The Western Maryland Democratic Summit is an annual political rite of spring — or, occasionally, the fall — that draws scores of candidates, officeholders, activists and party stalwarts to the Rocky Gap Casino & Resort outside Cumberland. One of the most popular aspects of the two-day event is a straw poll that comes near the end, in which summit attendees express their preferences for various offices soon to be on the ballot.
Organizers of the summit do not pretend that their straw poll is in any way scientific or determinative. Just as likely, it’s a popularity contest, or a result of intense lobbying, organizing or room-packing by campaigns that bring in supporters from far and wide. But candidates who fare well in the poll love to boast about it.
On Monday, the Western Maryland Democratic Political Action Committee put tickets up for sale for the next summit, which is scheduled for April 12 and 13. They sold out in a morning, a first — and a promising sign, at first glance.
But some Democrats who were unable to buy tickets immediately wondered if someone had bought up all the seats in an effort to sway the straw poll results.
“It’s rare for any event to sell out unless it’s a Taylor Swift concert,” said Sue Hecht, a former state delegate from Frederick County who was one of the many Democrats who unsuccessfully tried to buy a ticket just hours after they went on sale. “This is the Western Maryland Democratic Summit. It’s not a Taylor Swift concert.”
So after a few days of speculation, gossip and controversy, the PAC announced later in the week that while the summit would continue as planned, there would be no straw poll, because conducting one might jeopardize the event’s success.
“The response to this year’s announcement and opening of registration was, to say the least, overwhelming.” the PAC wrote in an email to many Democratic activists. “We are incredibly pleased that so many Democrats from across Maryland are excited to attend the Summit — to hear from the region’s state and local elected leaders, experts on education reform in Maryland, political analysis of the 2024 national elections, and candidates seeking to represent Marylanders in important races for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. However, we are concerned that some of these important elements of the Summit program are at risk of being overshadowed, diminished, or even ignored as a result of inflated attendance numbers that may stress our capacity to ensure a high-quality event. Indeed, many longtime and committed members of the Western Maryland Democratic Summit family — our caucus — as well as several candidates have found themselves unable to register due to the spiked level of interest in the outcome of the Straw Poll.
“For this reason, we have made the incredibly difficult decision to suspend this year’s Straw Poll. The Summit planning committee has been working for months to develop a meaningful and engaging program for all of our attendees. We are keenly aware of the capacity of the convention center space, its employees, and our volunteers to properly manage an event in the available space, and we have entered into contractual agreements with the facility regarding the maximum number of attendees. We have concluded that we are simply unable to produce a successful event, meet the requirements of our contract, and provide the opportunity for those who have loyally supported the Summit for the past two decades to participate if a Straw Poll is included in the program.”
Some party activists saw conspiracies and privately wondered whether the campaign of a wealthy candidate — perhaps U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th), who is self-funding his battle for U.S. Senate with Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) — bought all the tickets in order to skew the results of the straw poll.
“This feels like an organized takeover of some sort,” said Hecht, who is listed on Alsobrooks’ website as a supporter.
But Robin Summerfield, the PAC’s treasurer, said all the tickets that were sold on Monday morning went to individuals and not one entity.
“Individual buyers bought the tickets, not campaigns,” he said. “Whether they were buying them in support of a campaign, I can’t tell that from the return addresses.” He conceded — in an interview before the PAC decided to cancel the straw poll — that the poll “is probably driving interest” in the summit.
Joe Bowen, a Trone spokesperson, cited the summit organizers conclusion about the individual ticket buyers, and added, “We’re excited to attend the summit, as David does each year.”
Technically, Summerfield said, it’s not a sellout yet. The room where the event is held has a 350-seat capacity. The PAC sets aside about 40 seats for the Democratic central committees in the Western Maryland counties. It also needs to reserve dozens of seats for event sponsors, who are still being lined up. As a result, Summerfield said, “we had to pump the brakes a little bit” after selling 160 tickets.
Anyone who tries to buy a ticket now is being put on a waiting list. Once the PAC determines how many seats it needs to set aside for sponsors, the rest of the tickets will be released.
“It’s like ‘Willy Wonka’ — it’s the golden ticket,” said Del. Lesley J. Lopez (D-Montgomery), one of 11 Democrats seeking to replace Trone in the Western Maryland 6th District seat.
Lopez said the possibility of a sell-out could impact her campaign’s strategy for the summit.
“I’m committed to being there,” she said. “We just have to figure out how.”