One of the last displays of Democratic might in Western Maryland is the Rocky Gap Casino and Resort, along the shores of Lake Habeeb in Flintstone.
It was the dream of former Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D), Cumberland’s own, a strong-willed patron of Mountain Maryland for three decades, to build a resort next to the bucolic expanse of Rocky Gap State Park. But he also became a symbol of the challenges Democrats face in rural areas: Despite his powerful position and the state largesse he unlocked, he was ousted by voters in 2002.
More than 300 Democrats — many from Western Maryland, but about half from other parts of the state — gathered at the resort Saturday for the 18th annual Western Maryland Democratic Summit, the first to take place in person since the fall of 2019. The summit was originally scheduled for last fall, but due to COVID-19, it was put off to this weekend, just two months before the Maryland primaries. As a result, most every Democratic candidate for statewide office turned up, along with several members of Congress.
The headline news from the daylong summit was that author and former nonprofit CEO Wes Moore won the straw poll for governor. Baltimore City Del. Brooke E. Lierman won the straw poll for comptroller and retired Judge Katie Curran O’Malley won for attorney general.
Moore won 153 straw poll votes. In a surprise, former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler was second with 71 votes. Rounding out the field for governor: Former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez (48 votes), former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (45), state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (10), former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain (5), former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and former nonprofit leader Jon Baron (2 each), and college lecturer and former leader of the Bread and Roses Party Jerome Segal (1).
Moore bused several supporters to Rocky Gap and had a huge cheering section in the back of the room. Anyone who bought a ticket to the event, regardless of where they live, was eligible to vote in the straw poll.
“If there was any question in anyone’s mind about whether we can win, this should end it,” Moore told cheering supporters after the tally was announced. “There’s not a single part of the state where we aren’t going to compete.”
Perez and King both had a presence at the summit; Perez, a former state and U.S. Labor secretary, was accompanied by several union members.
The result had to be particularly disappointing for Franchot, who has topped all public polls in the primary so far and who has wooed Western Maryland political and community leaders for years. In his speech Saturday, Franchot credited his victory at the Democratic summit in 2006 for helping propel his first campaign for comptroller, when he ousted former Gov. William Donald Schaefer in a three-way primary. But Franchot also went over his allotted 10 minutes of speaking time Saturday and several members of the audience shouted and applauded to try to get him to stop.
It isn’t clear how many straw poll voters were swayed by the candidates’ speeches or if they came to the summit with their minds made up — or with marching orders.
“It’s kind of like speed dating,” Segal observed.
In the straw poll for comptroller, Lierman took 219 votes to 99 for Bowie Mayor Timothy L. Adams. For attorney general, the count was 250 votes for O’Malley and 74 for U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown.
The straw poll isn’t always an accurate predictor of the primary results, however.
Four years ago, when he was the favorite of the Democratic establishment, Baker won the straw poll but wound up losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Benjamin T. Jealous, who finished third in the straw poll. Similarly, then-Del. Aruna Miller won the straw poll for the 6th District congressional primary by almost 2-1 over businessman David J. Trone, but Trone won the primary and is seeking a third term in Congress (Miller is now Moore’s running mate).
Still, some activists said the proximity of the summit to the primary could provide momentum for the straw poll winners, particularly in the multi-candidate gubernatorial primary. For Moore, the victory builds on recent high-profile endorsements from Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the Maryland State Education Association and, in Western Maryland, Hagerstown Mayor Emily Keller.
“We’re going to the Eastern Shore tonight,” Moore told supporters. “This is how we win, y’all.”
‘We’re glad to be back’
Beyond the straw poll results, the event was a chance for Democratic stalwarts to reconnect and wave the party flag after so many months of COVID separation.
“I haven’t seen you in three dimensions in a long time,” former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) told a well-wisher.
And party leaders used the occasion to hail and buck up Western Maryland Democrats, who are often forgotten in the grand scheme of things in the state and are usually outgunned by Republicans in the five Western Maryland counties.
“To see so many Democrats in Western Maryland packed into a room, it gives me great hope,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D). Van Hollen, who is seeking a second term this year, said Democrats throughout the state should be mindful that the party in Western Maryland needs their help.
