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Government & Politics

Mega New Year political notes: A GOP senator’s prescription for what ails the party, fundraising off Hill stalemate, and personnel moves

State Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) at the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in 2019. Photo by Danielle. E. Gaines.

With Republicans in the U.S. House mired in dysfunction and Maryland Republicans still reeling from their drubbing at the polls in November, Baltimore County state Sen. Chris West, perhaps the most moderate GOP lawmaker currently serving in Annapolis, has offered a long treatise about the state of the Maryland party and what it ought to do to rebuild.

In the current political environment, it’s worth discussing.

In a letter to supporters, which was reprinted as a commentary earlier this week in Maryland Reporter, West outlined his long history of political involvement, dating back to his high school days in 1968, and listed the ideologically diverse array of Maryland Republicans he has actively supported over the years, from the late U.S. Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias to two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey.

West traced some of the state GOP’s recent problems to the sniping in the last election between outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan, himself a center-right Republican, and Del. Dan Cox, the 2022 Republican gubernatorial nominee who was closely aligned with former President Trump.

“Certainly, the Maryland Republican Party has fallen on hard times,” West wrote. “In 2022, for the second gubernatorial election in a row, the Democrats had the upper hand. Republican candidates lost many elections that they should not have lost, often by slim margins. As Gov. Hogan leaves office, he leaves behind a party that is demoralized and defeated.”

West expressed incredulity that Cox would think he was going to win the general election against Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) when he wound up only taking 32% of the vote. “Clearly, Mr. Cox had been living in some sort of campaign bubble,” West wrote.

West called the infighting unproductive and ultimately destructive for the party’s health. He said it’s OK for Republicans to have hard-fought primaries that expose policy divisions but that GOP leaders and voters need to come together every general election.

“This circular firing squad alienates many who otherwise would be willing to get involved in party affairs,” the senator wrote. “Politics is the science of addition, not subtraction. In order to win elections, candidates need to add more and more supporters until they constitute over 50% of the voters. Trying to purge the party of people more conservative or more moderate than you merely wastes time, creates festering animosities and makes the accomplishment of election victories more difficult.”

West also chastised Republicans for not embracing all three methods of voting available to Marylanders, as Democrats have: through mail-in ballots, at early polling places and on Election Day.

Additionally, he offered these prescriptions for Republicans: Focus on crime, increase coordination between party officials and elected Republicans; more outreach to Latinos and Asian voters; and aggressively raise money over a four-year election cycle, not just in election years.

“Remember, there is no education in the second kick of a mule,” West wrote. “Maryland Republicans received our first kick in 2018, our second kick two years later in 2020 and our third kick in 2022. Do we really want to be on the receiving end of a fourth kick in 2024 and a fifth kick in 2026? Maryland is worth fighting for, so let’s be smart about how we fight.”

Ivey fundraises off of GOP dysfunction

Because the U.S. House has yet to be sworn in due to the Republicans’ inability to elect a speaker, Rep.-elect Glenn Ivey (D-Md.), who will become the newest member of the state’s congressional delegation, has yet to be sworn in. But that didn’t prevent him from attempting to raise money off the GOP chaos this week.

“It is clear — we need Democrats to take back the majority and restore hope for fair and responsible leadership,” Ivey wrote in an email to supporters on Tuesday morning. “With your support, we will continue working to take back our majority and support Democrats across the country.

“Will you rush a donation to support sensible, supportive leadership that puts people over politics?”

A few hours later, after the first few ballots on the House floor did not produce a speaker, Ivey re-upped the request.

“I wrote to you earlier today emphasizing the need for Democrats to take back the House majority,” he wrote. “Less than 5 hours later… The GOP has demonstrated exactly why.”

New gigs in Raskin’s shop

Speaking of Hill developments, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) this week announced some staff changes, now that he’s ready to assume the top Democratic spot on the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Raskin said that his chief of staff, Julie Tagen, who has served in that position since Raskin entered Congress in 2017, will be moving to become the Democratic staff director at the Oversight panel, though with a title that has yet to be defined at this point.

