The county's Democratic Central Committee meets in North Bethesda on Dec. 13, 2022. Credit: Steve Bohnel

In recent months, more than 20 members of Montgomery County’s Democratic Central Committee have been busy appointing members to fill three legislative vacancies in Maryland’s statehouse. The openings have been the result of elected legislators being named to Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s administration, and those selected by the committee for those openings will not face voters for nearly four years.

The appointment process, which does not require the months of fund-raising, coalition building, campaigning or scrutiny of a traditional electoral effort, is a common way for contenders to enter the state House or Senate. The county’s Central Committee members, who are elected at-large or in legislative districts, vote on who to fill the legislative vacancies, and send their recommendations to the governor to approve.

Twelve of the current 34 state delegates and senators in Montgomery County applied through the appointment process to get to their post (roughly 35%), according to an analysis by MoCo360. Of those, Del. Aaron Kaufman (D-Dist. 18) is an outlier, because he was placed on the 2022 primary election ballot and faced election, instead of Al Carr, a former delegate. Carr had dropped out of the District 18 House of Delegates race at the filing deadline, to pursue the County Council District 4 seat (his bid was unsuccessful).All other legislators served some time in legislative session in Annapolis, before facing voters in their districts for elections.

Once a vacancy for a District 16 House seat is filled by March 21, it will be 13 of 35 legislative seats (about 37%).

That’s higher versus the overall percentage in Maryland, which is about 21% (39 out of 187 seats) and will increase slightly once the delegate seat in District 16 is filled (40 of 188 seats). Montgomery also leads percentage-wise among the five most populous jurisdictions in Maryland—Prince George’s County is second, at about 23% (seven out of 31 seats).

Good-government advocates, some central committee members and several state legislators have criticized the process as less democratic than special elections would be.


“The voters should have a choice as soon as possible,” said Nancy Soreng, president of Maryland’s League of Women Voters, an organization that has advocated for some form of special elections for years.

Observers of Montgomery County’s Democratic Central Committee, and others statewide, have complained the process is undemocratic and lacking in credibility and rigor, versus other states where special elections are involved in some form.

“When you talk to the average voter, and you asked them whether they would have a say [in the process] or even if they know who sits on the central committee, they likely won’t know. … It really isn’t an inclusive, democratic process at all, and in a lot of jurisdictions, it isn’t transparent at all,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.


For years, legislative reforms calling for a special elections model have failed to pass in Annapolis, preserving a system where Democratic and Republican central committees across Maryland have tremendous power in who gets to fill delegate and state senate seats. Democratic central committees pick whenever the seat was last vacated by a Democrat, and Republican committees do the same for Republicans.

Central committee members across the state, including in Montgomery, are elected officials and serve for four-year terms alongside delegates and state senators. In Montgomery County, the central committee receives applications, then holds a public forum where questions are asked of candidates who apply for legislative vacancies. The committee then holds a final meeting where committee members can ask questions of candidates, before taking a final vote.

Outside of the appointment process, the county’s Democratic Central Committee helps register voters, advocates for issues Democrats support and backs Democratic candidates in local, state and federal races in general elections.


The fact that they are elected officials is an argument that multiple lawmakers, including Del. Michael Griffith (R-Dist. 35A), have made when noting the importance of their role in filling legislative vacancies.

“As a former chair of a central committee myself, one of the most important roles of the central committee members is to represent their constituents,” Griffith said in Annapolis last month. “And sometimes, that means electing a representative for the General Assembly.”

But many political observers and democracy advocates note that many average voters don’t know who their elected central committee members are.


Liza Smith, one of the county’s central committee members, and Dels. David Moon (D-Dist. 20) and Linda Foley (D-Dist. 15) have led efforts to change the process, to allow voters to have more of a say in who represents them. Pro-democracy organizations statewide agree with their efforts.

