Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Busy summer puts focus on central committees

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 a 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.

The county’s Democratic committee members were voted into office during last year’s primary elections. They ran virtually unopposed, as a full slate of 23 candidates — winnowed down to the best picks by a Democratic Party selection committee. Members are unpaid, and committee members’ gender is evenly split.

Once they take office, members are responsible for helping to raise money for the Democratic Party, doing voter outreach, training voter precinct officials, and nominating replacements for all Democratic delegates and senators who leave office before completing their terms.

The committee has no set criteria for choosing a nominee, Minneman said. Candidates send their resumes to the central committee and lobby members until the committee makes its decision by majority vote.

The vote takes place within a month of the vacancy announcement. The committee’s selection is forwarded to the governor, who approves or rejects the appointment within 15 days.

Minneman said the District 39’s candidates who sought Hogan’s seat were interviewed, and some committee members sought the opinions of sitting lawmakers.

The only rule is that a candidate must disclose any business or personal conflicts of interest to committee members.

Still, Heltemes wonders if the process can be improved.

‘‘If I were a voter in one of those districts,” Heltemes said, ‘‘I might say, ‘Who are these people who are making the decisions for my district? I’ve never heard of them.’”