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Candidates for Maryland governor are picking running mates. Should voters care?

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

One by one, the Democrats running for Maryland governor rolled out their lieutenant governor picks this month, each heralding their choices as offering crucial balance to their tickets — a woman running with a man, black with white, young with old, straight with gay, Washington suburban leaders with Baltimore’s best.

But do running mates really matter? The position of lieutenant governor, after all, has no formal powers except to succeed a governor who dies or leaves office.

“There’s no political science research showing that anyone bases their vote on a lieutenant governor pick,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College.

“Symbolically, though, it might matter.”

In a crowded seven-way race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, candidates are searching for any advantage they can get.

Running mates, at their best, are a symbol of the type of inclusion and diversity candidates for governor hope to bring to the office, experts say. The choices can also reveal raw political calculations meant to limit competition, court key constituencies or tap donor bases.

The choices of the six candidates who have announced them so far demonstrate an awareness of the current political climate related to abuses against women by men in power, political analysts say.

All of the candidates have sought diversity in their running mates, and all but one of the six men running to be Maryland’s next Democratic governor picked women.

“We are in the middle of the #MeToo movement, and we are a fairly Democratic state,” Deckman said. “Democratic voters are embarrassed at not having women at a statewide level.”

Maryland has no women elected to Congress right now, and none hold the four statewide offices of governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general.

Taken together, the selections add five women to the Democrat ballot: Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous teamed up with Susan Turnbull, a former head of the Maryland Democratic Party. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker chose Elizabeth Embry, a well-connected Baltimore lawyer. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz selected Valerie Ervin, a progressive activist from Montgomery County. Tech entreprenuer Alec Ross is running with Julie Verratti, founder of a brewing company. And state Sen. Richard Madaleno chose Luwanda Jenkins, a former O’Malley administration official.

Lawyer Jim Shea picked Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, and former Michelle Obama aide Krish Vignarajah hasn’t announced her running mate.

“It is the year of the woman,” said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Maryland’s first and only female lieutenant governor.

Kennedy Townsend was elected with former Gov. Parris Glendening in 1994, a boon year for women in elective office.

While Kennedy Townsend brought the ability to raise money, acclaim as a member of the Kennedy family and experience as an attorney, she knows her skills were not her key selling point as running mate.

“The first reason I was chosen was because I was a woman,” Kennedy Townsend said this week. She said she didn’t mind that gender drove her selection.

“It makes you feel great,” she said. “If you’ve been thinking you’ve been out of power for 5,000 years, it’s nice to find it.”

When Kennedy Townsend launched her own campaign for governor in 2002, she surprised many in the Democratic Party by picking a retired Navy admiral, Charles Larson, who had never run for office and switched from the Republican Party to join the ticket.

Political analysts point to that election against Republican former congressman Robert Ehrlich as a case study in lieutenant governor picks done well, and — in Kennedy Townsend’s case — done poorly.

“Because of 9/11, people were looking for guys because you had to fight and be strong,” she said. “I could feel that you needed a strong guy, so I picked a four-star admiral to be my running mate because I was hoping that would make people feel comfortable with having a woman as governor.

“Clearly, it didn’t work.”

It did, however, dilute Ehrlich’s ability to portray her as a soft liberal.

But Ehrlich’s pick of an African-American running mate, Michael Steele, limited Kennedy Townsend’s ability to portray the Republican ticket as insensitive to the needs of the black community.

Fifteen years later, Steele still recalls the sting of a Baltimore Sun editorial that assessed his lieutenant governor candidacy as a bald political calculation. The newspaper wrote that Steele, who was chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, “brings little to the team but the color of his skin.”

“I would like to think that over the course of those four years, I brought a lot to his administration,” said Steele, the first black person elected statewide in Maryland. “We were like brothers. We connected on a visceral level, and I think a lot of people who saw that really liked the chemistry between us.”

But Steele said he agreed to run as part of a long-term strategy to build the Republican Party in a state dominated by Democrats. He didn’t expect to win.

“We wound up winning four, five, six years sooner than I thought we would,” he said.

Still, Steele said loyalty on a ticket is essential. He said he had to support Ehrlich on issues he disagreed with — most notably, Ehrlich’s support of the death penalty. That’s a tough job for people who may not have an existing, meaningful relationship with their running mate.

“You should always know your place. You’re not running for governor,” Steele said. “A lot of these people don’t know each other. They’ve not spent time together. They’ve not been on the battlefield together.”

The office of Maryland’s lieutenant governor is relatively new. Unlike other states, it has no official duties.

The post — which first existed briefly from 1865 to 1868 — was re-established by a constitutional amendment in 1970 after public outcry that the General Assembly was in charge of picking the person to succeed then-Gov. Spiro Agnew, a Republican who had resigned to serve as Richard Nixon’s vice president in 1969.

The legislature elevated Democratic House speaker Marvin Mandel to be governor. Mandel then ran and won in 1970 with Blair Lee as the first modern lieutenant governor.

State rules require candidates for governor to name their running mates when they file to run for office, unlike the process in presidential elections that allows national candidates to select a vice president partner after a primary election. The salary for Maryland’s lieutenant governor is currently $149,500, while the governor makes $180,000.

John T. Willis, a professor at the University of Baltimore who has studied Maryland elections and political history, said that in primary contests with more than four candidates, the winner only needs about 30 percent of the vote. A good lieutenant governor pick could help tip the scales slightly, he said, especially if it brings fundraising resources to the campaign.

Voters, though, won’t notice, Willis said.

“By the time of election day, people other than the close friends and associates of the person running for lieutenant governor won’t realize who’s running,” Willis said. “Voters tend to focus on the top of the ticket.”

Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman gave up his own bid for governor to join former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s ticket in the 2014 Democratic primary. Even though Ulman was popular in Howard County, Hogan’s Republican ticket won the jurisdiction.

“The importance of selecting a lieutenant governor choice, I think, is often more important to the media and pundits than to voters,” Ulman said. “They’re very clear about electing a governor and not a lieutenant governor.”

If primary voters are looking for a way to distinguish among many candidates, running mates might help, political analysts say.

“Your lieutenant governor pick says something about you. It can be a reflection of your value system,” said Mileah Kromer, political science professor at Goucher College.

For example, Ross’ choice of an owner of a craft brewery demonstrates his concern for entrepreneurship, she said. Jealous’ pick of a longtime Democratic Party insider could indicate an attempt to unify the party’s progressive and establishment wings. Shea’s choice of a Baltimore City Councilman shows an awareness of the need for younger, diverse voices in the party.

In a wide-open primary with no clear leading candidates this year, running mates might have more significance than in the past.

“It matters at the margins. It matters particularly with so many candidates splitting up the vote in so many ways,” she said. “Mattering in the margins can make a difference.”

ecox@baltsun.com

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