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Election 2024 Government & Politics

Candidate with unorthodox background seeks working-class support for his bid to succeed Trone

6th District congressional candidate Altimont Wilks in front of one of his grocery stores. Photo courtesy of the Institute for Justice.

Altimont Wilks wants to debate.

The small business owner running as a Democrat in the 6th congressional district said he could “crush” the other 16 candidates — including 12 Democrats — in a debate. 

“Every issue they say they stand on, I either basically helped them craft that issue. Or I am the poster child for that issue when it comes to criminal justice reform, economic development, you name it, ” Wilks said.

Yet when the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County held a forum for 6th District candidates on April 28, Wilks did not appear.

Still, as a man who spent 13 years in prison on a drug charge, he’s one of the more unorthodox candidates seeking to replace U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-6th). The congressman is moving on to run for the U.S. Senate in a bid to succeed Sen. Ben Cardin (D), who is retiring.

Wilks said he’s worried that the Democratic Party in the state isn’t doing enough to back the best candidate and energize voters. He also criticized the race as a “genealogy contest” in which the groups that organize the candidate forums favor those contenders who are close to them.

Wilks hopes to leverage his working-class status and background advising elected officials on criminal justice and economic development matters to win the congressional seat. The candidate said he noticed that the voices of certain demographics aren’t being heard in this election.

The New York native moved to Hagerstown in the 1980s, describing it as a “very welcoming” community. He graduated from Hagerstown Community College in 2021.

Wilks was arrested in 2004 for cocaine possession with intent to distribute, according to the Frederick News-Post. He served 13 years in prison. In 2019 after his release, he opened a grocery store called Carmen’s Corner Store in Hagerstown, named after his mother. He opened a second outlet in Frederick in 2021.

In office, he hopes to implement wide-ranging economic development policies and eliminate discrimination. One of his proposals is to fund prison education programs and raise inmates’ wages to decrease recidivism rates and ease the financial burden on taxpayers. 

Wilks is in a highly contested primary race with some big names involved, including state Del. Joe Vogel (D-Montgomery), former Obama administration official Aswani Jain, who ran for governing in 2022, and former U.S. Department of Commerce Deputy Assistant Secretary April McClain Delaney.

The grocery store owner seeks to distinguish himself through his record of successfully challenging federal policies and a blunt approach to campaigning. 

In 2019, the USDA barred Wilks’ business from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps, due to his prior drug charge. The department had a policy barring anyone with a conviction related to alcohol, drugs, or firearms, according to a news release from The Institute for Justice, which represented Wilks in his subsequent lawsuit against the department. The USDA settled the case and amended the rule, allowing Wilks to reapply for benefits in December 2023.

The USDA said it would change how it applies its “business integrity” rule, The Institute for Justice said.

Wilks sued the U.S. Small Business Administration over a rule that barred businesses from getting Paycheck Protection Program checks during the COVID-19 pandemic if someone who owns 20% of the entity had a “recent conviction or unresolved legal issues,” according to an article by the Frederick News-Post.

The SBA retracted the rule before a federal court could rule on the issue. Wilks was subsequently able to get partial relief for his businesses.

During a recent interview with Maryland Matters, Wilks was at a courthouse filing a petition against the city of Frederick for putting the historic but vacant Asiana building into a receivership. The city wants to make a prominent Maryland developer the receiver; Wilks argues that local minority businesspeople should be offered an opportunity to rehabilitate the building.

He also advised Trone on legislation that would create the SNAP Second Chance Act of 2023, which would limit the use of criminal violations to deny a retail food or wholesale food store from receiving SNAP benefits. Trone introduced the bill in the House of Representatives on March 7 of last year, it was referred to the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture in April of that same year. It has yet to receive a vote.

Wilks voiced his support for Trone in the Senate race, who, he says— along with Gov. Wes Moore (D) — inspired him to get further involved in politics. The candidate criticized Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) — who is running against Trone for the Senate seat — for her approach to criminal justice, which Wilks argued has been ineffective.

“We don’t need another lawyer in office,” he said. “We need a working person like David Trone, and like myself.”

Wilks said he wants to inspire working-class Marylanders. He said a returning citizen running a congressional campaign shows the resilience of average citizens. He would be the first person of color to hold the 6th District seat if elected.

The business owner emphasized that he doesn’t see the other candidates as “foes,” since he’ll need help from them once he’s in office.

“That’s what this is all about,” Wilks said. “Building connections and building a Congress that’s going to work with the constituents.”


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Candidate with unorthodox background seeks working-class support for his bid to succeed Trone