Two Montgomery County Democratic legislators have introduced legislation that would strip the governor of the power to name a long-term replacement to the U.S. Senate in the event of a vacancy and instead fill the post through a special election.
For the next four to eight years, the bill would have the effect of preventing Gov. Larry Hogan from naming a fellow Republican as more than a temporary placeholder if either of Maryland's two Democratic senators leave office.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is 78 and has not ruled out seeking re-election in two years. Sen. Ben Cardin is 71. If either were to leave office before their terms expire, the governor would appoint a replacement to serve until the next statewide election. Under the legislation, the governor would appoint a temporary senator, who could not run in the special election to fill the vacancy. Unless the next regular election were too close, the special election primary would be held within 90 days of the vacancy.
The sponsors deny the legislation is a partisan shot at Hogan, but the state Republican Party isn't buying it.
"It's interesting that the first year of a Republican governor, they're trying to strip powers from him," said Joe Cluster, the GOP's executive director.
The lead House sponsor, Del. David Moon, is a freshman, but Cluster noted that the lead Senate sponsor, Jamie Raskin, served during the O'Malley administration. The House bill has more than 50 co-sponsors. The Senate bill has 15. All are Democrats.
Moon said the bill is intended to give voters a say in who represents them.
"I'm for special elections across the board," he said. "If O'Malley were the governor or if Anthony Brown were the governor, I would still prefer special elections."
Moon pointed out that he is also sponsoring legislation that would amend the state Constitution to provide for special elections when there are vacancies in state Senate and House seats. Currently, replacements are nominated by the local central committee of the previous lawmaker's party and appointed by the governor.
Raskin is a co-sponsor of that bill's Senate companion. He said his interest in U.S. Senate vacancies was sparked in part by current controversies over the central committee selection process and the calls for special elections in those races. The senator also pointed to efforts by majority GOP lawmakers in West Virginia to curtail the governor's appointment power. Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III is considering a race for governor and could name his own replacement if he wins.
"You can't go wrong with the principle of election by the people," Raskin said. "I'm something of a zealot for democracy."
Raskin noted that if it is enacted, the law would apply to future Democratic governors as well as Hogan. He said special elections would lessen the possiibilty of "backroom deals" such as the one that tainted the selection of President Obama's replacement by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which led to the governor's impeachment and conviction on federal charges.
Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said the Governor's Office would have no comment on the proposal's merits at this stage of the process.
"We don't necessarily see it as a partisan shot," she said.
One argument frequently raised against special elections is their cost. But Moon and Raskin said it's money well spent.
"Democracy costs money," Moon said. "By that logic, why would we hold elections at all?"
Moon also noted that U.S. Senate vacancies are rare occurrences.