“We need to make sure we do the work to get them over the finish line and help them to victory,” he said.
Every Democrat who spoke emphasized preserving abortion rights in Maryland and in the U.S. — a sign that Democrats feel energized by that issue, at least for now, with the U.S. Supreme Court expected to overturn Roe V. Wade later this year.
“Friends, the women of America are going to save us in 2022,” U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin told the crowd.
In addition to rallying the troops, the summit served as a fundraiser for the Western Maryland Democratic Political Action Committee, which will disburse the money to candidates for state and local offices. Several leading Democrats sponsored the event, including those who currently aren’t running statewide but might in the future, like Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobooks and Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr., who was at the summit for a few hours in the morning.
“It’s a big day for us,” said Robin Summerfield, the PAC treasurer — who in his day job runs the Cumberland office for U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), who addressed the crowd in a video. “We’re glad to be back.”
Summerfield said he wasn’t sure yet how much money the PAC raised through the event.
All of the Democratic candidates for governor appeared, save for Baker, who has been parked in Baltimore City for the last several weeks like a stalled weather pattern. Lierman and Adams, the two candidates for comptroller, were also on hand, while O’Malley was the only candidate for attorney general to appear in person; Brown sent a video because he was out of town celebrating his son’s college graduation.
Several Democrats said they felt the summit represented a new phase in the campaign — the starting gun in the final sprint to early voting, which begins on July 7, and the July 19 primary. Average voters, they said, are slowly beginning to pay attention.
“People have a lot going on in their lives right now,” King said in an interview. “But people are starting to focus on the candidates’ messages.”
One thing that’s apparent in the gubernatorial primary is that some of the contenders are starting to sharpen their attacks on their opponents.
Perez, for example, offered parts of his standard stump speech, including his contention that he “represents the GSD wing of the Democratic Party — the getting s— done wing.” He laid out the policy victories he has won in his various government positions and said many of those battles are relevant for the future.
But Perez also went after Franchot and Moore.
“It concerns me,” he said, “that Peter Franchot joined with Republicans to oppose the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” the expansive and expensive education reform package that is slowly being implemented.” He also noted that Franchot “echoed Republicans” by calling offshore wind energy “a boondoggle and an economic failure” long before any projects were launched off the coast of Ocean City.
Citing old speeches, Perez suggested that Moore isn’t the fierce partisan Maryland Democrats ought to expect in their nominee. He also said that when he was at the Justice Department, prosecuting “predatory lenders on Wall Street, [Moore] was working on Wall Street, for Citigroup.”
Perez also cautioned that Moore could be the object of Republican attacks in the fall, since critics have called into question certain aspects of his biography.
“If we’re not willing to ask tough questions right now, the Republicans will in the fall,” he said. “We don’t want surprises in November. We want victory.”
Perez said there was nothing wrong with pointing out “material differences” among the candidates in the primary, as long as Democrats were committed to coming together for the general election, as President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris did despite the fact that they were rivals during the 2020 presidential primary.
Asked what he thought of Perez’s remarks, Moore said he wasn’t in the room at the time and hadn’t heard them. But he did indirectly address the criticism during his own speech, touting his party loyalty by noting that Barack Obama had asked him to address the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and suggesting that intraparty attacks would be damaging.
“I’m pretty good at math,” he said. “We’re never going to win with division. And the only time we lose is when we defeat ourselves.” He added: “This is not a time for small politics or policies.”
Like many candidates, Gansler, who touted his long record of experience in government, sought to highlight his familiarity with Western Maryland.
“I know that Accident is not a car wreck. I know that Oakland is not where the Raiders play. And I know that Flintstone is not a cartoon,” he said.
But the emotional highlight of the day was a midday speech from Raskin, who is losing the Western Maryland portion of his district in the state’s new congressional map. Raskin drew the assembled Democrats to their feet several times with his warnings that the “Banana Republicans,” as he called them, must be stopped at the polls this year.
“From Moscow to Mar-a-Lago, they are working to destroy constitutional democracy as we know it,” he said.