Maryland Dems Likely to Turn to an Old Hand for New State Chair

Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Yvette Lewis. File photo

Maryland Democrats appear likely to go back to the future when they meet in Lanham Saturday to select a new state party leader.

The job is vacant following the resignation of party chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who served for 11 months before stepping down recently to enter the special congressional election to replace her husband, the late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).

The frontrunner to replace Rockeymoore Cummings when the members of the Democratic State Central Committee gather at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 headquarters is Yvette Lewis – who served as party chairwoman from 2011 to 2015.

Lewis is the overwhelming favorite of party leaders and is one of two candidates to announce their intention ahead of time to seek the job – though central committee members can nominate other candidates when they meet Saturday morning. The other declared contender is Tony Puca, a Montgomery County businessman and frequent candidate for public office.

Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who has been serving as acting state Democratic chairman since Rockeymoore Cummings stepped down, said Wednesday he expects the central committee meeting to be “uneventful, for the most part,” adding that Lewis is the likely choice.

“There’s three days left,” said McCray, who had been serving as the party’s first vice chairman under Rockeymoore Cummings. “I tell folks, in elections, there’s always surprises. I think she’s good. You just never know with three days.”

Lewis’ election, if it occurs, would in certain respects represent a return to primacy for the state’s most powerful elected officials.

Although she was the spouse of a member of Congress with a wealth of contacts on Capitol Hill and in Washington, D.C., policy circles, Rockeymoore Cummings ran an insurgent’s campaign for party leader a year ago, ousting the incumbent chairwoman, Kathleen Matthews, in a tense vote. Progressive activists hailed Rockeymoore Cummings’ victory, and she had been working to build the party’s infrastructure and profile in areas where Democrats don’t always compete (that was one of Matthews’ priorities as well).

Lewis’ prior tenure as chairwoman coincided with the second term of former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D), and they worked closely together. More recently, Lewis served as a staffer and campaign chairwoman for U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D).

Lewis is currently the president of All About the Vote, a nonprofit voting rights organization, and she is also one of Maryland’s representatives to the Democratic National Committee. She declined to comment for this article.

Robbie Leonard, an attorney and former Baltimore County Democratic chairman who serves as the state party secretary, had contemplated a run for the top job, but said Wednesday he has too many professional and family responsibilities.

“I don’t think it’s the right time for me and my family,” he said. “You have to be able to put in the time to do a good job.”

Leonard, an ally of Rockeymoore Cummings, said he hoped the state party under its new leader would continue the reforms she had started, including a robust field operation and outreach programs to rural areas and irregular Democratic voters.

But in a letter to party leaders last week, McCray warned of profligate spending and lack of “fiscal constraints” at the state party. He said he felt compelled to cancel several contracts the state party had entered into Rockeymoore Cummings in an effort to stabilize the Democrats’ finances.

Leonard said the party’s financial straits are partially a function of being out of the governor’s office since 2015 (though The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that the state GOP is also struggling financially, even with Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. serving his second term).

“Our three past chairs can attest to the difficulty of raising money when you have a Republican governor,” Leonard said. “So there has to be something new.”

While the other party leadership positions will not be up for grabs at Saturday’s central committee meeting, the outcome of the state chair’s race could impact the top tier of party vice chairs.

Under party bylaws, the gender of the party chair and the first vice chair must be different. So if Lewis or another woman is elected, McCray would remain the first vice chair. If Puca or a man is elected, McCray and the second vice chair, Allison Galbraith, would flip positions – she’d become the first vice chair and he’d be the second vice chair.

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