In this scariest of years and strangest of elections, the pandemic’s full-force impact on the 2022 campaign in Maryland — yes, the 2022 campaign — became painfully apparent this week as Democrats held their national convention virtually.
The nightly show was well produced and surprisingly tight — a better TV-watching experience than a normal convention. And Maryland Democrats gamely proceeded with a reasonable live-streamed facsimile of what their daily delegation breakfasts would look like.
But missing, of course, was the in-person jockeying and schmoozing that takes place during a normal convention week. And that illustrated just how disrupted the 2022 election cycle in Maryland has become.
Naturally, Maryland Democrats, echoing national party leaders, will tell you how critical this fall’s elections are and say this year’s virtual convention has reflected that.
“I think this might be one of the most important conventions in history, not just for the unity of the Democratic Party but for the unity of the Republic,” said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), a retired University of Maryland political science professor.
Some state Democrats have said that without the distractions of officeholders and activists looking ahead to the next election, which would invariably happen at an in-person convention, they can focus on the task at hand: Electing former vice president Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala D. Harris in November.
“You go to [a convention in] Denver or Charlotte or Boston or Philly to support the national ticket, and then you go for your breakfast and someone starts sticking stickers on your lapel for an election that may or may not happen in 2 1/2 years,” said former Maryland attorney general Douglas F. Gansler (D), describing the ritual of state delegation breakfasts. “At the convention, for Maryland, the next cycle always seems to start too early.”
But for ambitious Maryland pols, the gubernatorial years are the Big Enchilada, when top state and county offices are up for grabs. National conventions in presidential years usually offer early soundings on what the forthcoming gubernatorial cycle is going to look like.
“It’s a little sad, from my perspective as a political junkie, not to see that personal interaction with would-be governors and would-be senators working the tables, going to events, trying to be visible,” said Glendening, who was planning to attend this year’s convention in Milwaukee as a guest of his 18-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, an elected Biden delegate.
Election year 2022 should be especially pivotal in Maryland. Not only is popular Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. term-limited — giving Democrats their best shot at winning a gubernatorial election since 2010 — but four-term state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) has already indicated he intends to run for Hogan’s job, so the comptroller’s post should be open for the first time since 1998. Almost as many potential candidates are lining up for comptroller as for governor.
On top of that, there is some speculation about whether Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) will seek a third term in 2022, when he will be 76 years old. And it’ll be the first election after the 2020 Census is counted and redistricting takes place, meaning the state’s congressional and legislative maps could look substantially different than they do now — creating perils and opportunities for a broad array of politicians.
Martha McKenna, a Baltimore-based Democratic strategist and media consultant, who works on races both nationally and in Maryland, thinks another phenomenon might be at play in the 2022 cycle: the surprise success of the General Assembly’s new presiding officers, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).
Neither was considered a frontrunner to replace the late House speaker Michael E. Busch (D) or former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) when those vacancies came up in 2019, but both emerged from hard-fought battles in the Democratic caucuses. As a result, McKenna said, younger and ambitious politicians may step up and run for certain offices in 2022 when they might otherwise be inclined or encouraged to wait their turn.
“A lot of people are starting to envision their next steps and to imagine what Maryland will look like five or 10 years from now,” she said. “I think people are allowing themselves to think more creatively about a lot of options.”
These are all topics that would have been talked about and speculated about endlessly if hundreds of Maryland delegates, elected officials, operatives and lobbyists had come together for a live national convention in Milwaukee. Delegation breakfasts and receptions, stolen glances across a hotel ballroom, and shared beers or cups of coffee among political wise guys and gals would be fodder for gossip and speculation.
That’s been a lot more difficult this week, with everything being done virtually. Still, conversations are taking place, and the rumor mill is starting to churn a little faster.
One thing most political professionals agree on: The outcome of this November’s election could have some bearing on the 2022 Maryland landscape. It will help determine the mood of the electorate and, if Biden is elected, potentially take some potential Maryland candidates off the playing field.
Also noteworthy, and an ongoing problem in Maryland, where the state’s top officeholders are all men and the state’s 10-member congressional delegation is all male: Only one of the leading potential candidates for governor is a woman.
Where the Democratic race for governor stands now
Franchot signaled his intention to run for governor a year ago, and he starts with several inherent advantages.
