Thirteen of the 14 applicants for an open delegate seat representing District 17 in the Maryland General Assembly made their case for why they should head to Annapolis during a public forum Wednesday hosted by the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.
The seat, representing Rockville and Gaithersburg, was vacated in May by Kumar P. Barve, who joined Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s administration as a member of the Maryland Public Service Commission. His seat will be the fifth filled this year by the committee; once that happens, 14 of 34 state delegates and senators in the county—or 41%—will have been appointed by the committee.
The candidates include a current member of the central committee. The committee recently voted down a measure that would have barred sitting members from running for legislative vacancies. Membership on the panel is sometimes seen as a fast track to state office without the time and labor of a full-fledged campaign—a process that has been criticized as undemocratic.
Moderator Susie Turnbull, a longtime county Democratic politician and former candidate for lieutenant governor, asked the candidates what their top three legislative priorities would be, if appointed. Popular themes were affordable housing, public safety and economic development.
While there are 14 candidates, one, Keith Vance, did not participate in Wednesday’s forum.
Ryan Spiegel, a current Gaithersburg City Council member, said he wants to focus on affordable housing, gun violence prevention and financial empowerment. Spiegel previously ran for the seat in the 2006 Democratic primary.
“If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. But if we can help people learn how to fish, we can break long term cycles of poverty and address generational wealth gaps caused by systemic racism and other barriers to access and opportunity,” Spiegel said.
Julian Haffner, a business lawyer and former MCDCC treasurer, said he plans to prioritize affordable housing, public transportation and affordable healthcare. He also previously ran for the seat in the 2018 Democratic primary.
Current MCDCC member Jennifer Hosey said she would prioritize equity, the environment and reproductive rights. She said that following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it is more important than even for the state to work to protect abortion access. She said as a Hispanic woman, she would bring needed representation to Annapolis.
Josh Fischer, who works in Child Welfare Services for Montgomery County and is a member of the board of directors of the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, said his legislative priorities are “simple”: improving affordable housing, improving mental health services including rehabilitation services, and passing more and “comprehensive, sensible” gun control.
Cannabis policy is a priority for Sabria Still, who formerly worked as a staffer for County Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-large) as well as multiple state delegates. Still, who also worked as a consultant in the cannabis industry, said she sees this as a place for economic growth in the state. Still said she’d also like to focus on economic and business opportunities for young people and marginalized communities as well as increasing inclusive and affordable housing.
Kevin Redden, a civil litigation associate and the chair of the Montgomery County Commission on Juvenile Justice, said he would focus on criminal and juvenile justice reform, environmental law and education.
“Enabling people to get the services they need, whether or not they’re juveniles or adults, will decrease recidivism, decrease crime and make everybody safer,” Redden said.
Karl Van Neste is an environmentalist who serves as vice president of the Muddy Branch Alliance and works as a software director and developer. He said his first priority is public safety, which he calls “a big umbrella” encompassing the environment, crime, abortion rights and hunger, and focusing on “everything” constituents need to feel safe. Van Neste said his other priorities include education and affordable housing.
Matthew Lee, a member of the board of directors of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp. and chief executive officer at A-Tech Systems Inc. in Rockville, said he wants to focus on affordable housing, healthcare and public transportation, and economic development. He said he’s passionate about supporting small businesses, especially in minority and underserved communities.
Pedestrian safety, labor rights and rent control are the top priorities for David Fallick, who works as a professor in the humanities department at Montgomery College. Fallick said it’s time for the state government to intervene in localities that have not passed rent control or rent stabilization measures.
Jovy Lopez, a political action specialist for the Montgomery County Education Association, said rather than focusing on three specific priorities, it’s important to focus on the intersectionality of issues affecting the county and the state.
“Affordable housing feeds into your education and your environmental justice. Education feeds into your reproductive rights and your LGBT rights. A lot of these things need to be addressed and it can’t just be X, or Y, or Z,” Lopez said.
Susan Hoffmann, the former mayor of Rockville and a development manager at the Fund for Montgomery, said legislation needs to pass the litmus test of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Regardless of the goal of the legislation, it needs to also make [the opportunity] available to every person in Maryland at every level to access the best way to remove barriers, to eliminate roadblocks that we see systemically at every level,” Hoffmann said.
Rebecca Smondrowski, a Montgomery County Board of Education member for District 2, said she would focus on education and career pathways, public safety and services related to juvenile justice reform, and legislation supporting telehealth care initiatives. She said she’s already worked with members of the General Assembly on legislation supporting these initiatives. Smondrowski ran in the 2018 Democratic primary for House District 17.
Tiffany Kelly, a community planning & development specialist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and anti-poverty advocate, said, “my community is my responsibility.” She said she wants to work on supporting families struggling with the effects of substance abuse and evictions, as well as criminal justice and increasing economic equity and ensuring all constituents are being heard when decisions are being made.
MCDCC will select its nominee during a meeting on June 13 at 6:30 p.m.
The panel has placed 38% of Montgomery County’s General Assembly members into their seats. This is the fifth time the committee will undergo the process this year. Last month, MCDCC rejected a proposed rule change that would have restricted members from voting to appoint themselves into the legislature.
When a Montgomery County-based member of the General Assembly leaves their seat mid-term, the county’s Central Committee members, who are elected at-large or in legislative districts, vote on who will fill the legislative vacancies. Those recommendations are sent to the governor to approve as a formality.
The central committee has been tasked with filling five vacancies this year alone after members of the General Assembly joined Moore’s administration. With soon-to-be 41% of Montgomery County’s state legislators appointed by the committee, that proportion is higher than the overall proportion in Maryland, which was calculated at 21% as of March.
Some state legislators and good-governance advocates have criticized the process as undemocratic. It also offers entry into office without the months of fund-raising, coalition building, campaigning or scrutiny of a traditional electoral effort. Some members of the committee have argued that changing the process without state legislation would be a violation of the state constitution.
Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Dist. 17) sponsored a bill this General Assembly session that would have required central committee members who apply for state legislative vacancies to recuse themselves from voting for the vacancy. However, the bill didn’t make it far in the legislative process.
Another bill from Del. Linda Foley (D-Dist. 15) would have set a special election for any legislative vacancy that occurs 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.