews, a former top executive at Marriott International and television journalist, led the party as it made some of its biggest gains in years, including pickups of two county executive positions and eight House of Delegates seats in the November elections. Democrats also flipped several county councils from red to blue majorities.


Kathleen Matthews lost her reelection bid to lead the state Democratic Party. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

But the battle for chair and other leadership positions illustrated how far Democrats have to go to heal the wounds created by Hogan’s defeat of Jealous last month and then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) in 2014.

With Hogan limited by state law to two terms in office, some Democratic leaders have described the party as being in its strongest position in years. Others have said — despite the down-ballot victories — that the party remains fractured. Some called Saturday’s results a sign that the party is starting to fully open its tent.

“The tide is changing,” said Larry Stafford Jr., executive director of Progressive Maryland, which has pushed for more ideological diversity in the party.

Rockeymoore Cummings secured support from party members across the state, capturing a huge number of votes from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, and Prince George’s counties and picking up several votes in rural counties. She has described herself as a bridge builder who can bring together the progressive and centrist voters.

“This is what I do,” she said.

Rockeymoore Cummings previously worked as a senior resident scholar for health and income security at the National Urban League and vice president of research and programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She ended a brief run for governor this year while her husband, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), was hospitalized.

On Saturday, Rockeymoore Cummings told party members she was worried about the future of the party and was frustrated that many Democratic leaders failed to rally strongly behind Jealous in the general election. A large number of Democratic voters split their tickets, backing Hogan for governor and Democrats for down-ballot races.

“When you continue to have primary voters sending primary candidates out into a general election only for our candidates to be nullified by a faction of Democrats in the general, that is a problem,” she said. “This has the potential to split our party in half and fracture the Democratic coalition, to undermine the very viability of this party. We can do better.”

Matthews, who passed the gavel to Rockeymoore Cummings after the vote, said she looks forward to working with Rockeymoore Cummings.

“I stand ready . . . to ensure that we double down on our progress to elect Democrats statewide and in every county in Maryland,” Matthews said.

The divisions within the party were evident from the start of Saturday’s meeting, when Theresa Dudley, a member of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee, criticized top elected officials for their tepid support of Jealous’s campaign.

“Everybody tells me you gotta be a loyal Democrat,” Dudley said. “But when I see our Senate leadership sending out advertisements saying he can reach across the aisle, that’s problematic.”

Dudley wanted to know whether any money from the state party was used on mailers featuring Hogan’s picture that were sent by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert), Sen. Kathy A. Klausmeier (Baltimore County) and others. Matthews said no money from the party was used.

ovetta.wiggins@washpost.com