Josh Kurtz: We Need Something Special

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Sometime late this year, barring impossible-to-imagine political developments, two Maryland state senators will be moving on: Sen. Catherine Pugh (D) is almost certain to be elected mayor of Baltimore in November, and Sen. Jamie Raskin (D) is highly likely to go to Congress.

And if the Annapolis rumor mill is to be believed, at least two more senators could be departing sometime soon: Sen. Lisa Gladden (D), who is struggling with MS, and Sen. Ulysses Currie (D), who, at the age of 79, is battling a variety of ills.

In all cases, if these senators resign, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will appoint their replacements – after a recommendation from local Democratic central committees. And in each case, there’s a pretty good chance that the senators could be replaced by a member of the House of Delegates.

That, of course, would create additional vacancies, necessitating the same process to fill those House seats. Already Del. Tony O’Donnell (R) is likely to leave the House soon now that Hogan has nominated him to serve on the state Public Service Commission.

Because O’Donnell’s district covers both Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, the Republican committees from both jurisdictions will send a name along to Hogan for his replacement – assuming they can agree. Several Republicans have contemplated putting their names forward, including St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan. But because this has traditionally been a Calvert-based seat, through various legislative district maps through the decades, Jerry Clark, a former county commissioner there and owner of Port of Call Liquors in Solomons Island, is favored to get the appointment.

Every year, it seems, there’s a carousel of vacancies in Annapolis followed by a group of political insiders stepping in and anointing the successors. This is how legislative vacancies have been filled in Maryland for decades.

But does it have to be that way? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 states mandate special elections to fill legislative vacancies. Why can’t it happen here?

Political reform is hard to accomplish in Maryland. Just ask Hogan – at the height of his political popularity, yet unable to move a modest redistricting reform measure through the Democratic legislature.

Campaign finance reform? Putting the brakes on the influence of lobbyists in the State House? Eradicating gerrymandering? In Annapolis, it’s easier to pass tax cuts, marriage equality and the DREAM Act than it is to achieve political reform.

Skeptics about special legislative elections in Maryland will point out that they can be expensive and cumbersome, depending on when they’re scheduled. Simplicity would seem to dictate that an appointment process is preferable, or at least more expedient, under certain circumstances.

But then that classic quote from Winston Churchill comes to mind: “Democracy is theworst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In other words, a special legislative election could be messy, costly, confusing. Voter turnout could be abysmal, meaning the winner that emerges could be far less vetted than a typical legislative victor. An election could be hijacked by special interests. Money in a short campaign could become even more of a factor than it is in a typical legislative race.

Yet what’s a better alternative?

In Baltimore, Pugh will have undue influence on who replaces her in the Senate. Maybe she’s earned that right – and maybe it makes sense. After all, isn’t in the city’s interest to have a close ally of the mayor representing West Baltimore in the legislature?

In Montgomery County, Raskin, who essentially handpicked the District 20 House delegation in the 2014 Democratic primary, could have plenty of influence when the county’s Democratic Central Committee meets to choose his successor. But you can also imagine Senate President Mike Miller (D) trying to have some say – especially if the choice comes down to Del. Will Smith (D) and Del. David Moon (D). While Moon has worked hard and often effectively to reach out to an array of colleagues, it’s probably safe to assume that Miller regards him as a dangerous radical.

Nine current members of the state Senate first arrived as appointees – including Craig Zucker (D), who moved over from the House earlier this year. Eight have since been duly elected, some multiple times. One, Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D), has been chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, since 2007.

But legislative appointments don’t always go smoothly.

Remember when the Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee bungled the appointment to replace disgraced Del. Tiffany Alston (D) a few years back? Then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) ignored the recommendation and came up with his own appointment – who also turned out to be less than stellar.

Or when former state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R) resigned his Upper Shore seat and the four county GOP central committees could not agree on his replacement, sending two names along to O’Malley? Not pretty.

Special elections would surely have produced better results than those two fiascos.

To switch the way Maryland fills legislative vacancies, the General Assembly must put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, leaving the decision in the hands of the voters. Even with the potential pitfalls special elections could bring, wouldn’t it be nice if our lawmakers erred on the side of democracy, for once?

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.