By Megan Poinski
While campaigning to keep his seat representing District 19, Sen. Mike Lenett said many people he meets are still trying to figure out why the freshman Democrat has a challenger.
Lenett, an attorney first elected in 2006, is being taken on in the Democratic primary by one-term Del. Roger Manno. Lenett said the fact that he has a primary race to run has been difficult to explain to constituents.
“A lot of people don’t understand why this race is taking place,” Lenett said. “We have both only been there for one term. We are both on the same progressive side of the Democratic Party. We have a nearly identical voting record.”
Manno, also an attorney, says the reasons for the race and the differences between himself and Lenett are clear. Lenett, Manno said, has not been a team player with his other District 19 colleagues in Annapolis. On the other hand, Manno said he has done nothing but collaborate with the other delegates from the district in order to best represent the people.
“We need more collaborative teamwork,” Manno said. “What prompted me to consider running for Senate, and why I decided to run, is that I want the district to work as a delegation. I think Sen. Lenett has not worked well with the delegation.”
Since being elected to office in 2006, Manno said that teamwork has been central to his philosophy. He shared an office in Annapolis with Del. Ben Kramer, emphasizing their work as a team. Manno said that the collaborative approach has been effective, and several current and former politicians in the district — which includes central Montgomery County, Glenmont, Olney, and Aspen Hill – have encouraged him to run for the Senate seat.
MIller: “They don’t like each other”
Senate President Mike Miller has a simple theory why the Lenett-Manno contest is taking place: “They don’t like each other,” Miller said in an interview. The long-time Senate leader is supporting the re-election of Lenett and the other incumbent Montgomery senators in contested races.
Lenett is “a very bright guy,” Miller said, and though “he struck some people the wrong way” during his first year in the Senate, he “adapted quickly.”
But Miller also respects Manno, and notes the two men are both sharp lawyers, both of “the same faith” (Jewish), both worked on Capitol Hill, both from New York, “but they don’t care for each other.” Miller said Manno told him, “I would rather run and loose than be at odds with him for four more years.”
Lenett described Manno as very ambitious, and he said the delegate told him he would challenge Lenett for his Senate seat shortly after being elected in 2006. There are no substantial policy differences between the two candidates, Lenett said, so he is campaigning based on his first-term record.
“I have a good, strong record for my first term in office,” said Lenett, who is an assistant deputy majority whip. “I was elected by my colleagues to a leadership position, and I have passed a lot of legislation that people care about.”
Lots of endorsements for both
Though Manno has not yet earned any leadership positions in Annapolis, he said he has passed several bills that make a difference to the people in the district. He has racked up endorsements from current and retired lawmakers from the district, unions, and groups including NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, the Montgomery County Youth Slate, the Coalition of Asian Pacific American Democrats, and Progressive Maryland.
The endorsement from Progressive Maryland — a liberal coalition of labor, church and social activist groups — was “a very difficult and contentious decision,” said Rion Dennis, PM’s acting executive director. In the group’s four-year ratings, Lenett got 95% and Manno got 97%.
Lenett “has been a friend,” but Manno has been one of the key legislators “who really carries water for our issues” on the House Economic Matters Committee where lots of PM’s key legislation are decided.
Lenett “doesn’t have any more experience than I do,” Manno said. “We have served the same district for the same length of time. Plus, I am also an incumbent.”
The Jewish vote
Howie Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, has paid close attention to the politics in District 19 — which has a high concentration of Maryland’s Orthodox Jews. Manno and Lenett are both Jews and have similar policy stances, but Beigelman said Manno has done more for the Orthodox Jewish community. Manno sponsored a bill that would require employers to accommodate religious employees’ work requests — like allowing men to wear beards for religious reasons, or not scheduling a Jewish employee to work on the Sabbath. The bill died in committee.
Beigelman said Lenett was not present to vote on a bill that would require a married Orthodox couple to have all of the necessary religious documentation in place to get a civil divorce — under Jewish law, an Orthodox woman cannot remarry without a formal declaration of divorce given by her husband — when it died on the Senate floor. (Floor debate about the religious entanglement by two other Montgomery County Jews, Sens. Rona Kramer and Jamie Raskin, helped kill the bill.)
“For our subsection of the district, these are important issues,” Beigelman said. “I don’t know if this is going to swing it, but people are going to look at it.”
A close race
Because of the busy General Assembly session this year, Manno’s campaign did not get off the ground as early as he hoped it would. Several “trustees” – people who are true District 19 political institutions, Manno said, are “invested” in his candidacy.
“I see more of a unity around our campaign than I have seen before,” Manno said.
Lenett’s backers may have even more statewide clout, They include the governor, lieutenant governor, a dozen unions representing teachers, police, firefighters, service workers and the state AFL-CIO, as well as the Maryland League of Conservation Voters
Jon Gerson, community outreach coordinator for the Montgomery County Education Association, noted that Lenett had a 100% voting record on teachers’ issues, and the union has a policy of supporting incumbents that support them, regardless of a challenger’s good record.
Lenett said that Manno is a “good delegate who is working on the right things,” but fears that this primary battle may be taking its toll on the party.
“This is the most divisive campaign we have had in our district than any one I can remember, and it comes right at a time where nationally, Democrats need to stand together,” Lenett said.
“It’s going to be a close race,” predicted the Senate president.
Editor Len Lazarick contributed to this story.