By Josh Kurtz
Summing up the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor recently – most of whom have been on the job for only a couple of weeks – the conservative website Red Maryland offered one word: Who?
That’s not an inaccurate assessment, but it’s not altogether fair, either. How many gubernatorial running mates have been all that well-known through the years? Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) was hardly a household name when he was plucked from a career in the federal and state bureaucracy to run with now-Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) four years ago – and he still isn’t today.
Except for a brief period around the Civil War, the job of lieutenant governor has only existed in Maryland since 1971. But it has not proven to be the stepping stone politicians once presumed it would be.
Once upon a time – or at least in 1978 and 1986 – state Senate presidents (Steny H. Hoyer and Melvin A. Steinberg, respectively) were willing to give up their powerful posts to become candidates for lieutenant governor. Those days are long gone. As we well know, no Maryland lieutenant governor has ever been elected governor.
From 1994 to 2014, just four state legislators joined gubernatorial tickets, and only one of them – Anthony G. Brown – was elected lieutenant governor. This year, no state legislator is on a gubernatorial ticket. There’s plenty of speculation that Democratic lawmakers did not want to give up their legislative careers for longshot bids for statewide office – especially with Hogan being so popular.
Only one LG can really claim to have been well known before she was elected, and that was Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But she came from a famous family and wasn’t especially well known in Maryland, where she had run unsuccessfully for Congress eight years earlier.
The point being that there usually aren’t any high-profile figures for gubernatorial candidates to turn to when they are seeking running mates. They’re looking for help mates; people who provide geographical, racial, ethnic, gender, philosophical or regional balance, or some combination; someone to attack their opponents or advance their campaign narrative. Access to previously untapped donors is also a plus.
So with all that said, the Democrats for governor did pretty well, given their needs. And for the people who have signed on to be candidates for lieutenant governor – a gig that will be over in less than four months for most of them – there is absolutely nothing to lose.
Here’s an assessment:
Sharon Blake (running with Krishanti Vignarajah)
The real “Who?” in the field. But not an insubstantial person. Considering that many political observers wondered if Vignarajah would be able to find a running mate at all, she could have done a lot worse than a longtime teacher and former president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.
If Vignarajah is going to gain any traction in this race, she’s going to have to fire up women voters. Presenting a ticket of two women of color might help. And with education sure to be a prime topic as voters begin to pay attention, having a career educator on board can only help.
Elizabeth M. Embry (running with Rushern L. Baker III)
A classic running mate for the Democrat running the most traditional campaign and looking for now, however tenuously, like the frontrunner. An attorney and longtime prosecutor, Embry provides all kinds of balances, comes from a plugged-in family with deep tentacles in Baltimore and, having run for mayor two years ago, knows what it takes to survive the rigors of a campaign.
And yet, she will also be perceived in most corners as a fresh face and policy wonk – and that will help Baker, too. Not an exciting pick, maybe, but in Baker’s case it may not have to be.
Valerie Ervin (running with Kevin B. Kamenetz)
She could be the very best of the lieutenant governor candidates. An accomplished and outspoken former Montgomery County councilmember and longtime progressive activist, she has a “tell it like it is” quality that Kamenetz imagines he also possesses, she’s experienced, and she’s fearless. This is certainly the most experienced ticket when it comes to service in elective office.
But she can also be volatile and has made some enemies through the years. How will the campaign deploy her? Is she ready for the secondary role that being the candidate for lieutenant governor requires her to play? Can she pick off progressive voters that might otherwise gravitate to some of the other campaigns? Can she help Kamenetz attract voters in Montgomery County?
Luwanda W. Jenkins (running with Richard S. Madaleno)
Jenkins is a widely admired former government official who has served the last three Democratic governors, and she also has plenty of relevant private sector experience. Everyone who knows her likes her a lot.
But her political skills – if in fact they exist – are unknown. How will she be deployed on the campaign trail? That remains to be seen – but she seems prepared to enthusiastically make the case for Madaleno.
Brandon M. Scott (running with James L. Shea)
An impressive young man who looks even younger when appearing with the guy at the top of the ticket. A Baltimore city councilman, he’s the only current elected official running for LG, which brings a certain gravitas and immediacy to his bid that his counterparts do not have. And of all the candidates for LG, he has far and away the most street cred in Baltimore.
How Scott’s qualities accrue to Shea remains to be seen. A Baltimore-centric campaign will only get Shea so far, but it may be the best play he has. Scott is a solid pick – but he’ll probably be helped more by the exposure this race brings him for a future citywide bid than Shea is helped by choosing him.
Susan W. Turnbull (running with Benjamin T. Jealous)
She’s never held elective office before, but the former state party chairwoman and Democratic National Committeewoman is a political pro with a lifetime of contacts in a range of Democratic circles – something an activist and outsider like Jealous sorely needs, especially as the primary gets closer and it looks like he has a chance of being the Democratic nominee.
Turnbull can be Jealous’ ambassador to the Democratic establishment – and she can also help him raise money. She may not be as dynamic a figure as, say, Ervin, or even Scott. But if Jealous becomes the nominee and the ticket needs to bring in a national superstar like Joe Biden to the state a few days before the general election, Turnbull has the juice to get him here.
Julie Verratti (running with Alec Ross)
If you buy into the construct of Ross’ campaign – the vague millennial hipster vibe combined with policy chops and entrepreneurial spirit – then the Verratti pick reinforces it and makes sense. Ross likes to say he’s reaching into corners of the state where Democrats usually don’t go, but how widespread is the appeal of a ticket featuring an author and tech entrepreneur and a craft brewer, really?
Despite being a political novice, Ross has impressed most of the people he meets and Verratti, who has her own political convictions and story to tell, probably will also. But the ticket may look to some people like it’s badly in need of adult supervision.
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