Foley’s proposed bill would set special elections for when legislative vacancies occur in roughly the first year-and-a-half of a legislative term. It would first be filled via the current appointment process, and then special elections would occur in the scheduled presidential midterms.

If the bill passes and is signed by Moore, Marylanders will decide at the polls in fall 2024 whether to approve a constitutional amendment to allow that change to happen.


Proponents of this change, including Smith and numerous political observers in Maryland, argue that it is more democratic, and gives voters in legislative districts statewide more of a say when it comes to choosing their representatives.

But supporters of the current appointment system, including some on the county’s central committee and state lawmakers that have failed to pass reforms for multiple years, argue that the central committee’s picks have led to a more diverse delegation, including for Montgomery County.

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Dist. 20) asked questions about this during a hearing for Foley’s bill last month. Wilkins, who has served in the House since 2017, was appointed to that post by the central committee to replace now-state Sen. Will Smith (D-Dist. 20), who was appointed from the House to the senate. Wilkins was a central committee member at the time of her appointment.


Smith had been appointed to the senate seat to replace Jamie Raskin, now a congressman serving the Eighth District of Maryland, which includes much of Montgomery County. Wilkins said during a hearing for the bill last month that the appointment process has led to notable firsts, such as African American residents or other people of color serving in legislative seats, some of which are more significant given where in the state the opening is, and how many Black or other minority residents live there.

“I love my folks in Prince George’s [County] and Baltimore city, but I would say an African-American being appointed in Prince George’s—versus the first African American appointed in Anne Arundel [County] or Baltimore County—is slightly different,” Wilkins said during last month’s hearing. She could not be reached for comment via multiple phone calls or texts last week.

In Montgomery County, the Democratic Central Committee has appointed multiple people to fill vacancies in recent years: Foley, Kaufman, and Del. Bernice Mireku-North (D-Dist. 14) in the House, and most recently, Ariana Kelly to the state Senate (D-Dist. 16). Liza Smith has spearheaded a rule change with other committee members, that would require any central committee member to resign before applying for legislative vacancies. It’s currently in review before the rules committee, a subcommittee of the entire body.


Jim Michaels is a co-chair of that committee and wrote in an email that the rules committee is having private, informal discussions about the proposed rule change.

The county’s Democratic Central Committee has been criticized by activists and pro-democracy organizations in recent months, including during the appointment process to fill a House of Delegates seat in District 14—where one candidate, Doug Terry, stormed off after calling the process a “kangaroo court.”

Central committee members also faced controversy during a recent appointment for the state Senate District 16 seat, where Kelly, a former delegate, was accused of verbally attacking Jason Woodward, one of her two opponents for that senate seat, during a phone call. Saman Qadeer Ahmad, chair of the county’s central committee, has maintained that it’s not the committee’s role to adjudicate the situation.


Proposed changes in Annapolis causes debate

For years, Moon led efforts on legislation to incorporate special elections into the legislative vacancy process. In his most recent bills in 2020 and 2021, he proposed having special elections during presidential cycles, to take advantage of already scheduled races during those years.

This session, Foley is lead sponsor in the House for that bill. According to the bill, a constitutional amendment would be put on the ballot in the 2024 general election, allowing voters to decide whether vacancies that occur within 55 or more days before the filing deadline in presidential cycles for state legislative officers should be filled by special elections.


Moon said he’s heard several arguments against changing the process: one is that legislators who are appointed can’t fundraise during the 90-day legislative session, which they argue puts them at an unfair disadvantage against challengers.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Dist. 13), chair of the House’s Ways and Means committee—where this bill, sponsored by Foley, has been assigned—and Wilkins made this case during a public hearing in Annapolis last month. Atterbeary said that it would be extremely difficult for any appointee to run a campaign if they can’t raise funds during the legislative session, and then had to run in a primary election in the months afterward.

In response, Foley said that the 55-day requirement allows some time for candidates to fundraise. And former Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Dist. 47A) said that of all the appointments to legislative vacancies, it’s rare that one would happen right before the second legislative session of a term—because governors make the bulk of their appointments as they’re taking office. That means many appointees have in between their first and second legislative sessions to raise money, Tarlau said.


