Montgomery Dems to remain neutral on map, gambling questions -- Gazette.Net


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This story was updated on Sept. 20, 2012.

Montgomery County’s Democratic Party will remain neutral on Maryland's new congressional district map and the expansion of gambling, two key issues state Democrats are asking voters to support in November.

However, the county party will support questions on marriage equality and the Maryland Dream Act, as well as the remaining statewide questions that will appear on the general election ballot Nov. 6.

The Maryland Democratic Party is asking its members across the state to vote “yes” on Questions 1 through 7, spokesman Matthew Verghese said.

But it also respects the process by which Montgomery’s Democratic leadership reached neutrality on the map and gambling expansion, Verghese said.

During a four-hour meeting Wednesday in Rockville that Verghese said he attended, Montgomery’s Democratic precinct leadership debated and discussed the 11 questions that will appear on the county’s ballot, but it spent a particularly long time on the map. The central committee later voted to set the official party position on the questions.

Verghese said state Democrats view Montgomery’s choice to take no position on the party-drawn and largely party-supported congressional map, as well as on gambling, as an indication they want the voters of Montgomery County to decide for themselves.

To his knowledge, Verghese said Montgomery’s is the only county party that in a presidential election year sends a sample ballot to its voters. Most counties follow the state party’s guidance, he said.

Remaining neutral sends the message that county party leadership was not united on the issue, said Harold Diamond, a member of the central committee, who chaired the party’s Ballot Questions Advisory Committee.

Diamond said voters should be able to read between the lines and see that no position on the questions indicates the presence of strong views on both sides within the party.

Montgomery County’s delegation chairwoman, Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville, didn’t view the county party’s neutral position as in conflict with the state party stance.

“The Democratic Party is a big tent and we have many diverse opinions,” she said, adding “these weren’t core Democratic issues, such as Question 4 [the Dream Act] and Question 6 [same-sex marriage act], which the precinct organization overwhelmingly supported.”

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said Montgomery’s neutrality is better than direct opposition for the state party, but as the most populous county in the state, with many Democratic voters, the county party’s action will have an effect.

“They are the 600-pound gorilla and whatever they do can undermine the unity of the Democratic Party in the state,” he said. “It will be difficult for whoever succeeds [Gov. Martin] O’Malley to hold together the coalition that has run the state.”

Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of about 2 to 1 in Maryland. When Democrats split on an issue, it gives more opportunity to the Republicans, something that Crenson said has been happening more frequently.

Freshman Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown spearheaded the petition drive to put at least three of the statewide questions on the ballot. Republicans pushed to have voters decide the fate of the Dream Act, marriage equality and the congressional district map put forth by O’Malley (D). Per the state Constitution, any expansion of gambling must be approved by voters.

During the Montgomery precinct organization meeting Wednesday, some leaders were concerned supporting a no-vote on the map would be siding with Parrott, an outspoken tea party representative. Parrott, who was active in the tea party movement when he was elected in 2010, runs www.mdpetitions.org.

Despite party leadership in crafting the map — which lawmakers argued should ensure and possibly expand Democratic representation in Congress — some Montgomery Democrats were highly critical of the end product.

County Councilman Phillip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg likened the map’s controversial and wide-ranging 3rd Congressional District to blood spattered at a crime scene. The district spans portions of Montgomery, Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and parts of Baltimore city.

Others who supported the map noted its role in allowing Montgomery County businessman John Delaney to present a formidable challenge to 10-term Republican U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown.

Gambling was the last question tackled Wednesday night, and the central committee believed no position should be taken because a number of precinct organization members already had left the meeting.

The county party’s position, or lack there of, on each question will appear on the sample ballot it issues to registered Democrats next month.

kalexander@gazette.net