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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Selection process for Democratic convention delegates irks some lawmakers

After being sworn in Nov. 18, 2023, Ken Ulman presides over the Democratic State Central Committee of Maryland meeting in Prince George’s County. Charlene Dukes will serve as first vice chair. Photo by William J. Ford.

Del. Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore City) has never been to a Democratic National Convention before.

So when the call came for candidates interested in serving as delegates to this summer’s convention in Chicago, Lewis went to the State Board of Elections office and signed up to run in the May 14 Democratic primary as a delegate from the 7th congressional district pledged to President Biden.

“I never applied before,” she said. “It sounded interesting and fun.”

A few weeks later, however, Lewis was surprised and disappointed to learn that the Maryland Democratic Party had rejected her candidacy and that her name would not be appearing on the primary ballot as a Biden delegate.

She wasn’t alone. Seven other state lawmakers who had filed candidacy papers to become convention delegates for Biden saw their bids declined: state Sen. Ron Watson (D-Prince George’s) and Dels. Tiffany T. Alston (D-Prince George’s), Harry Bhandari (D-Baltimore County), Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), Kenneth Kerr (D-Frederick), Jeffrie E. Long Jr. (D-Prince George’s and Calvert) and Courtney Watson (D-Howard). Several other current or former officeholders and party activists and donors were also informed that their names would not appear on the ballot as Biden delegates.

Most were just as surprised and confused as Lewis.

“I didn’t know the criteria,” Sen. Watson said. “It was my understanding that it goes to the voters.”

Welcome to the complicated and delicate world of Democratic convention delegate selection.

“It’s more art than science,” said Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), who is a party-sanctioned candidate for convention delegate this year but has been turned down in the past.

In years when there’s isn’t a Democratic president running for reelection, and there are multiple candidates seeking the White House nomination, it’s much more of a free-for-all. Delegate candidates run as delegates pledged to various presidential contenders. Their ability to get to be convention delegates largely depends on the performance of the presidential candidates in the primary.

But when an incumbent is running for reelection, party leaders have much tighter control. On top of that, convention delegates from all 50 states must have perfect gender balance. And the party has other arcane rules regarding delegate selection — each of which present unique challenges in each of Maryland’s eight congressional districts, where many of the delegates are selected from.

“Our party has robust goals to make sure our delegate are reflective of our Maryland Democratic Party,” said Ken Ulman, the state party chair. “So we have goals in multiple categories that we work hard to achieve.”

In other words, while dozens of wannabe delegates went to the Board of Elections in the hopes of being on the primary ballot to be convention delegates this year, it was inevitable that many weren’t going to be chosen and are now officially designated on the Board of Elections website as “not authorized,” meaning they won’t appear on the ballot.

Maryland is sending 106 delegates to the Democratic convention this summer, and there are three ways to wind up as Free States delegates. Twenty-two slots automatically go to party leaders — like Gov. Wes Moore (D) and other statewide elected officials, members of the state’s congressional delegation, Ulman, elected members of the Democratic National Committee, and a few others.

Twenty-one more will be selected at-large by the Maryland Democratic Central Committee on June 8, three weeks after the May primary. People who want to fill those slots need to notify the party of their interest in late May.

The bulk of the delegates, 63, will be elected by congressional district in the primary. Because Biden is essentially running unchallenged for the Democratic nomination, that gives party leaders leeway to select who they want for the president’s slate — within the boundaries of the party’s diversity rules.

About 100 people went to the Board of Elections in Annapolis to sign up for these 63 slots, Ulman said, and he worked with the Biden campaign and Moore and the governor’s political lieutenants to winnow the names.

It wasn’t easy, he said. “But the bottom line is, we’re thrilled that so many people want to become convention delegates and support President Biden and Vice President Harris. It’s a good problem to have.”

Still, the decision was disappointing to many lawmakers, and some said they weren’t sure if they were going to apply for the at-large vacancies after primary.

“I’m on the fence about going now,” said Del. Watson. “I wanted to go represent my district.”

Still, Watson, who served as a campaign coordinator in Maryland for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run — and is not related to Ron Watson — said she understood the challenges state party leaders faced.

“They pulled the people for different reasons — they had to meet different objectives,” she said.

In most congressional districts, Maryland Democratic voters will see the names of the officially sanctioned Biden delegates and, in some cases, candidates running as uncommitted delegates, on the primary ballot. A smaller number are running to be delegates for U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who suspended his White House campaign, and Marianne Williamson, the New Age author.

But the results are largely a foregone conclusion, with Biden expected to run up huge margins in the primary in all eight congressional districts.

One thing that’s noteworthy is that several of the brighter lights of the Moore administration are running as official Biden delegates, even in districts where elected officials were turned down. The list includes, in the 3rd congressional district, Dylan Behler, director of legislative and constituent services at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who doubles as chair of the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee; Matthew Verghese, who heads the state’s federal government relations office; and Lucinda Ware, a deputy chief of staff to Moore.

In the 4th District, Mollie Byron, who is Moore’s intergovernmental relations director, is running as a Biden delegate; so is Tisha Edwards, the governor’s appointments secretary, in the 7th District; and Eric Luedtke, head of the legislative affairs office, in the 8th District.

Lewis said she is tempted to try to become a delegate in the next round of applications, but isn’t entirely sure.

“I’m a good Democrat,” she said. “I want to support my party too.”


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Selection process for Democratic convention delegates irks some lawmakers