He has been the state’s tax collector since 2007, and spent 20 years in the legislature before that. He’s got an exceptionally politically savvy staff in Annapolis and has used his position to travel to every corner of the state, dispensing awards and good will, meeting with key stakeholder groups, and developing a loyal and surprisingly diverse core of supporters.
Franchot is a political maverick and does not have close relationships with many party leaders, who smart over his long-standing alliance with Hogan. Franchot has not been featured on any of the Maryland Democratic Party’s convention calls and virtual meetings this week, but he did speak last week to the Maryland Democratic Business Roundtable, is one of the headliners at an online fundraiser for Biden Friday night that was organized by state Del. Julian Ivey (D-Prince George’s), and is Zooming with Prince George’s County Young Democrats later this month.
Franchot already has done a lot of legwork for the 2022 campaign. In contrast to many politicians, he enjoys fundraising, and is well on his way to setting up steering committees in all 24 Maryland jurisdictions.
“He is prohibitively in front of the game right now,” said one Franchot ally.
Unlike some of his potential opponents, who are managing large jurisdictions or serving in Congress and are limited by the COVID-19 pandemic in their ability to move around the state, Franchot in his day job has a portfolio that still enables him to travel and to put together a political operation.
“Everyone else in the mix here has a different relationship with public health and the economic crisis than Peter Franchot,” said a Democratic strategist who is currently not affiliated with any of the potential gubernatorial candidates.
In the lead-up to the 2022 election, Franchot, who at one time was a vocal progressive and then moved perceptively to the center after he became comptroller, now seems determined to once again burnish his liberal bonafides.
Franchot has also put himself in the driver’s seat by jumping into the race early. While no one can campaign aggressively in the age of COVID, Franchot does not have to pretend that he isn’t thinking about higher office — because he’s already said that he is. And the longer potential Democratic primary opponents have to sit on the sidelines due to the pandemic, the more that works to Franchot’s advantage, too.
While any number of party leaders and activists are unprepared to forgive Franchot for cozying up to Hogan for so long, and are determined to find a viable Democratic primary opponent, it should be noted that many party leaders vowed to take on Franchot as he sought a fourth term as comptroller in 2018 — but couldn’t find even a sacrificial lamb to run against him.
Franchot, after decades as a shape-shifting provocateur, will soon have to articulate a governing vision if he is to succeed as a candidate for governor. And another question lingers: In the current political environment, even with a white guy in his mid-70’s as the party’s presidential standard-bearer, will Maryland Democrats want to embrace another white guy in his mid-70’s as their gubernatorial standard-bearer?
Any conversation about the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial campaign invariably turns to Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who took office in 2018 after eight years as state’s attorney. Alsobrooks has star quality and an appealing life story and would be formidable in any statewide race. She has also been quite visible among party insiders this week during the convention.
But Alsobrooks, like another potential candidate for governor, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr., is hamstrung by the virus and the need to stay close to home during the public health and economic crises gripping the state. While both leaders are getting coverage from local media as they surf these challenges, their ability to expand their political bases is severely limited at the moment.
Both also have the disadvantage of being relatively new in their jobs. Even though the last three Democratic governors were former local executives, they all had served at least two terms before running for statewide office.
“I don’t think people have the tolerance for job hopping right now,” said one Democratic official.
On the other hand, with a scarcity of high-profile African-American women leaders in the state, and her close relationship with Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, the political moment for Alsobrooks — who is also being touted as a possible candidate for U.S. Senate in 2024 — may come sooner rather than later.
Some Democratic strategists also see a path for Olszewski, a personable and liberal young leader who he is trying to shake up a hidebound government in Baltimore County — and is popular with teachers, progressive unions, trial lawyers and other key elements of the Democrats’ traditional coalition.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown, who was the party’s nominee for governor in 2014, is taking another look. Some party stalwarts remain angry with Brown who believe he didn’t work hard enough in his general election race and blew his party’s hold on the governor’s mansion.
But Brown’s political near-death experience appears to have changed him. He is humbler, more relaxed and more willing to speak out on the issues. It seems inconceivable that there won’t be a significant African American candidate in the Democratic race, and Brown could be it.
