Ervin’s Challenge — and Opportunity

How do you crank up and execute a campaign for governor in just 5 ½ weeks? It won’t be easy. On the other hand, with none of the long-declared Democratic candidates running away with the primary so far, former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie L. Ervin, who entered the race Thursday under unique circumstances, has little to lose. However she fares on June 26, Ervin is certain to have an impact on the outcome of the race. And with a combination of relentless campaigning, furious fundraising and general good fortune, she just might catch lightning in a bottle. “She’s always been underestimated,” said Jeffrey Z. Slavin, a close Ervin friend who is the mayor of Somerset and third vice chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. What Ervin is unlikely to have is the campaign cash or unvarnished support of the political network of the late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), whose sudden death from a heart attack last week transformed the gubernatorial election and offered Ervin, his running mate, the option of seeking the top job. Where Kamenetz’s supporters go – and he was running second or a close third in all public polls – will also have a major impact on the Democratic race. Just as significant, Kamenetz’s name will remain on the ballot as a candidate for governor, with Ervin listed as the candidate for lieutenant governor. State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamome “has determined that reprinting the ballot is not an option,” said Donna M. Duncan, deputy director of the Maryland State Board of Elections. “We will be working with the local boards of election to implement appropriate measures to notify voters of the change in candidacy.” Ervin invoked Kamenetz’s name in announcing Thursday that she planned to run for governor, saying she believed in the vision for the future that they had laid out on the campaign trail and wanted to “take it forward.” Her new campaign website uses the same purple hue and typeface that Kamenetz’s did.  Valerie Ervin  But her announcement statement Thursday hit decidedly more populist themes than Kamenetz had been articulating. Ervin has a long history of working in the labor movement and with progressive organizations, while Kamenetz had a quarter-century political career in a suburban county with significant conservative pockets. “I believe in a Maryland where working families come before corporate profits, where we help every kid achieve their full potential, and we all can thrive regardless of where we were born, the color of our skin, or the size of our bank account,” Ervin said Thursday.    For her running mate, Ervin selected Marisol A. Johnson, a 38-year-old former Baltimore County school board member who owns an insurance business and abandoned a campaign for Baltimore County Council earlier this year. “As a small business owner, I believe strong public schools, universal childcare and pre-k, and good mass transit are essential to attracting the best businesses to our state,” Johnson said in a statement. “We are in dark times across the country, but there is hope.” Coincidentally, Johnson hosted a fundraiser for the Kamenetz-Ervin ticket on the night of May 9, which Ervin attended while Kamenetz was at a forum for gubernatorial candidates at Bowie State University – his last public appearance before he died the following morning. Ervin said she will hold her first rally of the campaign at Bowie State next week. Slavin, who is neutral in the Democratic gubernatorial contest, called Johnson’s selection “a brilliant political move.” “Kevin and Valerie were running as candidates for education,” he said. “So for Valerie to get a school board person, who’s also political, who’s from El Salvador, who looks like she’s Meghan Markle, to have a black and brown all-woman ticket will energize voters.” But not everyone was impressed. Johnson resigned from her school board position last year after joining the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee after local authorities determined that the political position represented a conflict of interest with her county post. A couple of seasoned political observers questioned whether Johnson, who was appointed to the school board by then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) in 2013 had the stomach for a big contest, given that earlier this year she dropped out of the race for the District 2 Council seat representing Northwest Baltimore County before it even began. “She raised like $25,000, spent all but $8,000, and then dropped out — running against two white guys,” one observer said. Limited resources Although Ervin’s entry into the Democratic primary is potentially transformational, it was mostly business as usual on the campaign trail Thursday. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III rolled out endorsements from a dozen current and former state and county lawmakers. Former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous issued his education platform. The Maryland Democratic Party announced that the candidates for governor would have four televised debates before the primary, starting next week [see related story]. Two of Ervin’s opponents –. Baker and Baltimore attorney James L. Shea – issued statements welcoming her to the race, and re-iterating their sadness over Kamenetz’s death. Another candidate, former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah, did the same on Twitter. “I know that we all share a dedication to making progress in our state, and I look forward to seeing Valerie on the campaign trail,” Shea said.  