Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) announced Tuesday that he is nominating state Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) to be Maryland’s next secretary of State — setting off a new cascading set of legislative dominoes.
Lee, who has been a political trailblazer for more than 20 years, would become the first Asian-American secretary of State in Maryland history.
“Senator Susan Lee has been a force in Maryland for decades and I’m honored to have her join my Administration as Maryland’s next Secretary of State,” Moore said in a statement. “I know with Sen. Lee alongside me, we will swiftly create an economically thriving Maryland that leaves no one behind.”
The secretary of State’s office in Maryland has a diverse portfolio that includes handling certain executive functions including executive orders, extraditions and requisitions, pardons and commutations, public disclosures of Maryland business activities, certifying presidential nominees, and more.
In an interview, Lee said she sees the job as being “Maryland’s ambassador to the world” and an integral part of the incoming Moore administration’s economic development strategy, particularly when it comes to international trade and investment opportunities.
Moore, she said, “wants to lift this office. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to fulfill Gov.-elect Moore’s mandate to make Maryland open for business.”
Lee, 68, was just elected to her third term representing the Bethesda-area District 16 in the Senate. But with the new Senate due to be seated at noon on Wednesday, it was not immediately clear Tuesday when she plans to step down from her elected position. Her resignation would start the official vacancy process, with the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee interviewing candidates and forwarding a recommendation to the new governor for replacing Lee.
Del. Ariana Kelly (D), who was just elected to her fourth term, is planning to apply for the Senate vacancy, with the assent of the other two House members from District 16, Dels. Marc Korman (D) and Sara Love (D), so she must be considered the early frontrunner for the appointment. In a brief interview Tuesday, she said she plans to begin reaching out to members of the central committee.
“My job is to earn their support, so that’s what I’ll be doing,” she said.
The new turn of events would have myriad legislative implications: Lee is a senior member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and is the Senate majority whip, so her departure presents Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) with the opportunity to add another senator to his leadership team.
And the 11-member Judicial Proceedings panel is already slated to have five new members: Sens.-elect Bill Folden (R-Frederick), Mary-Dulany James (D-Harford), Michael McKay (R-Allegany) and C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), who served on the panel during his prior Senate tenure. Ferguson has also indicated that the eventual replacement for Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who resigned his Senate seat Tuesday after being nominated by Moore to head the Maryland Energy Administration, would serve on Judicial Proceedings.
Kelly’s elevation to the Senate would start another appointment process with the Democratic Central Committee and would open the coveted position of vice chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, a role Kelly assumed just last spring, at the end of the 2022 legislative session.
There’s no obvious immediate frontrunner for the House seat, if there is a vacancy. Samir Paul, who finished just 12 votes behind Love in the 2018 Democratic primary, has told the incumbent lawmakers in the district that he is unlikely to seek the seat.
Between Lee and Pinsky, the 47-member Senate will start the 2023 legislative session Wednesday with two vacancies. The Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee is expected to meet later this month to consider Pinsky’s replacement in District 22, which is based in Hyattsville. Del. Alonzo Washington (D), vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has sent an email to constituents signaling his intention to seek the appointment.
“As your State Senator, I will continue the fight for racial equity, a world class education system, environmental justice, and economic opportunity for all,” he wrote. “With this new opportunity, I’ll be better able to influence critical resources and bring quality development to our District, and build off of the tens of millions of dollars in State funding we have received over the past several years under my leadership.”
Ashanti Martinez, a former colleague of Washington’s at the immigrants’ rights advocacy group CASA of Maryland, is seen as likely to apply for the House vacancy if Washington is appointed to the Senate — though he just became chief of staff to new Prince George’s County Councilmember Krystal Oriadha (D). Martinez finished about 800 votes out of the money for a House seat in the 2022 Democratic primary.
The prospect of multiple legislative openings will undoubtedly reignite a debate in Annapolis over whether to reform the process of filling vacancies in the General Assembly. Bills have been introduced over the past several legislative sessions to require vacancies to be filled by special elections in the first two years of a legislative term, rather than through a political appointment process, but they have always stalled before reaching the finish line.
Lee’s own legislative career began as an appointee in 2002, when she was selected to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates, becoming the first Asian-American woman to serve in the General Assembly. She won three full terms in the House before winning her Senate seat in 2014, becoming the first Asian-American to serve in the Maryland Senate. Both times Lee replaced District 16 political icons: Nancy Kopp, in 2002, when Kopp was appointed state treasurer, and Brian Frosh in 2014, when Frosh was elected attorney general.
In the Senate, Lee has focused on a range of issues including domestic violence, technology and cybersecurity, and consumers’ rights. While she endorsed Moore in the Democratic primary for governor, she said she was surprised when he approached her about the possibility of serving in his administration.
“I’m really honored,” she said. “Wes Moore has a great vision. He thinks out of the box.”
Lee would replace outgoing Secretary of State John Wobensmith, who has served since the early weeks of outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration.
“This is exciting news,” said Del. Lily Qi (D-Montgomery), another Asian-American leader. “She has been a very strong supporter of our governor and has put many years in public service. I’ve worked with her as a legislator, but also in the Asian American and Chinese American community. I think that she will represent us well in her new capacity.”
William J. Ford contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: The story was updated to reflect Del. Alonzo Washington’s intention to seek the Senate appointment in District 22.