Ken Ulman, a one-time rising political star in Maryland who more recently has been a key consultant and influencer in the state on economic development and construction projects, is returning to the political arena.
Ulman was overwhelmingly elected the new state Democratic chair Saturday morning, easily dispatching a 22-year-old member of the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee, Edward Crizer III, and Vontasha Simms, a Charles County Democratic Central Committee member who ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat last year. He replaces Yvette Lewis, a venerated figure among many party leaders who stepped down earlier this fall.
Ulman received 160 raw votes, compared to 22 for Crizer and 10 for Simms. Under the state party’s convoluted weighted vote system, which takes population and vote performance into consideration, Ulman took 515.61 votes, to 87.25 for Crizer and 20.25 for Simms.
Despite Ulman’s wide victory, the 2 1/2-hour meeting was lively and exposed several fissures in the Democratic coalition, with Simms’ and Crizer’s supporters taking aim at the Democratic establishment’s stances on the war in Gaza, criminal justice reform, and the influence of big money in politics.
Ulman, a former Howard County executive and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2014, was running on a ticket Saturday that included Charlene Dukes, the former president of Prince George’s County Community College as the party’s first vice chair, who was also elected.
Dukes was unopposed for the first vice chair slot.
The duo was endorsed by Gov. Wes Moore (D) and many other leading Democrats; a notable exception was U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th), who is running for U.S. Senate in 2024 and noted Ulman’s support for his leading opponent in the Senate race, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D). Ulman’s name was removed recently from a list of Alsobrooks’ supporters on her campaign website. He co-hosted a fundraiser for Alsobrooks earlier this year. Beyond expressing his displeasure, Trone did not actively work to defeat Ulman, however.
Moore was on hand for the state party vote at the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 26 headquarters in Lanham on Saturday, rallying the troops and embracing his picks for the top party posts.
Moore said after learning about Lewis’ desire to resign, the decision to recommend Ulman and Dukes for the top party jobs “came after much deliberation and thought.”
“Ken and Charlene — they define what it means to be leaders in every sense of the word,” Moore said. He also called them a “dynamic duo.”
Ulman, 49, started his political career straight out of college, as an operative for President Clinton’s reelection campaign. He later became a staffer for then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D), working closely with another staffer named Dawn Flythe, who is now Maryland’s first lady.
Moore described Ulman as an early professional mentor to his future wife, and said Ulman continues to display those same leadership traits today. He called Ulman “someone who was willing to take the time and do the work when no one was looking.”
At the age of 28, Ulman was elected to the Howard County Council, and four years later, he became county executive. As the 2014 election cycle approached, Ulman explored a run for governor, but instead signed on as the No. 2 on a ticket headed by then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), the prohibitive favorite. They wound up losing in an upset to the Republican ticket led by Larry Hogan.
After the 2014 campaign, Ulman stayed on the edges of state Democratic politics, but he focused on building a business, Margrave Strategies, which has worked with public institutions and private companies on development projects in and around in the state, particularly near college campuses.
Ulman is expected to stay active in his business while he serves as chair. That’s a contrast to his most recent predecessors, who viewed the party position as a full-time job.
Dukes is a decorated educator who previously served on the Prince George’s County Board of Education and is currently chair of the board of the Meyer Foundation, secretary of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, vice chair of the board of CareFirst, Inc. But this is her most public foray into partisan politics.
“This is somebody who is nationally recognized — and nationally loved,” Moore said. “And Maryland, she is ours.”
Dukes described her humble beginnings as one of nine children growing up in a four-room house in Johnstown, Pa. She said her family motto was “one for all and all for one” — and promised to apply the same credo in her party post.
The dissent to Ulman and Dukes was largely framed as a protest against the Democratic Party’s reliance on big donors and top-down approach to voters and party activists. There were also statements of support for Palestinians, and criticisms of the Biden administration’s strong support for Israel. Political leaders were also called out for condemning CASA, the immigrants’ rights group that has come under fire in recent weeks for a statement supporting Palestinians in the Middle East conflict.
Ulman “has ties to the capitalist class, has ties to the racist police, has ties to the 1%,” said Mckayla Wilkes, a progressive activist and frequent candidate for Congress in the 5th District, who gave a nominating speech for Simms.
Ian Miller, a 21-year-old progressive activist supporting Crizer, said Democratic dissenters faced “voter intimidation” from party elders in the state chair contest. Without mentioning Ulman by name, he asserted that the recent revitalization of College Park, which Ulman had a major hand in, has hurt small business owners and resulted in higher apartment rents.
Ulman pledged to be inclusive and to help build party organizations in all 24 Maryland jurisdictions, citing his experience as an operative, staffer, elected official and unsuccessful candidate. He noted that he won his first election for county council by just 36 votes, and that his “journey” would have been markedly different if 18 voters had made a different choice.
“I know what it’s like to knock on doors,” he said. “I know what it’s like to make those calls.”
Several party leaders, including Moore, used the party confab as an opportunity to make full-throated calls for President Biden’s reelection and to remind party activists about what’s at stake in the upcoming White House election. They said the very future of democracy — which Moore described as “an heirloom…a gift that was passed down to us” — is in jeopardy with former President Trump.
“We need to do everything in our power to make sure that Joe Biden is reelected as president of the United States,” Moore said.
But as Saturday’s Democratic gathering showed, party leaders nationally and in Maryland may have their work cut out for them in 2024, given some of the notes of dissidence. Moore, though, said he was impressed with the energy in the room and did not worry about the criticism.
“We appreciate and we welcome democracy,” he said in an interview. “One of the things I love is that Maryland is one of the foundations of democracy that we have in this country. These processes are important to go through, because it gives people a chance to make their case. It gives people a chance to debate what issues matter most. And I’m thankful that after going through a process, that Ken Ulman is becoming the chair with over 85% of the vote, Charlene Dukes becomes the vice chair with 100%.
“What we saw in there was democracy and what we also saw in there was an overwhelmingly excited group about the direction that Ken and Charlene are going to take the party in.”