Hundreds of Maryland Democrats braved evening rush hour traffic in two metropolitan areas Thursday to salute one of their own, celebrate recent political victories, and look ahead to the campaigns of 2024.
Officially, the Maryland Democratic Party’s annual dinner at Martin’s West catering hall in Woodlawn was a tribute to 84-year-old U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-5th), whose political career began in 1966. And the praise for the veteran lawmaker was effusive. But most people present — including Hoyer himself — were less interested in looking back than in mobilizing for the 2024 election.
Democrats in Maryland are still thrilling over their historic victories in 2022 — taking back the governor’s office, electing a diverse statewide ticket, maintaining supermajorities in the General Assembly, and dominating most large county governments in the state. But among most party stalwarts, there remain jitters about 2024, with President Biden’s popularity waning and polls showing him in a tossup race with former President Trump, despite Trump’s myriad legal troubles.
“We’ve got to wake up, folks,” U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-7th) urged the crowd. “We’ve got 16 months to turn this around.”
Speakers during the three-hour program — which ran almost twice as long as advertised, with a dinner break — included Maryland Democratic Chair Yvette Lewis, U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D), Gov. Wes Moore (D), and Hoyer himself.
But the speaking program was only part of the attraction. With an open-seat Senate election on tap in 2024, and the cascading political dominoes it’s creating, schmooze and gossip were at a premium at the black tie-optional event. The three current leading Democratic candidates for Senate — Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, U.S. Rep. David Trone (6th) and Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando — were on hand, and Trone and Alsobrooks appeared in a video tribute to Hoyer, along with several other elected officials, including Biden.
Jawando, the least well known of the three contenders, said he was heartened about his prospects after pressing the flesh in a room full of 850 Democrats.
“It confirms what I always knew — that it’s wide open,” he said in an interview. “And this is insiders. So you can imagine how wide open it is with voters.”
Adding to the night’s political intrigue, Hoyer has not yet said whether he’s seeking a 22nd full term next year. And there is some speculation that Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-2nd), 77, who was recruited to run for Congress by Hoyer two decades ago, might retire.
Anyone expecting political announcements out of Thursday’s event walked away disappointed. Hoyer hinted that he’s ready to stay on the scene.
“Don’t write any obituaries,” he told the crowd.
Still, the usually loquacious Hoyer spoke for just 13 minutes, and seemed a little embarrassed by all the attention.
“I was listening to this program going on and said, ‘Isn’t it a shame Steny died?'” he joked. “I’m just glad that I could hear it.”
Mainly, Hoyer thanked everyone present for being part of his political journey. But he saved special praise for Cardin, who entered the Maryland General Assembly at the same time he did, in 1967, and Moore, whom he endorsed early in the 2022 Democratic primary. Hoyer compared the new governor to John F. Kennedy, whose appearance at the University of Maryland when Hoyer was a college student inspired him to get into politics.
“I like politics for what you can do,” he said. “Not to just be. But to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Hoyer, who has been a widower for 26 years, introduced the crowd to his fiancee, Elaine Kamarck (the two are marrying on Saturday). As he finished his speech, Lewis, the party chair and a former opera singer, led the crowd in song, singing the popular 1960’s pop hit, “Chapel of Love.”
Jeffries, who heads a new House Democratic leadership team that took over this year after Hoyer and other senior leaders relinquished their leadership posts, offered the fieriest speech of the evening, comparing the Democrats and their agenda to congressional Republicans. He referred to the Democrats as “Team Normal. Team Reasonable. Team Getting Stuff Done. Team Looks Like America.
“And what do you see on the other side?” he continued. “Team Chaos. Team Extremism.”
Jeffries had the crowd leaping and cheering when he praised labor unions, calling them “an essential part of the American Dream. It’s who we are and what we represent.”
Jeffries even managed to crack jokes about the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, noting his discomfort as higher-ranking congressional leaders were led away by security officers. But he used the story to make a political point.
“I was waiting for somebody to come get me,” he said. “But, y’all, they never came. And I said to myself, ‘It’s a good thing I’m from Brooklyn.’ Why do I say that? Because you have to be prepared to protect our democracy.”
The evening ended with a 25-minute speech from Moore, who largely restated themes from his successful campaign and thanked the audience for their role in producing such sweeping Democratic victories across the state last year.
“This was not about an election. This was about progress,” he said. “This was about giving us the opportunity to work together. This was about giving us the opportunity to work collectively. This was the opportunity to see each other.”
Moore, like many other speakers, suggested that the party’s success in 2022 could serve as a template for 2024 — in Maryland and beyond.
Devang Shah, the state party treasurer, said the event raised about $350,000, about $100,000 more than last year’s gala.
The Maryland Republican Party, struggling to pick up the pieces after its setbacks in 2022, held its annual fundraising dinner last week. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) was the featured speaker.