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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Analysis: This is what democracy looks like

Candidate Don Quinn speaks as 15 of his Democratic primary opponents look on during a 3rd congressional district candidate forum Wednesday evening in Annapolis. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

When 16 candidates for a congressional seat share a stage together, as happened in Annapolis Wednesday night, it’s hard not to think, as the old protest march slogan goes, “This is what democracy looks like.”

When a couple of hundred people attend this event — even if most have already decided how they are going to vote — it’s hard not to think that this fragile political system, which Winston Churchill once described as “the worst form of government, except for all others,” might actually endure for a little while longer. Also, that Democrats who live in Maryland’s 3rd congressional district have a pretty good menu of choices.

“We’ve been out on the campaign trail and we’ve heard inspiring stories from each of these candidates,” said one of the contenders, Del. Mark S. Chang (D-Anne Arundel). “This is going to be a night of encouragement for all of us up here.”

Looking at the tableau of candidates arrayed across several long tables covered with white tablecloths, Rev. Chris Broadwell, pastor of the Eastport United Methodist Church, where the Democratic candidate forum took place, conjured up a more Biblical image.

“When we set out the tablecloths, I truly didn’t intend for it to be that familiar looking,” he said of the unmistakable resemblance to the Last Supper.

Some of the candidates couldn’t help but joke about the size and spectacle.

“I’m running for the same seat as the 400 other people up here,” said Lindsay Donahue, an IT professional and one of several long shots in the race.

“This is the largest group [of candidates] I’ve ever seen assembled for a candidate forum,” one of the moderators, Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College, observed.

The forum, sponsored by the District 30 Democratic Club and co-sponsored by the Annapolis Democratic Central Committee and the Anne Arundel Democratic Central Committee, featured 16 of the 22 Democrats seeking to replace departing Congressman John Sarbanes (D) in the May 14 primary.

Already, a narrative has developed about this unwieldy field, at least among political professionals, party activists and political junkies who obsess over these things. It goes something like this:

That there’s one genuine celebrity in the race, Harry Dunn, a hero cop at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, who has raised so much money — albeit from outside the 3rd District, where he doesn’t even live — that he automatically must be considered one of the frontrunners. So also are the two state senators in the primary — Sarah K.Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) and Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard and Anne Arundel), in that order.

There are three other state lawmakers running — Chang and Dels. Terri L. Hill (D-Howard) and Mike Rogers (D-Anne Arundel), who, by virtue of their substantive records in the General Assembly, would probably make solid members of Congress. And then there are a couple of other candidates with distinct constituencies who have to be taken seriously — for their potential impact on the outcome of this race or their potential to be political players down the line — even if they probably can’t win now.

The race will be determined on the airwaves, in voters’ mailboxes and on the ground. Candidates with long-standing political involvement and contacts have obvious advantages. So do candidates who can afford to reach the voters and get their messages out. It is, for obvious reasons, a largely uneven playing field.

Signs wars outside the forum venue in Annapolis Wednesday. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

But for one night at least, all 16 candidates stood on equal footing — democracy on display. The sheer volume of candidates onstage meant that each was only able to answer two questions directly. All were asked to weigh in on eight issues by raising their hands or standing, and each was given two minutes for a closing statement.

The people running the show were so mindful of time constraints that when a few candidates went over their allotted two minutes, one of the two moderators, Keanuu Smith-Brown, would walk to the stage and begin to remove the microphone from their hands.

When Smith-Brown approached her, Hill, who had been talking about her support for voting rights legislation, stopped in mid-sentence and apologized because she hadn’t seen the card telling her time was up.

“That’s my red sign,” she said of Smith-Brown’s visit. “I’m out. Peace.”

Under the chaotic circumstances, it all worked out pretty well. Candidates largely got their talking points in. There was widespread agreement on most issues, like abortion rights, health care, economic injustice, climate change, gun safety, and the preservation of democracy, and a consensus that the real enemies are their Republican foes.

“Nobody up here is my opponent,” Dunn said at one point. “The opponents come in November.”

The candidates sought to distinguish themselves by talking about their political experience or their life journey, or some combination.

Malcolm Colombo, a civil engineer, described growing up poor and relying on food stamps to get by. “I fully understand what government means to working class Americans,” he said.

Several candidates talked about being immigrants or the children of immigrants. “This great country gave me everything, so this is the time to give back to this country,” said Aisha Khan, a day care center owner who came to the U.S. from Pakistan two decades ago.

