Battle For Democratic Soul Underway in Busch's District — With a Few Twists

The 30th legislative district in Anne Arundel County isn’t the only place in Maryland where Democratic insiders and insurgents are skirmishing over turf, resources and the direction of the party.

 

But it is the only place in the state where one of the insiders happens to be the speaker of the House. And the District 30 primaries for state Senate and House of Delegates are taking place in the state capital, Annapolis, where a dynamic municipal election last fall transformed the district’s political terrain.

 

“I think what’s happening in District 30 is taking place all across the country,” said Chrissy Holt, one of two Democrats running for the seat of state Sen. John C. Astle (D), who is retiring after six terms. “I think people are talking about the established Democratic agenda versus the progressive agenda.”

 

The battle lines are not that clear-cut, however. And the June 26 primaries are only a prelude to competitive general elections in the district for House and Senate.

 

 

Aron Axe

 

 

In the Democratic race for two House of Delegates seats in District 30A – which encompasses Annapolis and environs – the seniority of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) is widely considered an asset. The other House contenders – even some of the Republicans – hail his experience and influence.

 

“I really hope I’m working with Speaker Busch,” said one of the Democratic House candidates, Mary Reese. “I have a lot to learn.”

 

Busch, who was first elected to the House in 1986 and has served as speaker since 2003, is seen as a shoo-in for re-nomination and probably for re-election. At age 71, he’s as popular as ever in the district – in part because of his history of service, and in part because he has survived and thrived after a liver transplant last year, following a long and puzzling illness.

 

“I over the years as speaker have been able to bring a lot of money back to Annapolis,” Busch said during a candidate forum at St. John’s College earlier this week. His campaign literature and yard signs say: “Mike Busch. Maryland’s Speaker. Our Delegate.”

 

Along with Busch and Reese, a Navy veteran, the other candidates in the House Democratic primary are Aron Axe, a Marine Corps veteran and security analyst who is now teaching at Georgetown University, and Alice Johnson Cain, a former Capitol Hill staffer and leader of an education nonprofit.

 

The race for the second seat in the Democratic primary appears to be between Axe and Cain.

 

Axe has been running an energetic and aggressive campaign, and said he is hoping to recreate the coalition that propelled new Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley to a surprising victory last fall. Buckley, a restaurateur, handily defeated Astle in the Democratic primary by running aggressively to his left, thwarting the desires of Democratic leaders like Busch who had lined up behind the senator. With Democrats unified behind him, Buckley then steamrolled Republican mayor Michael Pantelides, despite being outspent by about 4-1.

 

Axe served as Astle’s policy director during the mayoral campaign, and Astle is supporting his bid for the House.

 

“What you saw was a new turnout of millennials,” Axe said in an interview, discussing the mayoral election. “A new turnout of African-Americans and Latinos. A new turnout of renters. A new turnout of the arts community.”

 

On the campaign trail, Axe has suggested that the Affordable Care Act – commonly known as Obamacare – “was a half measure,” and uses Bernie Sanders-style rhetoric when describing his opposition to a controversial proposal for a boutique hotel and parking garage near Annapolis’ historic City Dock.

 

“I think the race comes down to grassroots versus money,” Axe said.

 

 

                              Alice Johnson Cain 

 

 

That’s an apparent reference to Cain’s financial advantage heading into the homestretch. She reported just shy of $57,000 in her war chest as of mid-May; Axe, who has loaned his campaign $50,000, reported $23,000 on hand. (Busch, by contrast, had a whopping $504,000 in the bank; Reese had just $3,700.)

 

Asked at the candidate forum where she stood in the internal battle over the direction of the national Democratic Party, Cain replied, “I’m not a big fan of labels, but if I had to label myself, I’d say I’m independent-minded, evidence-based and pragmatic.”

 

Cain described herself, at the forum and in an interview, as a protégé of two ex-members of Congress – the late Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and former House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) – who were hard workers and eschewed grandstanding, seeking compromise to advance a cause.

 

“My goal is always to make as much progress for as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” she said.   

 

Cain has joked that all of her former bosses have contributed to her campaign, and while Busch is officially staying neutral in the House primary, it’s easy enough to pick up clues that he might privately prefer Cain. For starters, the two will be appearing together at a house party in the Annapolis Grove neighborhood next week (though Busch is also scheduled to appear with Axe at another house party).

 

Axe believes that in a year when Democratic activists are fired up, there is value in being a political insurgent.

 

“It’s possible that the blue wave will also be a new wave,” he said.

 

State Senate primary

 

Busch makes no secret of his preference in the District 30 Senate primary: He’s backing party activist Sarah Elfreth over Holt.

