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Valerie Ervin to run for Maryland governor in place of late running mate Kevin Kamenetz

Democrat Valerie Ervin is running for Maryland governor in place of her former running mate, Kevin Kamenetz, who died suddenly last week.

Ervin’s unusual entry into the campaign less than six weeks before the June 26 Democratic primary maintains a crowded field of seven major candidates with no clear front-runner.

The 61-year-old Montgomery County resident selected Marisol Johnson, a former Baltimore County school board member, to join a ticket that faces significant obstacles to gain traction with no time to spare: They have little money, a new campaign staff and their names will not appear on millions of ballots that have already been printed.

“Many voters don’t know her,” said Melissa Deckman, a Washington College professor who studies women in politics. “Less than six weeks before the primary, she’s going to have a challenge of introducing herself to a broader audience. Outside of Montgomery County, she’s not well known.”

The pairing of Ervin and Johnson makes for the campaign’s second all-woman, all-minority ticket. Ervin is African-American and Johnson is Latina. Ervin wore a “Black Girls Vote” button on her red blazer as she and Johnson signed candidacy papers in Annapolis Thursday.

The other female team is Krish Vignarajah, who was born in Sri Lanka, and her running mate, Sharon Blake, who is African-American.

Ervin had until 5 p.m. Thursday to decide whether to carry on the Kamenetz campaign after the Baltimore County executive died from cardiac arrest a week ago.

Ervin said she knew soon after Kamenetz’s death that she wanted to press on with the campaign.

“Kevin and I had a plan for Maryland, which was a great plan,” Ervin said in an interview before filing new paperwork at the state Board of Elections.

Ervin is a progressive activist and former two-term Montgomery County Council member. In tapping her as a running mate, Kamenetz had turned to someone who represented many things he was not: a woman of color with ties to the vote-rich Washington suburbs and the state’s progressive community.

Ervin’s candidacy complicates an already unusual race for the Democratic nomination that features nine candidates on the ballot, seven of whom have raised enough money to mount credible campaigns.

Kamenetz had amassed the most money of the leading candidates, with $2 million on hand in January and numerous fundraisers since then. But it appears that Ervin will not be able to access that war chest, because it was held in an account belonging only to Kamenetz.

With Kamenetz’s death, the money in his account would be declared surplus, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

“There’s no more candidacy to support and therefore it goes to surplus funds,” DeMarinis said.

The money could be turned over to Democratic Party central committees or a variety of educational and charitable causes under state law.

Ervin can use money in a slate account she formed with Kamenetz and also money in her own campaign coffers. Those accounts held about $1,000 and $50,000, respectively, according to reports filed this spring.

Ervin said campaign lawyers would research the issue. But even if she can’t access Kamenetz’s money, she’s pressing forward.

“For me, it’s not about the money,” Ervin said. “We’re going to raise money because it’s Marisol and Valerie Ervin who are going to raise national money as well as money across the state of Maryland.”

It appears unlikely that Ervin’s name will apper on the ballot as a gubernatorial candidate.

Elections officials have already printed 3.7 million ballots and mailed about 5,000 absentee ballots with Kamenetz’s name. And elections officials recently argued successfully in court that they could not reprint ballots to accomodate a request from former state Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks, who wanted to be removed from the ballot after pleading guilty to federal charges.

Johnson had supported the Kamenetz-Ervin campaign, including hosting an event in Baltimore County with Ervin the night before Kamenetz died. She resigned from the Baltimore County school board a year ago when she decided to run for County Council, but later withdrew from that race.

Johnson runs an insurance company, located near Pikesville. On the school board, she was known as an outspoken advocate for minority students.

Ervin said Thursday that while she decided to run for governor after Kamenetz’s funeral last Friday, she settled on Johnson as a running mate “about 30 hours ago.”

Johnson said she’s eager to get started as a lieutenant governor candidate.

“I’m pumped. I’m excited. I’m optimistic,” Johnson said.

Vignarajah, a former policy aide to Michelle Obama, was among the candidates who welcomed Ervin and Johnson to the race. One of Vignarajah’s favorite lines has been: “They say no man can beat Larry Hogan. Well, I’m no man.”

“Just as there’s enough room for seven men in the race, there’s enough room for two women,” Vignarajah said.

Ervin said she spoke with Kamenetz’s widow, Jill Kamenetz, on Monday to let her know that she planned to move forward with a campaign.

Ervin and Johnson need to move quickly as early voting begins in less than a month, on June 14.

Ervin said she is building a new campaign team.

“We’re building a brand-new infrastructure,” she said. “The Kamenetz campaign is going to close down and we are going to open up a brand-new office with new staff.”

Ervin unveiled a campaign website Thursday, using the same bright-purple background that Kamenetz had used in his materials. The Kamenetz website, meanwhile, was stripped down to a single page with a photo of the late politician and a message noting his death and thanking supporters.

Ervin said she and Kamenetz were starting to build momentum in the race, with polling putting them in second place. She felt they were about to surge forward, and she hopes she can capture that momentum as she launches her own campaign.

“I think Kevin and I were in a sweet spot,” Ervin said.

Political scientists said it’s difficult to gauge where Ervin will fit in a crowded primary that didn’t have a single front-runner. Kamenetz was part of a top tier of candidates, but it’s not clear where Ervin will be positioned, said Todd Eberly of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“It re-orients the race in significant ways,” Eberly said. “We can’t just assume Kamenetz’s supporters go to her.”

Ervin could retain some Kamenetz supporters out of loyalty, and she also could pick off supporters from other progressive candidates, such as state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., or from African-American candidates, such as Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III or former NAACP leader Ben Jealous. She also could siphon support from Vignarajah, Eberly said.

Having those options “is not a bad place to be,” he said.

Still, Deckman of Washington College said Ervin is likely a long shot to win the Democratic nomination. And her odds are even longer if she can’t access Kamenetz’s campaign cash.

But Ervin is a savvy campaigner who has credentials that could sway voters.

“She’s formidable in her campaign skills,” Deckman said. “She’s smart.”

Other candidates said they welcomed Ervin into the crowded race.

Baker released a statement that said “we welcome Valerie Ervin’s voice to the discussion on how to move Maryland forward as a gubernatorial candidate.”

Another candidate, Baltimore attorney Jim Shea, said in a statement: “I know that we all share a dedication to making progress in our state, and I look forward to seeing Valerie on the campaign trail.”

The leading candidates are scheduled to take part in a debate Monday that will be broadcast on WBAL-TV and Maryland PublicTelevision.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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