"If you wait for March, it's too late," said Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George's), a progressive who likes prospective candidate Ben Jealous's outspoken support for a $15 minimum wage, criminal justice reforms and a progressive tax system. "If I think there's someone who will lead Maryland in a good direction, I plan to support that person."
The campaign launched this month by Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) reflects an ongoing debate among Democrats about whether their party is controlled by elites. Some Democrats say the Democratic National Committee lost grass-roots support in 2016 by favoring former secretary of state Hillary Clinton over rivals such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And then-Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D) accused party leaders that year of never giving her a fair hearing before backing her House colleague Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic Senate primary.
Moon said his petition is partly inspired by Maryland's 2002 and 2014 gubernatorial races, the only two won by Republicans in the past 50 years. Both times, elected Democrats in the state coalesced around candidates who had served as lieutenant governor but did not generate strong enthusiasm for voters.
This time around, Moon said, Democratic hopefuls should "go to all corners of the state to define themselves on issues, and do all that before the elected officials go out and tell people who they should be voting for."
He is asking Democrats to withhold endorsements until after the Feb. 27 filing deadline and at least one debate, and to sign a pledge saying early endorsements "may create a primary among insiders that reduces voter input and unnecessarily keeps potential candidates out of the race."
Sixteen Democratic elected officials have signed so far, including U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin; 11 state lawmakers; Jacob R. Day, mayor of Salisbury; two city council members; and a county legislator.
There are currently two declared Democratic candidates for governor: state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) and Baltimore entrepreneur Alec Ross. In addition to Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, five others are openly exploring bids: Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III; U.S. Rep. John Delaney; former Maryland attorney general Douglas F. Gansler; Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz; and attorney James L. Shea.
The prospective candidates expressed varying degrees of support for minimizing the endorsement game.
"I think it makes sense to give people the opportunity to demonstrate their viability without anyone putting their hands on the scale," Madaleno said.
Delaney spokesman Will McDonald said the congressman, a health-care financier who has spent millions on his own campaigns, has "never liked the insider endorsement game" and that it tends to "really upset people."
Gansler, who placed second in his party's 2014 gubernatorial primary, declined to take a position on Moon's petition, saying Democrats may feel compelled to endorse early this year because of Hogan's fundraising prowess and record approval ratings.
Baker, Kamenetz and Jealous did not respond to requests for comment on the petition.
Tarlau is not the only progressive questioning the petition. Del. A. Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery), who backed long-shot candidate and former state delegate Heather Mizeur (D) in the 2014 primary, agreed with Moon that the early endorsements that then-lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown received in that race "dampened debate."
But he said he doesn't foresee the same problem this cycle, because "there doesn't appear to be any clear front-runner on the Democratic side."
Robinson, who chairs the Montgomery County delegation in Annapolis, said he won't sign Moon's pledge, and would "probably" endorse Jealous if he decides to run.
Moon pointed to the 2008 Democratic nomination battle between Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama as an example of a "competitive primary" that "helped engage people and lay the groundwork for our outreach during the general election."
"I would hope that's the same effect we'd have in Maryland in 2018," he said.