 

Elfreth is only 29, but she’s been toiling in the local party and policy vineyards for several years. She was a student member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, was government affairs director for the National Aquarium in Baltimore, is a former president of the District 30 Democratic Club, and has also been active in her neighborhood association in downtown Annapolis.

 

“My whole career has been about public service and giving back,” Elfreth said.

 

 

Sarah Elfreth

 

 

Elfreth boasts a long list of endorsements from current and former elected officials, but also from some of the groups that help power Democratic campaigns, including the Maryland State Education Association, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO – and, more uniquely, the Maryland Farm Bureau.

 

But in an interview, Holt asserted that support for Elfreth from party leaders like Busch amounts to “tipping the scale,” when they “should be silent during the nomination process.”

 

As a practical matter, Holt says, Elfreth benefits when Busch shares office space and campaign workers with her, and when he puts her on campaign literature. At the candidate forum this week, a Busch literature table featured a sign-up sheet seeking volunteers for Busch, Elfreth and Steuart Pittman, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Anne Arundel County executive.

 

Voters, Holt suggested, are looking for something else.

 

“The dynamic I hear when I go to their doors is they are ready for new energy, new faces,” she said.

 

 

Chrissy Holt 

 

 

Behind the scenes, Holt supporters whisper that Elfreth has too few life experiences to connect with average voters. Some also privately complain that Elfreth is insufficiently progressive.

 

Elfreth’s supporters grouse that Holt, a business consultant who became a health care advocate after her son was born with hemophilia and could not get insurance coverage, is an opportunist who has been insufficiently active on the local level and is running only because this is a favorable election cycle for Democrats.

 

It is hard to detect much difference between the two Democrats on the issues, based on their presentations at this week’s candidate forum and their campaign literature and websites. They both talk about improving schools, protecting the Chesapeake Bay, fighting the opioid epidemic, and creating economic opportunity for the disadvantaged. Holt is promoting single-payer health care.

 

“I don’t believe we have this division [in the Democratic Party] that some people would like us to believe,” Elfreth said.

 

Elfreth, who grew up in a working-class family and attended college on a scholarship, called education “the great equalizer in this country,” and is one of the few candidates in Anne Arundel County to talk about the necessity of improving the local mass transit system.

 

“Our public transportation options are not doing a good job of connecting people with where they work, people with where they recreate, people with where they learn,” she said.

 

Holt touts endorsements from Progressive Maryland and says her campaign is “small-donor certified” – meaning she has agreed to stricter campaign contribution limits than those currently required by state law.

 

“I’m willing to push the conversation,” she said. “I’m willing to push the narrative.”

 

As of mid-May, Elfreth had $85,000 in her campaign account, while Holt reported $20,000.

 

Looking ahead

 

Whomever emerges as the Senate nominee will have a tough race in November against former Del. Ronald A. George (R). Unlike House District 30A, which is centered in Annapolis, the full 30th District extends to the south county and takes in more Republican voters.

 

George, who owns a jewelry business on Main Street in Annapolis and unsuccessfully sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2014, has been raising money at a furious pace – he had $179,000 on hand two weeks ago – and will benefit greatly from having Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at the top of the ticket.

 

The governor racked up 63.5 percent of the vote in District 30 four years ago and remains popular there. Republicans have targeted the 30th District as a prime Senate pickup opportunity, as they seek to flip the five seats they need to deny Democrats a veto-proof majority in the upper chamber.

 

Asked at this week’s candidate forum about President Trump’s influence on the GOP and the nation’s political discourse, George quickly pivoted.

 

“I support Gov. Hogan,” he said. “I am a Hogan Republican, absolutely.”

 

In House District 30B, Republicans dominate, but the District 30A delegation has been split between Busch and Del. Herbert H. McMillan (R), who outpaced Busch in the 2014 general election but is not running for re-election.

 

Four Republicans are seeking the nomination for the two House seats in District 30A: attorney Darren Burns; legislative aide Chelsea Gill; Bob O’Shea, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Annapolis in 2013; and Doug Rathell, a fire lieutenant and paramedic. With an eye toward the general election, Burns is making it known that he supports abortion rights and gun control.

 

The GOP primary is a low-budget affair: Burns and Rathell each had about $1,000 in their campaign accounts as of mid-May, Gill pledged to raise and spend less than $1,000 for the entirety of the campaign, and O’Shea did not appear to have filed any campaign finance statement at all. He’s got a pay-what-you-wish fundraiser scheduled next week. This suggests that Democrats, regardless of who finishes in the top two slots in the primary, may be poised to pick up an extra House seat in the subdistrict – even with Hogan on the ballot.

 

“There’s something palpable in the air,” said Cain, one of the Democratic candidates. “There’s a blue wave coming.”

  

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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