Donald Fry: Primary voters in a mood for transition

By Donald C. Fry

While Maryland’s primary election results yielded no surprises among statewide candidates, results from primaries at the local levels appear to confirm that many Maryland voters are in a mood for transition.

Of course, the state’s attorney’s race in Baltimore City, where challenger Gregg Bernstein appears to have defeated incumbent Pat Jessamy, who held the job for 15 years, stands as the marquee example of a local electorate clamoring for change. But there were plenty of other examples where voters opted for challengers over seasoned incumbents.

Election results as of late Thursday show that, statewide, 13 incumbent county council members or county commissioners lost to primary challengers. This included five incumbents in the Baltimore region – two in Anne Arundel County, one in Baltimore County, and two in Carroll County. Meanwhile, nine of 13 other incumbent council members or commissioners around the state who ran for other elected offices were unsuccessful in their bids.

That means that 30 percent of incumbents in local elected positions who ran for some elected office lost. (Here’s a summary of county election results for around the state.)

The post-primary picture is similar for state lawmakers. As of Thursday, there will be at least 39 new members in the two houses of the Maryland General Assembly – 30 in the House of Delegates and nine in the Senate.

In the Senate, six of the nine vacancies were created when five incumbent Democrats and one incumbent Republican lost in the primary election.

Incumbent senators who were defeated on Tuesday included Baltimore City Democrat George Della, who has represented South Baltimore and the Inner Harbor for 34 years – the last 27 in the Senate. Della was defeated by Bill Ferguson, a 27-year-old attorney and special assistant to Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andres Alonso. Ferguson does not have a GOP challenger in the general election.

Della’s defeat marks the end of a family legacy of political domination in South Baltimore. Ferguson, a former teacher and Teach for America participant, reflects the changing dynamic of Baltimore’s top-selling communities populated with younger, middle-class residents who are driving a population surge downtown and around the waterfront.

Another veteran, Prince George’s Senator Nathaniel Exum, a Democrat who has served in the General Assembly since 1975, including the last 11 years in the Senate, was defeated by Delegate Joanne Benson, who has served in the House since 1991. Benson does not have a general election challenger.

Meanwhile, Senator Donald Munson, a Washington County Republican who had 19 years of public service in the Senate, was defeated by House Minority Whip Delegate Christopher B. Shank, who faces no opposition in the general election.

Other state senators defeated in the primaries were Senator Rona Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, who lost narrowly to Delegate Karen Montgomery, a seven-year veteran of the House; Senator Mike Lenett, a Montgomery Democrat who lost to Delegate Roger Manno; and Senator David Harrington, a Prince George’s Democrat who lost to Delegate Victor Ramirez, who will not face a GOP challenger in November.

In the House of Delegates, 21 of the 30 vacancies that now exist are the result of incumbents running for other offices or deciding not to seek re-election.

Incumbent House members who were defeated included Delegate Ruth M. Kirk, a Baltimore Democrat who had served in the House for 27 years. She finished 4th for the three seats in the 44th District. Incumbent Delegates Keith Haynes and Melvin Stukes came in first and third respectively. Keiffer Mitchell, a well-known former Baltimore City Council member, finished second. Mitchell is an experienced lawmaker who is well-respected in Annapolis and could eventually bring Baltimore fresh clout in the State House.

Whatever happens in the general election, voters have already created openings on key committees in the General Assembly. The House Economic Matters Committee will have at least eight vacancies – the most in the legislature. At least four vacancies will exist on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

In the Senate, there will be three vacancies on the Budget and Taxation Committee and on the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

While the top leaders in the House and Senate easily got through the primary elections, voters have created turnover on many committees and opportunities to move up to positions of authority in both the Senate and the House.

All of these “vacancies” are strictly for political speculation, as the presiding officers – the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Delegates – can adjust any legislator’s committee assignment. The fact that a legislator has served on a committee does not guarantee reappointment to that same post. Likewise, the defeat of an incumbent does not guarantee the appointment of a newly elected legislator to the “vacant” committee position. The presiding officers weigh a number of balancing factors when making committee assignments and any election turnover triggers many committee assignment changes.

One message that primary election voters seem to be sending is that they are looking for something different from our local and state lawmakers. It remains to be seen how legislative leaders interpret that message and the extent to which the 20 percent of new members – particularly in the Senate where many of the nine new members will be seasoned lawmakers coming up from the House – can influence policy shifts. An unfortunate result could be more political polarization and a decrease of the requisite political will to focus on problem solving – but only time will tell.

As a business advocate, I urge lawmakers to consider two basic premises for acting on policy in 2011 as Maryland continues to recover from the recession.

First, remember a key economic lesson that the recession has taught us: jobs are created by business, not government.

Second, in working on policy, always consider the potential impact on our state’s business and economic environment. Public policies that promote and nurture the expansion of business opportunities and job creation provide revenues not only for the business entity and its employees but also for the state budget.

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