Sarah Wolek, former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity and professor at University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, will be nominated to fill a vacant seat in District 16 of the House of Delegates.
The Bethesda resident was selected by Montgomery County’s Democratic Central Committee at a meeting Tuesday night. Wolek’s will be the 13th legislator in the 35-member Montgomery County delegation to be appointed by the committee in a process that some legislators and observers have criticized as undemocratic.
Former District 16 Del. Ariana Kelly resigned the seat after being appointed to the District 16 Senate seat, which became vacant after former Sen. Susan Lee was named secretary of state for Maryland by Gov. Wes Moore on Jan. 10.
County and state law dictates that, in the case of a vacancy, the county’s central committee must solicit the process for selecting a prospective candidate in the district. The committee will submit the name to Moore, who is required to make an appointment within 30 days after the vacancy. Wolek will serve the rest of Kelly’s term, ending in November 2026.
District 16 area includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Potomac and other nearby areas.
Wolek said in an interview that in the legislature she wants to focus on boosting mental health and wellbeing, increasing access to home ownership, and reimagining education, specifically in workforce development and for individuals with complex medical needs and disabilities.
Wolek was also the senior policy adviser of small business for the U.S. Department of the Treasury and a policy analyst for the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Financial Management.
The central committee has now appointed three people to fill General Assembly seats this legislative session alone, and still has to fill a fourth.
In addition to Kelly filling Lee’s seat, Bernice Mireku-North was nominated to fill a vacant seat in District 14 of the House of Delegates in January, after former Del. Eric Luedtke resigned to become Moore’s chief legislative officer.
The committee is also tasked with filling District 39 Del. Kirill Reznik’s seat. Reznik took a position in Moore’s administration as the new assistant secretary for inter-departmental data Integration for the state Department of Human Services and resigned his seat Tuesday.
The appointment process has come under scrutiny by members of the public, state legislators and even members of the committee itself who say the process is less democratic than a special election would be.
Twelve of the current 34 state delegates and senators in Montgomery County applied through the MCDCC 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 the other legislators served some time in legislative session in Annapolis before facing voters in their districts for elections, MoCo360 reported earlier this month. Once the vacancy for the District 16 House seat is officially filled, it will be 13 of 35 legislative seats (about 37%).
Some committee members have called on their colleagues to change the process so that someone serving on the body must resign before being considered for an open legislative seat. The state’s attorney general has said the committee can adopt a rule change without any action needed from lawmakers in Annapolis.
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.
Candidate Scott Webber used some of his testimony time prior to the vote Tuesday to speak out against the process. He said while the process is considered constitutional, he has concerns that the process could allow “secret decisions” to be made in “backroom deals.”
“I still find it rather undemocratic that we are here, not voted by people that live in our district … Our elected officials should actually be elected. People. Many of you here share this view. It’s going to take someone in Annapolis to actually affect this change,” Webber said.
Prior to the vote, central committee at-large member Michelle Whittaker called the night “District 16’s Got Talent” in reference to the 18 candidates, whom she said were well-qualified. The hopefuls made their pitch to the central committee and voters during a forum last Thursday. They were:
- Aman Afsah, deputy political director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association
- Tazeen Ahmad, chief financial officer of Capitol Hill Consulting Group, former member of the Montgomery County Commission for Women
- Margaret Martin Barry, visiting professor of law and re-entry clinic director at American University Washington College School of Law
- Lou Bartolo, senior regulatory affairs associate for National Marrow Donor Program/Be the Match
- Melissa Bender, director of government relations at the Service Year Alliance, former legislative aide for Maryland General Assembly House Health and Government Operations Committee
- Lavontte Chatmon, executive director of Nonprofit Montgomery
- Charles Chester, lawyer and 2020 District 16 House of Delegates candidate
- Scott Comer, founder of Fortune Hill Group, political operative and fundraising company
- Dia Costello, mayor of Glen Echo
- Peter Dennis, attorney and 2014 District 16 House of Delegates candidate
- Kiran Dixit, director of the Jewish Social Service Agency Training Institute
- Amy Frieder, lawyer and 2021 District 15 House of Delegates applicant
- Ross Maradian, legislative representative at North America’s Building Trades Unions
- Gareth Murray, former District 20 delegate (2003-2007), 2013 District 16 House of Delegates candidate, minister
- Steve Shapiro, engineer and anti-gerrymandering advocate
- Vashti Van Wyke, lawyer and co-president of Cabin John Citizens Association
- Scott Webber, realtor and IT technician, 2023 District 16 Senate applicant
The committee went through three rounds of voting, eliminating candidates as they failed to earn votes. Wolek and Bender made it to the final round, with Wolek winning 16-8.
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