Chuck Conner is a political novice in many respects, but officials with the Maryland Democratic Party saw two things in him that they wanted in their new executive director: a common touch and experience with community outreach.
Party Chairman Bruce Poole said those qualifications made Conner, a fourth-generation pastor with a law degree, an easy choice to lead day-to-day operations after Patrick Murray left the position to head the U.S. Senate campaign of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) in May. Conner, 33, had been the state party’s outreach director since January.
“We had plaudits from people who were never connected with the party before,” Poole said. “We sent him out to a lot of African American churches and tried to reach out to black and Hispanic communities. People came back and said, ‘We like this guy.’ ”
Reconnecting with community leaders and grass-roots organizations has been a primary focus for the state party since losing the governorship and nine seats in the General Assembly nearly two years ago.
“Right now, the party is in trouble in terms of its bench,” said Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “What’s going to help the party is someone who can rebuild.”
According to Norris, that means strengthening ties with the party faithful, including labor unions, environmental groups and social-justice advocates. From there, he said, Democrats and their allies need to groom a candidate who can eventually take back the governorship, which Republican Larry Hogan won in 2014.
“If they can’t knock him off in 2018, they need to find someone who can run against two or three really attractive Republicans in later elections,” Norris said. Possible Republican successors to Hogan include Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh and Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman.
One sign Democrats are buckling down in Maryland is the party’s decision not to send volunteers and resources this summer to neighboring battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, as it has done for past presidential elections. Conner played down the move, saying volunteers “want to knock on doors in their own neighborhoods.”
Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) expressed confidence in the party’s overall approach, adding that he was impressed with an event Conner helped organize for more than 700 supporters last month at the Democratic National Convention.
“The energy in the room for our Maryland Day lunch in Philadelphia was outstanding,” Busch said.
Conner, a native of South Carolina, has little political experience compared with Murray, his predecessor, who previously served as director of the Kansas Democratic Party, a lobbyist for Johns Hopkins University and deputy chief of staff for state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Conner’s résumé includes seven months serving in a leadership position with a Baltimore nonprofit group that supports underperforming high-schoolers and almost two years as an aide to Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore).
After graduating from the Charleston School of Law in 2013, Conner, who has a divinity degree from Duke University, moved to Maryland to be closer to his now-fiancee. Soon after, he landed the job doing constituent services for Clippinger’s office. The interview for the job was supposed to last a few minutes, but the two chatted for more than an hour.
“His previous experience as a divinity student brings an emotional intelligence, and he combines that with what they teach in law school — being able to hear people and identify what is important, what the key issues are,” Clippinger said.
As outreach director, Murray said, Conner’s job “was to go into the places where Democrats have not been showing up as much as they should have in the past few years. He really took the bull by the horns by picking up the phone, setting up meetings and building a network that, frankly, the party had allowed to atrophy.”
Pamela Faulkner, secretary of the United Democrats of Washington County, said she met Conner while sitting across from him at a lunch with her group. “I had no idea that he was an important member of the Maryland Democratic Party,” she said. “I’m new to the state and just learning about Maryland, so his kindness meant a great deal to me.”
Van Hollen, who defeated fellow Rep. Donna F. Edwards in a bruising April primary and is heavily favored to win the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), recalls meeting Conner at a party unity event in Queen Anne’s County in June.
“It was clear that we shared the view that Democrats need to talk to voters in every area of Maryland,” Van Hollen said.
Hogan and the state GOP raked in more than $2 million within a few months of the 2014 election, including money from Democrats enamored with the straight-talking governor or eager to maintain access and influence in the new administration.
But filings with the Federal Election Commission show that the state Democratic Party has regained its traditional fundraising lead, with $415,310 in cash on hand to support federal candidates as of June 30, compared with $69,811 for the Maryland GOP.
After the April primary, the party was stung by criticism from Edwards, one of two African Americans in the state’s congressional delegation. She said the Democratic establishment had turned away from candidates who are women, minorities or outsiders.
Conner said Edwards’s remarks will force the party to reflect and become stronger.
“She brought up some hard truths, but I feel like this is a party where those hard truths could be spoken and well-received,” Conner said. “As a young black man, I feel invested in making sure the Maryland Democratic Party is one that is inclusive and brings out the best in anyone that wants to serve.”
Conner said the party will focus on distinguishing its agenda from that of the governor, particularly on education, pocketbook issues and the environment.
“Growing up in church, we used to sing a song, ‘Let My Work Speak for Me,’ ” he said. “I think that’s what we need to do.”