It’s a well-caffeinated group of six candidates seeking appointment to the vacant Maryland House of Delegates seat from District 20 (Silver Spring-Takoma Park).
Each is looking to claim a majority of the 28-member Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, scheduled to vote Jan. 9 on a replacement for former delegate William C. Smith Jr. He was named by the panel last month to fill the state Senate seat held by Jamie B. Raskin, elected to Congress in November.
Aspirants are making their pitches to this mini-electorate mostly one-on-one, often over coffee in shops or in private meetings.
“Government by Starbucks,” said Darian Unger, a Howard University School of Business professor and Montgomery County firefighter who has caucused with committee members in outlets from Olney to Georgetown.
It’s a lot more than coffee consumption that has some candidates and party activists wondering whether there is a better way to fill General Assembly vacancies. The appointment process has come under increasing scrutiny from critics who contend that it is undemocratic and rife with cronyism. Some want special elections in lieu of appointments. Others call for reforms in central committee practices, including a better job of engaging the public in filling the openings.
The Maryland constitution requires party central committees to recommend replacements to the governor. They are recommendations only in the most technical sense; Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is bound by law to appoint someone from the party that previously held the seat. Only in rare instances has a governor bucked the choice of a county committee.
Counting the upcoming District 20 decision, 10 of the current 32-member Montgomery legislative delegation have reached the House of Delegates or advanced from the House to the state Senate by central committee appointment. Three were central committee members at the time they were named: state Sen. Susan C. Lee and Dels. Kirill Reznik and Pam Queen. Queen, a Morgan State University professor of finance, was selected in February to fill the District 14 House opening created when former delegate Craig J. Zucker moved to the Senate — also by committee appointment.
One of the six District 20 applicants, Jheanelle Wilkins, senior field manager for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Human Rights, also sits on the central committee. She was elected to the post in the 2014 Democratic primary.
For some of the candidates, that carries a whiff of insiderism.
“It feels like it’s not a level playing field,” said Daniel Koroma, outreach manager and liaison to African and Caribbean communities in the county’s Office of Community Partnerships. Koroma, 42, a native of Sierra Leone, said the setup does not square with his view of the United States, which he called “a beacon of democracy.”
“If you work hard, you have a shot. If there is a way to improve the process, I’m definitely for it,” he said.
Unger and other District 20 contenders have substantial records of civic and political involvement, but little relationship with the central committee: Yvette Butler, 56, is the Maryland state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens; Lorig Charkoudian, 43, is a professional mediator and criminal justice activist; and Amy Cress, 44, is communications director for Easter Seals in the Washington region and an anti-gun-violence organizer.
Cress said she would like to see a broader effort to include the public in the selection. “The feeling is that there are a number of people who aren’t aware of the process until it hits their district, and they are taken aback that there is not a special election.”
Unger, 43, chair of Montgomery’s ACLU chapter, said there is a larger conflict of interest issue that the committee needs to address.
While most central committee members are elected in Democratic primaries, the state requires that each county panel have an equal number of men and women. The Montgomery committee has four members it appointed for gender balance. They can vote on General Assembly vacancies, conceivably supporting members who brought them aboard.
“Committee members get to choose who else is on the committee, and that whole committee gets to appoint their members to the State House,” Unger said. “To me, democracy works best when people are diligent at avoiding even an appearance of interest conflict.”
Wilkins, 28, said she has gotten no indication from fellow committee members that she has an edge.
“I think every single central committee member is looking widely at all the candidates,” she said.
“I can tell you I have not made up my mind,” said Vice Chair Wendy Cohen. “I won’t pick a committee member just to pick a committee member.”
The central committee is holding two candidate forums where the public can ask questions: Tuesday at the White Oak Community Center and Thursday at the Silver Spring Civic Center, both at 7 p.m.
Cohen said nearly all central committee members favor a system that would allow for special elections. But, she said, “state law is state law, and we take that role very seriously until the law is changed.”
Cohen and central committee Chair Dave Kunes said they support legislation sponsored by Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) to give county committees the option of holding special elections for General Assembly vacancies. The measure failed in 2015, sunk by opposition from party leaders. In some counties, state legislators effectively control central committees and are reluctant to relinquish appointment power. Opponents also contend that special elections are expensive and generate extremely low turnouts.
But the ground under the issue may be shifting. Last year, Moon and state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) led passage of legislation amending the state constitution to limit the governor’s power to fill vacancies for statewide offices. Under the old law, a gubernatorial appointee to the office of comptroller or attorney general could complete the unexpired term. The new measure, approved by voters in November, requires that a special election be held during the next regularly scheduled election.
Moon says he will probably try again to adopt the same requirements for General Assembly vacancies.
“Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to have all statewide offices conducted in that manner except our own,” said Moon, who lost to Smith in the central committee vote to fill Raskin’s Senate seat.
The Jan. 9 central committee meeting to select a replacement will take place at 7 p.m. at Silver Spring International Middle School.