On Saturday, I attended the leadership elections for the Maryland Democratic Party, to determine the officers for the next four years. It was one of the oddest events I’ve ever attended, political or otherwise, but I’m quite happy with the results.
There were yard signs entering the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall in Lanham for Kathleen Matthews, the incumbent chair. I’m unsure if it was an eight-sign order or leftovers from her congressional campaign. In the belly of the building, over a hundred central committee members and elected officials, activists and ardent supporters were in various huddles discussing all manner of political football.
Many Democratic Central Committee members were wearing Matthews stickers, while state Sen.-elect Cory McCray, a candidate for first vice chair, and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who was challenging Matthews, passed out pamphlets with their plans. Nicole Williams, who was also seeking a vice chair position, passed out stickers. The hall where we met was crowded and there weren’t enough seats for all of the guests, so extra chairs were eventually brought in.
The event began with U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin rattling off the accomplishments of the Maryland Democratic Party in a manner that sounded conspicuously like an endorsement of Matthews. Afterwards, David Augustine Sloan, the coordinated campaign director for the state party, listed how the Maryland Democratic Party raised turnout in many regions of the state, especially Charles County and Howard County.
Theresa Mitchell-Dudley, 1st Vice Chair of the Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee and critic of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., raised an all-important question: What is our party leadership going to do about the “Democrats” who effectively gave financial support to a Republican governor by featuring him on their mailers?
Matthews simply replied that “No money was provided to these candidates.” I asked if these candidates (Miller, state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, Del.-elect Courtney Watson, and recently defeated state Sen. Jim Mathias) were included on coordinated campaign literature. In response, Matthews asked 1st Vice Chair Scherod Barnes to maintain “civility and respect.”
Thus began the election for chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Every election for party offices began with two nominating speeches for each candidate, followed by a speech by the candidate, and then the vote. Matthews was nominated by party intern Daijah Williams and Sarah Wolek, a newcomer from the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee; Rockeymoore Cummings was nominated by Maureen Evans-Arthurs (chairwoman of the Howard County Democrats), Sheila Ruth (leader of the party’s Progressive Diversity Leadership Council, and Ben Smith (chairman of the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee).
Evans-Arthurs’ opening proclamation of a unanimous endorsement by the Howard County central committee, followed by Ruth’s statement that “We can’t rely on black women’s labor: we need to elect them as leaders,” and a cut-short but positive statement from the Baltimore City chairman showed the wide support for change in some of the most vote-rich regions of the state.
The votes were close and the counting was tense, but Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings won the election. Discontent in rural regions with Matthews, along with great showings in the Baltimore metropolitan area, won this election for our new chairwoman.
For 1st Vice Chair, the only candidates who were eligible were Cory McCray and Scherod Barnes, as Jeffrey Slavin withdrew and Scott Kane was found to be ineligible. Sen.-elect Cory McCray was able to win with the majority of votes in Montgomery County, along with Howard County, although the vote was certainly closer than he would have liked. I am certain that he is curious why the Baltimore City delegation didn’t support him, although I believe it has something to do with his endorsement of Matthews over Rockeymoore Cummings rather than wide, sweeping support for Barnes.
The battle for 2nd Vice Chair had the most competitors. After a half hour of nominating speeches and then another half hour of personal speeches, former 1st District congressional candidate Allison Galbraith emerged victorious by consolidating rural support and getting solid numbers in Montgomery, Howard, and Baltimore City. Galbraith gave one of the most rousing speeches of the day, explaining why she entered the race against Republican Congressman Andy Harris and noting that “productive channeling of rage” is her “superpower.” This race was intended to go to a second ballot, but a motion to accept the plurality candidate was successful (mostly because it had already been four hours and only two people had been elected).
The vote for 3rd Vice Chair didn’t feature any more speeches. Cheryl Landis, the chair of the Prince George’s central committee, withdrew after a poor showing in the prior race. The only eligible candidates were Our Revolution activist Wala Blegay and longtime Democratic activist Nicole Williams, both from Prince George’s County, and Darlene Cocco-Adams of Calvert County. Blegay was a candidate for delegate in District 25 this year who garnered many endorsements but lost in part because of “Official Democratic Party” sample ballots; Williams was a candidate for delegate in District 22.
Blegay was unfortunately absent, as her father recently passed away. Nicole Williams easily swept the third ballot and was elected to be the next 3rd Vice Chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.
The final vote was for secretary, between Montgomery County activist Erwin Rose, who was also unfortunately absent, and Robbie Leonard, the former Senate candidate in District 42 and chairman of the Baltimore County Democratic Party. Leonard’s vocal service to the Democratic Party propelled him to an easy victory over Rose.
Robert Kresslein, who had no opponents, will begin his third full term as party treasurer. Abena Affum-McAllister, the chairwoman of the Charles County Democratic Central Committee, automatically won the race for deputy secretary, as Malcolm Heflin was eliminated by geographical rules. Finally, Jeffrey Slavin was nominated by the floor to become the deputy treasurer, moving down from the 3rd Vice Chair position. In an interesting twist, Baltimore City central committee member Sharon Brackett nominated Kathleen Matthews for the deputy treasurer position.
While not a member of a Democratic Central Committee nor an elected official, I made my best efforts to maximize turnout at the election and spread information on the wide pool of candidates. The 2016 interim election had sparse attendance, even among central committee members. A mere 15 guests showed up.
This leadership election had more candidates than the previous election had guests. Furthermore, the many political challenges our state party faces needed maximum exposure and I’m happy that the vote appeared to reflect a desire for change and a focus on building a better party, rather than the demands of party bosses. The results are even more impressive considering the few weeks of preparation to find strong candidates and the history of the Maryland Democratic Party: virtually every party leader had been handpicked by Democratic kingmakers.
No more. We have officially disrupted the machine.
I believe that this new crop of leadership will yield great dividends. I was impressed with Dr. Rockeymoore Cummings’ Go DEEP plan, particularly because she penned her plan before any questionnaires were sent. Cory McCray has worked to build the most powerful and influential Democratic club in Baltimore City, possibly the whole state, within the past few years. Allison Galbraith has built an impressive social media operation and ran a congressional campaign that functioned almost entirely on online, small-dollar donations. (Disclaimer: I served as the Director of Digital Strategy during her congressional campaign). Nicole Williams has made many contacts around the state and has years of service in bettering our party.
All in all, we have built a team of young leaders who know how we can win in 2020 and beyond – social media, small dollars, personal connections, and outreach to ensure that our Democratic Party is responsive to the wants and needs of the most important people in our democracy: the voters.
Dec. 1 was the start of a new chapter for the Maryland Democratic Party. The former leadership team had no members under the age of 50: this team has five Millennial members. The Democratic Party’s foot soldiers have elected the next generation of leadership, with 21st century talent and boundless energy.
Cautiously optimistic, I expect our party to take many of the steps to become more publicly accessible, focused on the grassroots, and win elections all over this state. I’m a card-carrying Democrat and sometimes, I’m proud to be one. The election of this dream leadership team was one of those occasions.
— RICHARD DESHAY ELLIOTT
The writer is a Ph. D candidate at Johns Hopkins University, an electoral fellow for Progressive Maryland, the former campaign manager for Allison Berkowitz (District 7) and director of digital strategy for Allison Galbraith (Maryland’s 1st congressional district). You can find him on Twitter at @RichElliottMD and Facebook.