By Josh Kurtz
When state Sen. Victor Ramirez (D) decided to run for Prince George’s County state’s attorney rather than seek a third term, it was initially assumed that Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D) would seek the seat – and have the upper hand. He had more cash on hand than the other delegates in the 47th District and had been knocking on voters’ doors for years, first as a Mt. Rainier city councilman, then as a delegate.
But Tarlau chose to seek a second House term instead, and what has resulted is a wide-open, three-way Democratic Senate primary with no clear frontrunner, potential racial overtones, and myriad overlapping alliances that would look like a Venn diagram if someone tried to map them.
“It’s a lot of chefs in the kitchen,” said one leading Prince George’s County Democrat who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.
The three candidates are Malcolm Augustine, a marketing executive and Prince George’s representative to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2014; Wanika Fisher, an attorney and former aide to Ramirez who is also close with former Del. Jolene Ivey (D) and former State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey (D); and Del. Carlo Sanchez.
District 47 takes in Brentwood, Mt. Rainer, Cheverly, Langley Park, Bladensburg and other inside-the-Beltway communities. The district’s population is 49 percent African-American and 41 percent Latino.
The primary has been a polite enough affair so far. But there is a sense among some party activists and Ramirez’s allies that the race could become messy for him, as he bids for the top prosecutor’s job in a tough battle with former Del. Aisha Braveboy (D). Better for Ramirez to have a unified district working to elect him, his partisans believe, than a distracting, internecine battle in his home base.
“The chickens have all left the coop now,” said the leading Prince George’s Democrat. “They’ve all gotten out.”
Senators wield plenty of power in their districts – and more so in Prince George’s than most other places. So will Ramirez try to sort things out in the primary to replace him and perhaps fashion some kind of ticket?
Ramirez is a mentor to Sanchez; when the now-indicted former Del. Will Campos (D) resigned from the House in 2015, Ramirez helped arrange for Sanchez to be appointed to replace him in District 47B, where the bulk of the district’s Latino population is.
Ramirez has expressed a desire to see more Latinos in the Senate. At present, he is the lone Latino senator.
“I think that’s one of the things we all consider – the diversity and the makeup of the Senate and the delegation,” he said.
But Ramirez is also a mentor to Fisher. In addition to once working on his Annapolis staff, she now is working for his Hyattsville-based law firm.
Augustine, meanwhile, is close to County Executive Rushern Baker (D), his neighbor, who appointed him to the Metro board and is expected to endorse his Senate bid. Baker, of course, is friend and neighbor to the Iveys, who are also mentors to Fisher. And the Iveys, incidentally, are supporting Ramirez’s run for state’s attorney.
Got all that?
Asked recently about his stance on the primary, Ramirez said it was too early to make any decisions.
“I think each of them brings a great perspective,” he said. “It’s good for democracy.”
The three candidates are plowing ahead.
Fisher, who is just 29, believes she has the upper hand in the race as an African-American woman (she is a first generation American who is half-black and half-Indian). Black women vote disproportionately in majority-minority districts, especially in Prince George’s County. But there is only one female senator in the county at the moment.
“Gwendolyn Britt was our first senator in District 47 – a very strong black woman,” she said. “Very big shoes to fill. I think the district is ready for that type of leadership.”
And Fisher, who lives near The Mall at Prince George’s in Hyattsville, said she would have no trouble representing the Latino areas in her district, given her familiarity with the community from her time working with Ramirez – and the fact that she was president of the Latino Student Union as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland.
“The focus is not race-based,” she said. “I’m trying to lift up everybody.”
Fisher said her opponents are “nice guys with good intentions. But I haven’t heard ideas.”
Augustine, who lives in Cheverly, said he deserves consideration because he has already worked to solve problems in the district, as a member of the Metro board. He said he has taken lessons from his loss in 2014, when people said he was too new to the community to go to Annapolis, and has worked hard to make contacts and gain credibility throughout the district.
“I look at District 47, I look at where we’re located,” he said. “I see the transformation of D.C. I want to see that type of development that we’re seeing there in District 47, without the displacement.”
Augustine said he also thinks he’ll have some advantage in the primary because 8,000 WMATA workers live in Prince George’s County. “They need an advocate,” he said.
Sanchez, who lives in the Carole Highlands neighborhood of Takoma Park, said he has already done a good job representing the district in Annapolis and can relate to huge swaths of the district, as the son of Salvadoran immigrants who worked multiple jobs to put him through school – and as someone who has lived within the 47th District for his entire life.
“We need to make sure we do a better job of setting the table for future generations,” he said.
But Augustine said Sanchez should not benefit from his incumbency, because “he has not faced the voters.”
With Tarlau and Del. Diane Fennell (D) already entrenched in District 47A, Ramirez may be moved to try to prevail upon Sanchez or Fisher to drop back into the District 47B race. That subdistrict already has one Democratic candidate: Elliott Reed, a government project worker, who initially filed to run for the county Board of Education.
If Ramirez is moved to intervene in the Senate primary, he may choose to wait until after the mid-January deadline for fundraising reports. The candidates’ financial strength could be key.
Ramirez said February may be the right time to weigh in. The filing deadline for candidates is Feb. 27.
Said one Dist. 47 Democratic activist: “I don’t know how this all shakes out.”