Analysis: What the Johnny O and Trone Decisions Tell Us — And What They Don’t

Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) and U.S. Rep. David J. Trone (D), who represents the 6th District, both announced last week that they would seek reelection and forego the 2022 gubernatorial race. Official portraits.

The back-to-back announcements last week by Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. and U.S. Rep. David J. Trone that they’ll seek re-election in 2022 rather than run for governor clarifies the Democratic primary picture to a degree but also leaves several questions unanswered.

In their own races, Trone and Olszewski will be favorites for re-election — even though Trone’s 6th District could look significantly different after redistricting. With his unlimited ability to self-fund, however, he may be able to withstand any political storm.

But their departure from the gubernatorial scrum takes two candidates who had the ability to be major players in the contest out of the calculation. What does that mean, exactly?

For one thing, it means there are two fewer white candidates seeking the Democratic nomination, though at least one other is expected to enter the race. That could help the other two frontline white candidates in the race, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, who has been running for well over a year, and former state attorney general Douglas F. Gansler, who will enter the primary any day now.

Olszewski’s departure in particular could be a boon for Franchot, who has worked parts of Baltimore County very hard and is generally popular there.

On the other hand, Olszewski on the sidelines leaves nonprofit CEO Wes Moore as the only well-known Baltimore-area candidate, assuming he gets in the race. That’s an advantage for him.

And Olszewski’s decision to seek re-election means it’s all the more likely that former Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez gets the lion’s share of labor support in the primary, assuming he runs. Olszewski is a former teacher who is close personally to the president of the Maryland State Education Association, Cheryl Bost.

With Trone out, the price of entry into the gubernatorial primary goes down exponentially, because most of the candidates will be relying on donations to fund their campaigns and won’t be trying to compete on the financial front with a prodigious self-funder.

But it still isn’t altogether clear how the Democratic electorate will be sliced and diced. An ability to make inroads in unfamiliar geographic territory or with constituencies that don’t seem like natural allies could be key.

And then there are some of the more delicious questions that will appeal to political insiders: Will Olszewski or Trone decide to endorse in the primary? How much influence would they have?

Olszewski assembled a top-notch staff that seemed built to help him wage a statewide campaign. Will those staffers stick around Towson or might some be tempted to join another statewide campaign? The talent pool of seasoned Maryland operatives just got a little deeper. The same is true for the universe of state-based and national political consultants; they can still work for Trone and Olszewski, but they are also free now to look at gubernatorial campaigns for additional work.

Congressional and legislative redistricting remain significant unknowns of the 2022 cycle in Maryland. The redistricting commission assembled by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) held its inaugural meeting last week and intends to meet on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future.

Hogan has tasked this panel of three Republicans, three Democrats and three unaffiliated voters with recommending legislative and congressional district boundaries that he’ll advance to the General Assembly. But the legislature is under no obligation to accept Hogan’s maps, and it’s entirely possible that the entire work of the commission will be for naught — bordering on a charade.

Will Democrats have the same unfettered power in redistricting that they’ve enjoyed over the past two decades under the last two Democratic governors, Martin J. O’Malley and Parris N. Glendening? Probably not. But with veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature, they still have the upper hand, unless Democrats want to make a deal with Hogan, which seems unlikely. Lawsuits are a distinct possibility.

Regarding Olszewski and Trone, it’s reassuring to see two formidable public officials decide to stay put rather than feed their greater ambitions. The same can be said for Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, who by most accounts is also likely to stay put next year and not seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

The decisions by Alsobrooks and Olszewski may also be a testament to the new dynamic brought on by all the federal money rolling down to state and local governments from the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress. Instead of dealing with austerity budgets, county executives will now have an opportunity to do some creative and consequential things, which can only burnish their records moving forward.

On the one hand, Alsobrooks and Olszewski may be missing their moments to prevail in a statewide primary, but on the other hand, both are young enough and talented enough to know that they will probably have other opportunities in the future — possibly augmented by the innovations they will be able to pursue in their second terms. Trone, too, will also have opportunities to run for higher office if he so chooses, for obvious reasons.

But assuming Olszewski, Alsobrooks and Trone maintain their pledges to seek re-election, Franchot will be the only candidate for governor — possibly in either party — who is giving up elective office to seek the top job. For Franchot, who is 73, it’s now or never. But does the reticence of other Democratic officeholders to run for governor say something about the anticipated national political environment in 2022?

A lot of Democrats are holding out hope that 2022 will look a lot like 2002, with a popular president leading the country out of a major crisis and sparing his party the usual midterm misery, as George W. Bush and Republicans held off Democratic gains in 2002 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Democrats are also hoping that Donald Trump will be an albatross around the necks of Republicans around the country, and that in Maryland, where President Biden and his programs are pretty popular, voters will want to reward Biden by voting for Democrats up and down the ballot.

But midterm dynamics are usually pretty unforgiving to the party in the White House, and after losing three out of the last five gubernatorial elections in Maryland, that feels mostly like wishful thinking for the Democrats.

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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.