In Competitive District, Sen. West Gets First Democratic Challenger

Democrat Jeff Bonner is running for state Senate in District 42. Campaign photo.

Unless district lines change dramatically — which they could — there may at most be a handful of competitive state Senate races in next year’s general election.

One place that is almost certain to see a competitive race, Baltimore County’s District 42, is getting its first Democratic candidate on Thursday.

In an interview with Maryland Matters this week, Jeff Bonner, a military veteran, airline pilot and member of the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee, said he plans to seek the seat currently held by Republican Sen. Christopher R. West.

“My background is military service, and I want to continue to serve,” he said.

Bonner, 48, spent 26 years in the Marine Corps and Maryland Air National Guard and flew combat missions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He is now a commercial airline pilot and community volunteer. He studied for a year at the John F. Kennedy School of Government in a national security fellowship program, and he joined the Democratic Central Committee about a year ago. He lives in Monkton with his wife and two teenaged children.

Bonner said he plans to present himself to the voters as a pragmatic problem-solver who will look to unite voters in a time of great political dysfunction.

“We’re looking to get things solved,” he said. “We’re looking to be a force for finding common solutions. We’re going to work to bring a new kind of politics to the 42nd.”

From ideological and geographical perspectives, the district as currently drawn is one of the most diverse in Maryland. It starts in Towson at the Baltimore City line — a Democratic stronghold — and follows York Road all the way up to the Pennsylvania border, taking in suburbs, exurbs, and rural horse country.

West, a moderate Republican, was elected to the Senate in 2018 after serving for four years in the House of Delegates. He won a vacant seat that had been held by Jim Brochin, a conservative Democrat who left after four terms to run unsuccessfully for Baltimore County executive.

But this ultimately may not be a race between West and Bonner.

Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County)

The district lines in this part of Baltimore County are very fluid, and the shape of the 42nd could change considerably. The contours of the adjoining 8th District, and possibly the 7th, 10th and 11th districts, could also come into play. Both Bonner and West concede that with redistricting looming there is a lot of uncertainty.

“There certainly are a lot of imponderables,” West said.

Bonner said that despite “the wildcard” of not knowing what the district lines will look like, he wanted to build his operation early.

“If we have candidates who are waiting for the lines to be drawn…we’re not going to be able to win those elections,” he said. “We’re taking the initiative and starting early.”

As he dives into his campaign, Bonner is talking in broad generalities about leadership, community service, and unity. He is unlikely to run as a Democratic ideologue.

West is far and away the most moderate Republican in the General Assembly and it will be hard for Democrats to label him as an unrepentant Trumper. West won the Senate seat by 2 points in 2018 over Robbie Leonard, an attorney and former Baltimore County Democratic chairman.

The district as currently drawn is divided into two House sub-districts. District 42A, centered in Towson, is reliably Democratic. But District 42B, which sends two delegates to Annapolis, is considerably more conservative.

The House district elected two new delegates in 2018: Nino Mangione, a Republican whose family owns the conservative radio station WCBM in Baltimore, and Michele J. Guyton (D), a psychologist and disabilities advocate whose victory was one of the surprises of the 2018 general election.

Both Mangione and Guyton are also seen as possible candidates for Senate in 2022, depending on how the lines are drawn. Neither responded to email messages on Wednesday.

Some Democratic strategists have suggested that Guyton might want to roll the dice and run for Senate because she is likely to face a tough race for re-election.

West suggested that nominating a conservative would be a mistake for Republicans in a district that President Biden carried easily last November.

“If I should be defeated in my Republican primary I think it would be difficult for Republicans to hold the seat in a 60% Biden district,” he said.

Through mid-January, West reported $92,622 in his campaign account. Guyton had $69,334 in her war chest and Mangione reported $4,591 on hand.

Bonner said he has hired Rice Consulting, a top Democratic fundraising firm, to aid his campaign. While he has not yet set a goal for raising money, he said “the fundraising needs to match what the dynamics of the race are.”

Bonner declined to assess West’s record at this stage, saying he’s waiting to see who emerges as the Republican nominee.

“At this time of gamesmanship, I try to let the Republican Party figure out its own house,” he said.

Republican Ellen “EJ” McNulty files her candidacy papers last month. She’s running for a House seat in District 42B. Twitter photo.

Other candidates are also starting to eye the 42nd District.

Last month, Ellen “EJ” McNulty, a former Hogan administration official and health policy expert who calls herself a “momtrepreneur” announced that she is seeking a House seat in District 42B. In a sign of her potential broad-based appeal, McNulty has signed up Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the godmother of Maryland conservatives, and Baltimore County Councilmember David S. Marks, a leading Republican moderate, as co-chairs of her campaign.

McNulty also concedes that her plans could be altered by new district lines.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran 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 was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.