By Len Lazarick
First of a series of seven articles
Four weeks from today, every major office in Montgomery and Prince George’s County – from sheriff to executive, from county council to state senate – will largely be decided in the Democratic primary.
The last two Republican office holders in Montgomery, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, were defeated four years ago, and four years before that the GOP went empty in Prince George’s, the second largest county.
While Democrats battle for executive in Prince George’s and for council seats in both counties, and dozens scramble for open delegate seats, some of the most intense intraparty fighting involves six incumbent senators being challenged by delegates (and a former delegate) from their own party.
These incumbents have what would generally be called liberal voting records in the rest of the state, but they face challengers who are out to be more progressive, more green, more pro-education, more pro-choice, more effective leaders, and yes, younger and more likable.
Elected Democratic leaders often shy from intervening in contested primaries, but Gov. Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett have weighed in on the side of incumbents that have helped them govern. For Democratic Senate President Mike Miller, the choices in Montgomery County were easy. “Each of the four incumbents I know to be hard workers. They’re doing the job and they’re doing it well,” he said.
But Miller, who represents part of Prince George’s County, is staying clear of the two contested races there since it’s “too close to home,” though he is on a Senate slate with the incumbents.
Sticking with incumbents
Except for Sen. Rona Kramer, where the teachers union took issue with her anti-tax votes, the Montgomery County Education Association is sticking with the incumbents, as well. John Gerson, MCEA’s director of community outreach, said, “If you throw overboard an incumbent with a good voting record, it makes it hard for a legislator to stick with you.”
“The next few years are going to be the most difficult times in modern history to be in public office,” Gerson said. “It will call on elected officials to make difficult choices. .. It’s much easier to govern when there’s money.”
Not surprisingly, the business community is interested in the money too, and particularly Montgomery County’s three seats on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. That’s why they’ve endorsed the three incumbents on the committee.
“That is the only committee that counts in Montgomery County,” said Rich Parsons of the Montgomery County Business Political Action Committee.
The county now only gets 15 or 16 cents back for every dollar its sends to Annapolis, where it used to get 21 or 22 cents, he said.
“Everybody knows we’re going to be a net donor” to state coffers, Parsons said. “We need people who can deliver the goods for Montgomery County,” particularly for school construction and transportation.
UPDATE WITH QUOTE: Other groups have taken a different approach. Progressive Maryland – the most broadly liberal of the groups that backs candidates — endorsed challengers in three of the six races, but is sitting out the other three races, mainly because the board couldn’t reach a two-thirds majority as to who was the most progressive candidate was, according to Acting Executive Director Rion Dennis. The League of Conservation Voters went with challengers in four of the six races — but stuck with incumbents in the other two.
The choice of candidates can split not only organizations and groups, but the party itself. “We need to make sure our party is well united in November,” Leggett said in an earlier interview.
“We have so many contested races, we have to make sure we have no permanent scars because of these races,” said Leggett, a former chair of the state Democratic Party. He wants to make sure O’Malley gets a big margin of victory in the county.
Travis Tazelaar, executive director of the state party, said, “Regardless of who wins in the primary, Montgomery is a very strong county for us,” as is Prince George’s.
After the primary, “we do a unity rally … we lick our wounds, and we move forward as a unified party,” Tazelaar said.
Certainly there are angry voters and some anti-incumbent mood, because “people are hurting,” but “I don’t think Maryland is indicative of the entire county,” Tazelaar said. “If they weren’t happy with the Democrats, they’d start electing other people.”