Abigail Diehl, who runs a produce stand in Annapolis and has close ties to farmers and cannabis growers, began each of her three opportunities to speak in the exact same way: “Clean food. Clean water. Clean energy. Clean medicine.”

Gary Schuman, a former journalist and restaurateur who was clearly the oldest candidate on the stage, referenced the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the killings of students by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, to explain his distrust of government. At times he sounded like a Bernie Sanders lefty, and at other times like an old-line, Cold War Democrat, and at one point, he said, “oink oink.”

“From Harry Truman to Gary Schuman, the rhyme is only the beginning,” he said during his closing statement.

Rogers noted proudly that he was the only candidate who was a military veteran and a state legislator. And Elfreth too talked about her working class upbringing, working in a reference to iconic former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in the bargain.

“The kitchen table issues don’t get enough attention in this campaign,” she said, reminding voters that Mikulski referred to these as “the macro and the macaroni and cheese.”

How was an audience member supposed to evaluate what they heard — and how are voters going to decide who to support? Those are tough questions that will require research and discipline, and with less than a month to the primary — and mail-in voting already under way — there will be few opportunities to see all the candidates together again.

Every candidate seemed sincere about their views and background. Some of the more seasoned politicians were more on-message when it came to laying out their platform and trying to draw distinctions with their opponents. Some candidates were clearly more progressive and brought more passion to the table. Some offered an unconventional brew of policies.

It’s rare to hear Democrats espouse term limits for members of Congress, but at least two candidates did — businessman Juan Dominguez and sports complex CEO Matt Libber.

“We need to get the government’s house in order,” said Libber, who also embraced passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution — another anomaly for a Democrat.

Mixing it up

Given the format and the size of the field, it was hard for the candidates to attack each other to any great degree. Almost all said they wanted to get “dark money” out of politics, and in some cases, the candidates used that as an indirect swipe at Elfreth, who is benefiting from a six-figure independent expenditure campaign by a political action committee affiliated with AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel group — though they never mentioned her by name.

John Morse, a labor lawyer who has articulated some of Sanders’ progressive policy positions, was also the candidate who was most vocally critical of Israel and the current war in Gaza.

“I’m here to fight for you,” he said. “I don’t accept corporate PAC money. The way you run your race reflects who you are.”

Later, Morse asserted that “nine of the top 10 donors to AIPAC are MAGA extremists.”

“We’re in the fight of our lives here,” he said. “With dark money flooding this race, it sullies your hope.”

At one point the moderators asked the candidates if they would swear off corporate PAC money. Only Elfreth stayed seated.

While Elfreth has called gun safety one of her top priority issues, and points out that she defeated “an NRA-endorsed Republican” to win her state Senate seat, Lam — also without naming her — said he voted against every GOP amendment seeking to weaken certain gun control legislation in Annapolis. That’s a point his campaign has amplified in news releases Wednesday and Thursday.

Dominguez took a subtle dig at Dunn for not living in the 3rd District — which is not a requirement for running for Congress. “I don’t have to commute from outside the district to campaign here,” he said, without naming Dunn. He also offered his campaign RV to out-of-district candidates for ease of getting around.

Dominguez was also disdainful of the state lawmakers on the stage, pointing out that they had just voted in favor of raising some taxes and fees in the recent General Assembly session, and said they would “pass a hundred more tax increases” after this year’s election (Dominguez also called for higher taxes on the wealthy).

Kristin Lyman Nabors, a nurse at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, noted that she was the only Democrat to enter the congressional race before Sarbanes announced his retirement last October. She called her desire to serve “a non-opportunistic campaign for this office,” because she had already identified problems in a male-dominated Congress that she wanted to address.

“You challenge the incumbent,” she said. “You don’t wait.” She later added that Congress “has a hormone imbalance,” name-checking Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Mike Tyson along the way.

When it was all over, 64 members of the District 30 Democratic Club cast a straw poll for their favorite contenders. Using ranked-choice voting to list their top five favorites, the club members gave Elfreth, who represents District 30 in the Senate, the top slot, followed by Morse, Dunn and Lam.

“I know it’s a late night,” Lam said when it was all over, “but this is democracy at work.”

This story has been updated to discuss a question to the candidates on corporate PAC money.


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Analysis: This is what democracy looks like