Marisol Johnson  Each of the other leading Democratic contenders for governor will have to calculate how Ervin’s candidacy affects their prospects and respond accordingly. Many analysts believe she could take votes away from several of them. Is Ervin prepared to hit the campaign trail running? That’s an open question, dictated to a degree by how much money she is able to pull in, and how quickly. Although Ervin suggested Thursday that it’s an open question, the likelihood is that she will not be able to access the lion’s share of Kamenetz’s campaign treasury, which was in his own account. State election officials say Ervin would have access to money in her campaign finance account, “Committee for Valerie Ervin,” and in the slate account, “Team Kamenetz-Ervin,” but not to the “Committee for (Kevin) Kamenetz.” That committee had $2 million on hand as of the last filing in January, and Kamenetz’s closest supporters and family have control of it. The late county executive’s good friend Sheldon D. Caplan is treasurer, and his cousin, Larry Stuart Kamenetz, is campaign chairman of the “Committee for (Kevin) Kamenetz.” Observers familiar with the campaign do not anticipate money in that account will be transferred to the Ervin effort. There initially was some question about $1 million in television advertising time that the Kamenetz camp had booked the day before he died, but one campaign official said Thursday that the ad time was never purchased, only reserved, and that no money was actually spent. Ervin had $49,000 in her own account as of mid-April and the pair had just $900 in the joint account last month. She will be able to use whatever is in those campaign committees going forward. A new round of campaign finance reports, covering fundraising and spending through Tuesday, will be made public on May 22. “It’s going to be hard to run a statewide campaign in 5 ½ weeks with $200,000,” said a political strategist who is supporting one of the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Sean Naron, a spokesman for Kamenetz’s gubernatorial campaign, said Ervin has spoken with Kamenetz’s widow, Jill Kamenetz, but he did not know “the nature of the conversation.” Asked if the Kamenetz family had any plans for Kevin Kamenetz’s campaign surplus, Naron replied, “We’re still grieving. That’s something we’ll have to discuss at an appropriate time.” Some analysts and Ervin allies believe she could be in for a windfall from Emily’s List, the national fundraising powerhouse that aids Democratic women who support abortion rights. The organization had endorsed policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings for governor, but she exited the race several months ago. Emily’s List has chosen not to get behind Vignarajah, the other woman in the Democratic race. A call to Emily’s List’s press office was not returned Thursday. In 2016, the group expended a lot of political capital in Maryland on then-U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D) – a lifelong friend of Ervin’s – who was running for Senate. She wound up losing the Democratic primary to another congressman, Christopher Van Hollen. At least initially, Ervin is using Megaphone Strategies, the same communications consulting firm that is working for Edwards as she attempts a political comeback this year in the race for Prince George’s County executive. Edwards publicly urged her friend to join the gubernatorial fray earlier this week. It was unclear Thursday how much, if any, of the Kamenetz campaign organization would be continuing under the Ervin-Johnson banner. For instance, Martin-Lauer Associates LLC, the long-standing political fundraising apparatus for Kamenetz, ended its relationship with the campaign last week, in the wake of the county executive’s death. Political professionals were split on the impact Ervin will have on the Democratic primary. Most described her as a longshot. “The two remaining frontrunners [Baker and Jealous] are both African-American,” said a veteran of state politics, who was promised anonymity to discuss the race freely. “If they both [top out at] 24 to percent, then she could sneak in with 30 percent. The equation for Valerie Ervin has to be ‘I’m the woman.’ Two-thirds of the women’s vote would have to break for her as the woman. That’s the only possible equation.” The political veteran later added: “Women are literally taking to the streets” since President Trump’s election. Ervin’s candidacy “is a long, long, long shot … If I was Valerie Ervin, I would not talk to anyone who is not a woman.” ‘Opportunism at its worst’ Asked how to wage a successful campaign in such a short period, a leading Maryland Democratic strategist replied in an email: “1) Do as much retail politics as humanly possible. All day, every day. Get your name out. 2) Go left and go negative because nobody else is doing shit in this race. 3) don’t incur debt.” A top Democratic official suggested that the short campaign could work to Ervin’s benefit, especially since none of the other candidates seems to have caught fire. What’s more, the official said, it will be difficult for Ervin’s opponents to attack her – in part because of her connection to Kamenetz. But Sushant Sidh, another veteran Democratic strategist who is now a partner in an Annapolis lobbying firm, criticized Ervin’s decision to run and said she is doomed to fail. “It’s political opportunism at its worst – especially because she doesn’t have the opportunity to win,” he said. The decision by Lamone, the state elections administrator, not to push to print new ballots could also be a blow to Ervin. Duncan said that some 5,000 absentee ballots already have been mailed out, and another 3,000 absentee ballots have been sent electronically, including the military and overseas absentee ballots, which by federal law had to be mailed by last Saturday. Duncan estimated the cost of reprinting the state’s 3.5 million ballots at $2 million, in addition to the roughly $1 million already spent for printing the ballots. Even if the board were ordered by a court to reprint the ballots, she said, the paper mill with the state contract has only enough special “certified” paper on hand to print 1.5 million ballots – less than half of those required for the election. And delivery would present another problem. “We would have had to order the paper [Wednesday] at noon to have them reprinted and shipped to local boards in time,” Duncan said. And even if the paper had been ordered by then, she said, the mill estimated delivery at the local boards between June 11 and June 14 – and June 14 is the starting date of early voting around the state. Duncan said that Ervin seemed to understand the administrator’s decision, when she and Johnson filed their certificate of candidacy at the state election board on Thursday. Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report. [email protected]

William F. Zorzi
Bill Zorzi was a Baltimore Sun reporter and editor for nearly 20 years, focusing on government and politics. An Annapolis bureau veteran, he wrote a weekly column, “The Political Game” for the paper.Zorzi and another former Sun reporter, David Simon, are longtime collaborators on acclaimed television projects, including the HBO series, “The Wire,” and the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” which dealt with an explosive housing desegregation case in Yonkers, NY.

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