Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Group of 23 chooses one-tenth of county’s lawmakers

Pundits and politicos defend and argue against political party appointments

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Their names are last on the ballot. They are elected, but unknown to most people outside of politics, where they rise in ranks as volunteers and fundraisers.

There are 23 people in the group — the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee — and this summer, they will handpick one-tenth of the county’s 32-member state delegation.

Pundits and politicians are not questioning the committee’s most recent decision — nominating Del. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village to the state Senate, replacing Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, who resigned to take the lobbying job with the University System of Maryland. The governor must approve the appointment.

What they question is whether the committee’s legally granted control over who represents Montgomery County voters is fair — or whether special elections should be held instead.

‘‘These appointments can last effectively for a few decades because of the power of incumbency,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park. ‘‘The question is whether it strains constitutionality to fill a representative vacancy with an appointment when it is possible, and indeed easy, to use an election instead.”

Raskin said he plans to look into legislative ways of changing the appointment system to one that uses ‘‘an intervening election to get the public back involved.”

On Sept. 11, the central committee members will choose who will take Del. Marilyn R. Goldwater’s seat in the General Assembly. Goldwater (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda announced her retirement on Aug. 8, effective Aug. 27.

Ten candidates have emerged so far. They are Charles ‘‘Chuck” J. Butler, Charles F. Chester, Reginald M. Felton, Bill Frick, Karen Kuker-Kihl, Donald L. Mooers Jr., Regina ‘‘Reggie” Oldak, Karyn Strickler, Lise Van Susteren and Mark Winston.

Once Goldwater’s successor is chosen, two of the three delegates representing District 16 will have been appointed. Del. Susan C. Lee was appointed in 2002 to replace Nancy K. Kopp, who left the House of Delegates to become the state treasurer; she won election in 2006.

This has political observers, and former and current legislators, wondering about the state’s law for filling State House vacancies. They share no consensus on whether 23 central committee members should direct the makeup of the county’s delegation.

On the one hand, they said, committee members are local elected officials who know the players and the issues facing the county. They have a vested interest in making successful appointments — ones that constituents will want to keep in office.

‘‘On the other hand, it does create an environment where a group of insiders are in a position to give someone the power of incumbency,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for government watchdog Common Cause, and Silver Spring resident.

‘‘It’s not democratic,” said Susan Heltemes, a member of the District 18 Democratic Caucus. Her district’s three central committee members are all men, she noted. ‘‘Is that representative of District 18?”

A better alternative would be to hold special elections, Heltemes and others said. A special election would give voters the chance to choose their representative.

But the turnout in special elections is traditionally very low, noted David Lublin, a professor of political science at the American University and a District 16 resident.

He noted that the committee’s most recent nominee, King, would have been a very strong candidate in a popular election anyway.

‘‘None of the choices [committee members] have made in the last few years have been viewed as particularly strange,” Lublin said.

The appointment process is applied statewide, to all counties and across party lines.