“I am so grateful for all of Julie’s hard work, amazing knowledge of Capitol Hill and passionate commitment to the success of our office,” Raskin said in a statement. “I’m delighted that she will continue to serve our team in a new role as my responsibilities expand and grow. We are in the process of reorganizing the dramatically reduced Democratic staff on the Oversight Committee and Julie is helping me to build a lean and effective team of investigators, lawyers and communications personnel to act with the Members of our Committee as a truth squad against the coming tides of conspiracy theory and disinformation.”

Replacing Tagen as chief of staff on Raskin’s personal staff will be Leesa Klepper, who worked most recently as senior counsel for the Oversight committee, focused on health care, and earlier in her career served as counsel with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Klepper spent over 10 years as an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law, where she worked alongside Raskin, who was a professor at the law school, as assistant director of the law school’s Law and Government Program.

“Raised in the Eighth Congressional District, Leesa brings her love for Maryland, passion for teamwork, enduring commitment to public service, and impressive experience as a lawyer and manager in academia and the private sector to our office,” Raskin said.

Kathleen Connor, who has been director of Raskin’s district office since his 2016 election, is taking on the new title of district chief. Raskin said the new title “better captures the amazing role she plays for the Eighth District and which she has fortunately accepted.”

Fitzwater’s team

Just before Christmas, new Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater (D) revealed the members of her senior leadership team in a Facebook post. It includes a combination of newcomers and holdovers from the administration of her predecessor, Jan Gardner (D).

The newcomers include Chelsea Kadish, who is Fitzwater’s chief of staff. Kadish is an attorney and Democratic activist in Frederick who has worked as chief of staff for Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick), who is about to be sworn in as a senator next week.

Pat Murray, a veteran Democratic hand who served as a campaign adviser to Fitzwater, will now be a senior adviser to county government. Murray previously worked as chief of staff to Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. (D) and to the late state Senate President Mike Miller. He has also worked for the late House Speaker Mike Busch (D) and U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) and as executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. Murray is also an adjunct lecturer at McDaniel College.

Victoria Venable, the Maryland director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, has been hired to serve as Fitzwater’s legislative director. And Ysela Bravo, who ran unsuccessfully for a position on the Frederick County Board of Education, will be a community liaison.

Some of the holdovers from the Gardner administration include Chief Administrative Officer Rick Harcum, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Michael Hughes, Government Affairs Director Joy Schaefer, and Communications Director Vivian Laxton.

“I am so excited to work with these folks as we continue to build a Frederick County where everyone can live, work, and thrive!” Fitzwater wrote in her Facebook post.

Hopping aboard for transit

The General Assembly’s Transit Caucus this week announced its new officers.

Sen.-elect Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) and Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) will serve as the co-chairs. Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) and Del. Sheila Ruth (D-Baltimore County) will be the vice chairs. Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Montgomery) will be the caucus secretary, and Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), a driving force in establishing the caucus several years ago, will be an at-large member.

More personnel news

The powerhouse Baltimore firm KO Public Affairs this week is hiring two new account executives.

Juwan Blocker will be a senior account executive, coming to the firm from the office of outgoing Comptroller Peter Franchot (D). At the comptroller’s office, Blocker was a special assistant, Prince George’s County liaison, and deputy legislative affairs director.

The other account executive, Stacey Wells comes to KO from the Polsinelli law firm in Washington, D.C., where she coordinated advocacy campaigns and created communication materials. She previously worked for Dels. Sara Love (D-Montgomery) and Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) in Annapolis.

“We are thrilled to have them on board, and expect great things from each of them given their wealth of knowledge and relationships,” said Rick Abbruzzese, a partner at KO Public Affairs.

Last but certainly not least, Raquel Guillory Coombs, who has been communications director for former Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) for the past 6 1/2 years, is heading to the Maryland Department of Budget and Management to be chief of staff to Secretary-designate Helene Grady when Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) takes office on Jan. 18.

Coombs has also worked in the press shops of former Govs. Martin O’Malley (D) and Parris Glendening (D) and former Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), and also was vice president of communications and digital media for the national NAACP in Baltimore. And back in the day, Coombs was a State House radio reporter.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify Raquel Coombs’ new position.