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Democratic panel meets tonight to pick successor to Fulton


With no clear favorite to fill the remainder of former state Del. Tony E. Fulton's term, a panel of Democratic Party officials scheduled to meet tonight to select a replacement could find itself deadlocked, which would leave the decision to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Familiar names are among those hoping to be chosen by the 40th District Democratic Central Committee to join the General Assembly as a Baltimore representative.

Former Baltimore City Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh has submitted her resume, as have Wendell Rawlings, son of former state Del. Howard P. Rawlings; and Frank M. Conaway Jr., son of the clerk of Baltimore's Circuit Court.

At least eight candidates are vying for the spot, seven of whom met a Monday deadline for applying. None appears to have garnered the support of a majority of the five-person central committee, which will make the decision.

"I really don't know who might win," said City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, a committee member and chairwoman of Baltimore's Democratic Central Committee. "There are some really good candidates this time."

Tonight marks the second time in less than two years that the usually obscure panel has had to select a member of the General Assembly. The meeting focuses attention again on a murky process that appears to rely as much on past relationships and quiet promises as on candidate qualifications.

After Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, died in November 2003, the 40th District committee selected Marshall T. Goodwin as a delegate. Goodwin was, and remains, a member of the committee panel, meaning he was able to vote for himself in 2003 when he edged out Wendell Rawlings, also a member of the 40th District committee.

Wendell Rawlings is hoping for greater success this year and appears to have Welch on his side. But one member of the five-person panel, Helen Bradford, is not expected to attend the meeting because of illness, so a split vote is possible.

Fulton died of cancer May 20. Under the state constitution, the 40th District committee must choose a replacement within 30 days of his death. After 30 days -- or if the panel vote ends in a tie, or if no decision is reached -- the decision is up to the governor, provided he chooses a Democrat who lives in the district, said Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch, counsel to the General Assembly.

The preferred option, Zarnoch said, is for the committee to submit one name to the governor, who would be required to accept it. But Zarnoch is suggesting an alternative: "If you send up two names, the governor would have to pick one."

Some critics say the selection process -- which consisted of an 18-line help-wanted advertisement in last week's Afro-American newspaper -- has not been well-publicized.

"A lot of people I know had no clue this was going on," said Desiree Dodson, who owns a public relations company and is seeking the seat. Dodson did not submit her resume by the noon Monday deadline listed in the ad, but she hopes to be interviewed tonight.

Dennis Byrne, a former employee of the state health department who also is vying for the appointment, said the race is wide open but has not been sufficiently publicized.

Other candidates include Shawn Z. Tarrant, a regional director for Bristol-Myers Squibb and president of the Ashburton Area Association; David Hanna; and Judson Hughes.

Mayor Martin O'Malley supported Wendell Rawlings in 2003. "He supported him then, he supports him now," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the mayor.

The state senator representing the 40th District, Ralph M. Hughes, a Democrat, said he has not endorsed anyone. "They're all good candidates," he said.

The 40th District includes many of the neighborhoods in Central and Northwest Baltimore, including Druid Hill Park and Lake Ashburton.

Candidate interviews are scheduled for 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at Baltimore City Community College. The panel will vote immediately after the interviews, and a selection will be sent to Ehrlich after it is ratified by the full Baltimore Democratic committee, a step not required by law.

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