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Analysis: Where the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Stands (Maybe)

Elizabeth Embry campaigning with Rushern L. Baker III at Chick & Ruth’s Deli in Annapolis last year. File photo

So where does the Democratic gubernatorial contest stand, 64 days before the primary? The straw poll results from the weekend’s Western Maryland Democratic Summit say a lot: The winner, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, got 19 percent of the vote; the seventh-place finisher, tech entrepreneur Alec J. Ross, got 9 percent. It’s entirely conceivable that the actual race is just as close. This ought to delight and excite Democratic voters of all stripes. So often in Maryland politics the fix is in, particularly on the Democratic side. The establishment anoints one of its own and most voters fall in line. If the race is as wide open as it seems, everyday voters will have an actual say. There is a real opportunity for every voter to make a difference – and that comes with a great deal of responsibility. Fortunately for civic-minded Democrats, this week alone there are a handful of chances to see all the Democratic candidates in action together [see list below], in different parts of the state. Throw in the traditional party events that happen every spring, along with the candidates’ individual appearances, and there should be ample opportunity to take measure of the seven Democratic aspirants. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, pictured with his running mate, Elizabeth Embry, won the straw poll at the Western Maryland Democratic Summit/Photo by Bruce DePuyt    I moderated a forum for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates in mid-December and another just last week, and I was struck by how much better all the candidates seemed on the stump compared to four months ago. They were simultaneously more specific and more concise; their personalities came through more easily. The venue and the hour of day may have had something to do with it, but it’s fair to say that they’ve all become more polished performers. Of course, it’s hard to draw distinctions among these candidates when they agree on just about everything. So Democratic voters will have to weigh considerations like the candidates’ background and experience and temperament, the issues they’re emphasizing, the groups and individuals they are courting, and who’s supporting them.   Money will inevitably be a critical factor in determining which candidates break out of the pack over the next two months. Having a political base, as Baker does, as Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz does, will inevitably be an asset. But so will guaranteed foot soldiers, an advantage that former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous possesses by virtue of all his union endorsements. Add to the handicapper’s mix the usual considerations of race, gender, geography, age, ideology and more. In other words, who knows? The party establishment is already putting its thumb on the scale for Baker, but in a less obvious and unified way than it did for then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown four years ago. For pundits, there is a temptation to characterize Baker as a carbon copy of Brown. They are, after all, two African-American men of the same generation who represented Prince George’s County in the legislature before going on to higher office. They’ve both been on the political scene for about the same length of time, and both are the favorites of the Democratic establishment. Yet Baker is a far superior campaigner, more easygoing and more relatable. He’s got real achievements to boast about during his eight years as county executive. And he doesn’t have the same sense of entitlement that Brown seemed to exude on the campaign trail.  But Baker also has vulnerabilities. Already some of his Democratic opponents – not to mention Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) – are hitting Baker for the scandals enveloping the Prince George’s County Public Schools. And while he is not personally on the take the way his predecessor, former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D) was, Baker has been unable to eradicate corruption from the county’s political bloodstream. A well-funded Hogan campaign will have a field day.   Across the country, Democrats are debating who they are and what they want to be – and in most states, the Democratic electorate is lurching left, and insurgent candidates seem to be gaining on establishment figures. But Maryland has, to date, remained a bedrock of the establishment, as the longevity of gentlemen named Busch and Cardin and Cummings and Hoyer and Miller and Sarbanes remind us. And thinking about the last three Democratic governors – O’Malley, Glendening and Schaefer – one was a two-term mayor of Baltimore, one was a three-term Prince George’s County executive, and one was a four-term mayor of Baltimore. That would suggest an advantage for Baker and Kamenetz in the primary. But Democrats will need a fired-up electorate to defeat an enduringly popular Hogan in November. Perhaps President Trump will supply the enthusiasm, and that’s all the Democrats – any Democrat – may need. Yet it’s also easy to imagine a Baker or a Kamenetz – both initially elected to office in 1994 – dampening the enthusiasm to a degree, despite their accomplishments, the way Brown did four years earlier. Might Democrats be better served by the full-throated progressive agenda of Jealous at the top of the ticket, driving new and disenfranchised voters to the polls, offering the clearest possible distinction to Hogan? Might voters – and not just Democratic voters – be inspired by the life story and optics of Krishanti Vignarajah as the Democratic nominee? Might the unconventional but intelligent message that Ross is preaching bring some added appeal to the Democratic ticket? And what about the hybrid candidates, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. and attorney James L. Shea – two very smart guys whose candidacies are part establishment, part insurgent? Is that a happy medium that could expand the Democratic base in November? It’s the kind of dilemma that will require Democratic voters to pay close attention in the weeks ahead. And here’s how they can:

  • April 24, 7-9 p.m.: Democratic gubernatorial forum sponsored by the Woman’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County, Silver Spring Civic Center, 1 Veterans Place, Silver Spring
  • April 25, 6:30-9 p.m.: Democratic gubernatorial forum sponsored by the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee and United for Maryland, Reid Temple AME Church, 11400 Glenn Dale Blvd., Glenn Dale
  • April 26, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Democratic gubernatorial forum sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Associated Black Charities, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Leadership Hall, 685 W. Baltimore St., Baltimore
  • April 29, Noon-2:30 p.m., Democratic gubernatorial forum sponsored by the Charles County Democratic Central Committee, Waldorf Jaycees, 3090 Crain Highway, Waldorf
  • April 30, 7 p.m., Democratic gubernatorial forum, Charlestown Auditorium, 713 Maiden Choice Lane, Catonsville

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Analysis: Where the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Stands (Maybe)