The county's Democratic Central Committee meets in North Bethesda on Dec. 13. Credit: Steve Bohnel

This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 14, 2022, to correct Michelle Whittaker’s district.

The Montgomery County’s Democratic Central Committee did not vote Tuesday on a rule change that would require its members to resign to run for an open political seat. One member strongly objected, but all other members agreed further legal review was needed.

Multiple members said they wanted to see a legal review by the state, to determine whether the committee can make the following rule change: “Any current MCDCC member who applies for a vacancy appointment shall inform the Chair of their intentions and resign their position on the MCDCC. Their resignation shall take effect no later than the vacancy application deadline. If a different applicant is selected as the nominee, the member who resigned shall be eligible to apply for the MCDCC vacancy created by their resignation.” 

Michelle Whittaker, an at-large committee member who lives in District 18, admitted the optics of the current process — committee members potentially picking one of their own — are not great. And she added that the committee should act quickly to address the issue. 

Many members agreed that the rules committee — a subcommittee within the full committee — should further review the change, which was introduced Tuesday by Sarah Brand-Wiita, an at-large member of the committee. 

Liza Smith, a member representing District 14, said she already reached out to the state Attorney General’s office, who confirmed the committee had the power to change the vacancy rule. Arthur Edmunds — a District 14 member who presided over the meeting — said that he and other members had not gotten a response, and that legal questions remained.

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Smith said the vacancy issue at hand “was a moral issue, not a legal one” and accused her colleagues of trying to “run out the clock,” before the current vacancy — a House of Delegates seat in District 14 (which covers the eastern part of the county) — is filled. Eric Luedtke is vacating that seat next month to join Gov.-elect Wes Moore’s administration. 

Jim Michaels — who was the Rules’ committee chair, a body that reviewed ways to improve the political vacancy process — agreed that Brand-Wiita’s proposal merited further review by the committee and the state Democratic Party and attorney general.

Michaels said the Maryland Constitution bestows the powers among the county’s central committees — hence, why further review from the state is needed, to see why the change would be allowed.

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Michaels said that there is vigorous debate within the central committee about whether the change would be good. He said central committee members are some of the most active members of the local Democratic Party and deserve consideration.

“A central committee is people who have worked in the party, they volunteer to do this, they get elected [to the committee] from their district to do this,” Michaels said. “These are your party activists who are very engaged, very active, and some, very experienced. And are you saying those are the people you don’t want in public office?”

Smith told Bethesda Beat earlier this month that Edmunds, along with other candidates, was interested in pursuing the District 14 vacancy. After the meeting, Edmunds declined to say whether he would seek the seat. 

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When pressed about the optics of the current appointment process, Edmunds said, in part: “I’m in favor of improving the process. … And we got a rules committee that’s going to look at that process.”

“There are four lawyers in the room who have weighed in that question as well,” Edmunds added about the legality of the proposed rule change. “I think there should be an opinion rendered beyond this committee on that change. [And] if you want to change the rule, go talk to our [state] legislators, they’re the one who wrote the rules.”

Whittaker was candid about how the process looks to other local Democratic clubs countywide. 

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“This is partially why some district caucuses don’t do public forums with us, because they think we already have our intentions, and it’s not going to be something that’s part of the process,” Whittaker said. 

On the argument that central committee members are some of the most experienced members in the county, she said: “I think it’s limiting to think in our county, as large as it is, to think we don’t have other candidates that are equally as good … that’s not a knock on folks who are in the committee. There are great folks that are in the committee who might make great members of the House [of Delegates] or [State Senate]. I just don’t think they should have this advantage of running as a [committee] member who can vote for themselves.”

What’s next?

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Another factor that impacts the coming weeks is the actions of the new chair of the entire committee: Saman Qadeer Ahmad, a District 15 member. 

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, members split a 12-12 vote between Ahmad and Michael Tardif, a District 18 member. Committee members cast their paper ballots — signed with their name — which were then collected in a cardboard box and counted by hand.

After the first vote deadlocked, members voted again — and Ahmad beat Tardif in a 13-11 tally. A round of applause ensued, and Tardif shook Ahmad’s hand. Ahmad deferred to Edmunds to preside over the rest of the meeting. 

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Later in the meeting, Whittaker and Ahmad were discussing the proposed rule change, with Ahmad agreeing with other committee members that the state’s Democratic Party and/or attorney general needs to offer “written legal guidance” on whether it’s allowed. 

Smith implored her colleagues to set a deadline Luedtke’s successor was picked by the committee. 

No firm deadline was set, although Smith and others expressed that the sooner, the better. This is the timeline for the District 14 vacancy:

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  • Dec. 16 – 5 p.m. is the deadline for applicants to apply to the seat
  • Public forum for candidates at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 21
  • Letters of support for a candidate will be received until 5 p.m. on Dec. 29
  • Committee meets on Jan. 3 to select a candidate, and sends it to the governor’s desk for consideration