Josh Kurtz: Rumor Mill Churning Fast

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By: Josh Kurtz

After a couple of weeks of relative quiet, with Maryland politicos focused on the General Assembly session and other mundane aspects of governing, the political rumor mill is starting to churn quickly again.

Democratic leaders are talking about the future direction of the state party in a serious way, and it looks as if a third major contender may enter the Senate race this week. Here is a look at developments on both those fronts:

Into the Poole

As Democratic legislators gird for their final two weeks of battle with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, their presiding officers – along with other top elected Democrats – appear to have settled on a former lawmaker to take over as state party chairman and lead the long-term fight against Hogan: Bruce Poole.

Democratic elders have been quietly searching for a new party chairman for the past few months, though Yvette Lewis, who held the job for almost five years, only formally announced a few days ago that she is stepping down, citing family reasons. The dynamic of the search changed a little when Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) announced on March 2 that she would retire next year rather than seek a sixth term, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D) was handed the primary responsibility of finding a new chairman.

According to multiple sources, party leaders considered several names to replace Lewis, including Jim Smith, the former Baltimore County executive and judge; Jeffrey Slavin, the current state party vice chairman and mayor of Somerset; Terry Lierman, the erstwhile state chairman and Capitol Hill veteran; Martin Knott, the Baltimore business owner and former Martin O’Malley and Anthony Brown fundraiser who is currently chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Corp.; former Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson; former Montgomery County Democratic Chairwoman Karen Britto; and Tom McMillen, the former congressman and hoops star, among others.

But House Speaker Mike Busch and Senate President Mike Miller are promoting Poole, who served in Annapolis from 1987 to 1999, and the statewide elected officials and county executives appear to be going along.

If selecting Poole looks at first glance like a bad example of Throwback Thursday, well, there’s something to that. Poole was voted out of the House by Western Maryland voters in 1998, and the height of his power was more than 20 years ago, when he served as majority leader to then-Speaker Clay Mitchell (D) from 1991 to 1993, ascending to the lofty perch at the ripe old age of 31. In some ways, his appointment reinforces the image that a state party whose leaders include Cardin and Steny Hoyer, who have served in elective office since 1966, and Mikulski, who has been an elected official since 1971, and Miller and Busch, the longest-serving presiding officers in the history of creation, are incapable of embracing anything new.

But Poole, a Hagerstown trial lawyer, is a savvy operator and wise counselor to his fellow Democrats. When he was bounced as majority leader after Cas Taylor took over from Mitchell as speaker, Poole became an effective insurgent, leading the fight against state funding for the football stadiums for the Ravens and Redskins.

And Poole did not fade from the scene as soon as his legislative career ended. He spent four years on the State Ethics Commission, has served for the last six years on the Video Lottery Facility Location Commission, and also sits on the Board of Visitors of the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, on the Board of Trustees of the University of Maryland Medical System, on the Maryland Judicial Elections Monitoring Committee, and on the Washington County Board of Education Ethics Committee.

Equally important, he ran House Democrats’ fundraising operation during the last election cycle. The Democrats did lose a handful of seats last November, but it wasn’t for lack of money – and it wasn’t Poole’s fault.

Party leaders trust Poole, but he’s not beholden to any one of them. Yet he served in the House with Busch, with two current members of Congress, Elijah Cummings and Chris Van Hollen, and with Comptroller Peter Franchot, Attorney General Brian Frosh and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, and presumably has decent relations with all of them.

Poole comes from a part of the state where Democrats need to pick themselves off the floor – and he’s a trial lawyer, and trial lawyers remain a big source of the party’s campaign cash. He’ll be a good and strategic technician and can help the party re-oil its machinery after last November’s drubbing.

But he’s hardly anybody’s idea of a change agent. And their inability to embrace the notion that the party badly needs some change may be something that Maryland’s Democratic elders come to regret.

Three’s Company

Democratic insiders are becoming increasingly convinced that Cummings will enter the 2016 Senate race very soon – perhaps even later this week. It would be a breathtaking development that will make the Democratic primary one of the most exciting Maryland races in recent memory, with three quality, appealing candidates who would all make excellent senators.

Good luck trying to predict the primary outcome at this early stage.

Will Cummings’ status as the only Baltimore-area candidate help him? Yes.

Will Donna Edwards’ status as the only woman in the primary help her? Yes.

Will Chris Van Hollen benefit from being the only white candidate in the field? Yes.

Will the near-unanimous respect that Cummings enjoys from his congressional colleagues, from all races and ethnicities, make a difference? Yes.

Will the support from progressive groups and EMILY’s List prove helpful for Edwards? Yes.

Will Van Hollen’s role as the House Democrats’ point person on the budget accrue to his benefit? Yes.

And the list of questions without quantifiable answers goes on and on.

Consider this, though: Edwards is the candidate who most recently ran a competitive race, in 2008. Van Hollen’s last competitive race was in 2002; Cummings’ was in 1996. That could make a difference.

Could the list of candidates continue to grow? Well, of course. But maybe not for a while.

For now, there are three strong candidates, and Democratic voters face a very tough choice. Not a bad problem to have. 

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.