Multiple sources said Brown and Alsobrooks and their teams speak regularly, and that they are unlikely to run against each other in 2022. Brown may also have other career options — possibly a high-profile place in the Biden administration, if there is one, or a gavel in the House of Representatives. Brown, an Army veteran, is currently vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
One other member of the state’s congressional delegation is also pondering a run for governor: freshman Rep. David J. Trone. While Trone has made a few forays out of his Montgomery County-Western Maryland district and has kept in touch with a variety of party activists, his exploration has undeniably been limited in recent months by the pandemic.
On the other hand, Trone, the co-owner of the Total Wine & More national liquor chain, has unlimited resources to spend on a campaign, and as a result has the luxury of putting off a decision on 2022 longer than most other prospective candidates.
Gansler, the former state attorney general who lost the Democratic nomination fight to Brown in 2014, has not ruled out a second bid for governor. Gansler continues to keep in touch with party activists, and has allies around the state, but he has not been in office since early 2015 and isn’t as well known now as he was the last time he ran. But he’s still better-known than many other potential candidates and may be able to wait longer than most before making a final decision.
Fainter chatter centers on the party’s 2018 standard-bearer, Benjamin T. Jealous, and former Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III, who also sought the Democratic nomination in 2018. Jealous recently started a job as head of People for the American Way, a national progressive advocacy organization, which may limit his ability to try again. And while Baker is highly regarded and well-liked by Democratic leaders, he does not appear to be in a position to put together another statewide campaign.
There is some speculation also about former Maryland congressman John K. Delaney, who has kept a fairly low profile since waging a long-shot bid for president this cycle. Delaney, a wealthy businessman, could also wind up in a Biden administration, in the view of many political Insiders.
One intriguing possible candidate for governor is John B. King Jr., a former U.S. secretary of Education under President Obama.
King has been quietly reaching out to state political leaders and policy advocates over the past several months, though those talks have gotten a little quieter since the pandemic. King last week talked education policy on a Zoom call with Maryland Democratic Party trustees, the leading fundraisers for the party organization, and he has told some of the people he has met with through the months that he believes he could tap in to a formidable Obama fundraising network if he runs.
Often, Maryland voters are cool to candidates who do not have deep ties to the state — a problem that hampered Jealous’ candidacy in 2018. King has only lived in Maryland since joining the Obama administration; he grew up and spent most of his professional life in New York.
But he is the descendant of enslaved Marylanders, and The Washington Post Magazine recently detailed his meeting with the descendants of the slave owners, who still live on the property where his ancestors toiled — a potentially powerful campaign narrative. And with the achievement gap as wide as ever in Maryland and the state’s education system in an unprecedented volatile era due to COVID-19, King, who heads a national foundation focused on education equity, might lend a frank and welcome voice to the upcoming debate over state policy.
Another former Obama administration cabinet member also cannot be discounted: Tom Perez, the ex-U.S. Labor Secretary who is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Talk about a possible Perez bid has quieted some among Maryland Democrats in recent months. But he has been careful to stay in touch with the party stalwarts at home. Perez, one of the very few Democratic officials who are actually in Milwaukee this week for the convention, was the first speaker at Monday’s Maryland delegation breakfast.
“I wish you were here,” he told the convention delegates. Later, looking at all the faces on the Zoom call, he said, “I see so many friends I don’t want to call them all out, because I might miss someone.”
After Perez signed off, U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, observed, “Obviously, there are about 50,000 Zoom calls that he could be on right now.”
Where the Democratic race for comptroller stands right now
Party insiders see three candidates actively exploring the race to replace Franchot — assuming the incumbent comptroller follows through on his plans to run for governor — and a few others who may be eyeing the contest.
Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) has been the most aggressive in contacting party activists and influencers about her interest in the job, political professionals say. She is a focused policy maven with strong fundraising skills and a potentially broad network of supporters, especially from women who are all too aware that they are grossly underrepresented at the highest echelons of government in Maryland.
“Although I’m considering whether I can be of service to Maryland moving forward as comptroller, my main focus now is helping Maryland Women for Biden and serving the men, women, families and businesses in my district that have been hit so hard by COVID-19,” Lierman told Maryland Matters Thursday.
Should Frosh depart as attorney general, that would create another opening that would be sure to attract a sizable field of contenders, at least initially. The list of potential Democratic candidates, in the view of most political professionals, would then include Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy, state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman William C. Smith Jr. from Montgomery County, House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger of Baltimore City, Del. Erek L. Baron of Prince George’s County, and Montgomery County Councilmember William L. Jawando.