But Atterbeary said in response: “I appreciate that, [but] I don’t know if that a hundred percent alleviates my concerns.” She could not be reached for follow-up comment via multiple texts and calls last week.

Atterbeary and Wilkins are important political players in the process because Wilkins heads the Election Law subcommittee within the Ways and Means committee. As of this week, that committee had not acted on Foley’s bill. Atterbeary, as chair of Ways and Means, can decide whether to bring it forward for a vote, and a favorable committee report would likely send it to the entire House floor for a vote.

Foley said in an interview that she has taken up the bill this year because she feels it is a good hybrid model and compromise, versus a scenario of having special elections fill all legislative vacancies.


When she was appointed, Foley said the central committee hired a neutral third-party lawyer to help handle the process, as she was chair. She recused herself from the vote when she was picked.

Foley said she has also heard about the fundraising issue. But she believes that those sitting in elected office in Annapolis have considerable resources and a chance to build a record before they face voters. She noted that did so after serving just one session in Annapolis.

“In my opinion, incumbency counts for a lot,” Foley said.


Advocates, political observers say change to process is needed

Liza Smith, one of the county’s central committee members, has testified in support of Foley’s bill in Annapolis this session on behalf of Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club’s Advancing Democracy in Maryland committee. She was not speaking in her role as a member of the county’s Democratic Central Committee.

She said hopes that the bill gets to Moore’s desk this year. She’s heard that the current system has led to more diverse representation in Annapolis, but her argument for changing the system is simple.

“It’s undemocratic the way it is, and people keep saying it has to change,” Smith said in an interview.

Antoine, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, is also supportive of Foley’s bill. Common Cause Maryland focuses on issues related to democracy, including open meetings, ethics laws, election laws, and related matters. The organization has supported the special elections legislation in Annapolis for multiple sessions.

Antoine said she fears the House of Delegates doesn’t have the political will to pass Foley’s bill this session, even though some change is needed.

The House’s actions in recent years run counter to other election-related bills that the General Assembly has acted on, she said. And the number of recent appointments in Montgomery County—Antoine resides in District 20—means some change needs to happen.

“As a Black woman, I want to see more people like me in office, but I also want those same individuals to have a say in who represents them,” Antoine said.

Todd Eberly, a political scientist and professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said the “tipping point” for him as a voter is that a legislative appointee serving a four-year term is a long time to represent a district before facing voters at the ballot box.

All the infrastructure is already laid out if appointees were to face the voters in a special election during presidential cycles, Eberly noted. And ultimately, any change in that direction would make the overall process more democratic, versus the current role of Democratic and Republican central committees statewide.

“I think central committees view this as an incredibly important part of what they do,” Eberly said. “I don’t know if they would be willing to give it up, but I don’t know if that’s a justifiable reason for not reforming [the process] … and having the voters decide is always more democratic.”

Wilkins, a product of the appointment process, asked questions during last month’s hearing on Foley’s bill that indicated that she believed it would be difficult for candidates of color to fundraise against potential challengers, especially if they were appointed right near the 55-day deadline outlined in Foley’s bill.

She added that she thinks the appointment process has led to more minority candidates and people of color serving in Annapolis, especially since around 2016.

When asked about her views on Foley’s bill, Ahmad—chair of the county’s Democratic Central Committee—said it is up to the state legislature if they want to enact any changes to the legislative appointment process.

“That ultimately is with the legislature and not us,” Ahmad said in an interview. “We are following what has been mandated by the legislature and [Maryland] Constitution … it doesn’t matter how many vacancies you have or don’t have, we are following the guidelines that have been given to us, and those are followed [by central committees] throughout the state.”

The fate of Foley’s bill is uncertain. As of March 13, it has not been voted on in the Ways and Means committee.