Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze talks to Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz and U.S. Congressman John Delaney at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Video by John Fritze)
Democrats have gathered here to nominate Hillary Clinton for president, but the former secretary of state isn't the only politician hoping the convention provides a bounce in support.
Between breakfast pastries and late-night receptions, at least three prominent Democrats from Maryland considering a run for governor in 2018 are circling each other. All three are working — some more subtly than others — to be seen by party insiders and to meet with outside groups that could be helpful if they decide to run.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, Rep. John Delaney of Montgomery County and Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz have all been visible at the convention this week. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Kamenetz acknowledged Tuesday for the first time that he is considering a run for governor.
Democrats are eager to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2018, hoping voters in deep blue Maryland will deny him a second term as they did with the state's last GOP governor, Robert L. Ehrlich.
But they also acknowledge that Hogan is widely popular, has learned from some of Ehrlich's mistakes and is shaping up to be a formidable candidate — particularly if multiple high-profile Democrats get bogged down in a bruising primary.
The party is eager to start laying the groundwork now.
"They're here because they're trying to jockey for position," said former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, attending his 10th consecutive convention. "The main thing this far out from the election is to find a way to increase your footprint around the state."
Democrats nationally sought Tuesday to convey an image of unity as they formally nominated Clinton for president. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the longest-serving woman in the Senate and a longtime Clinton supporter, joined three other Democrats in formally submitting her name for the nomination.
But as some semblance of unity begins to take shape for the 2016 election, lines are being drawn for two years out in Maryland. Baker, Delaney and Kamenetz are the names most often mentioned these days as possible candidates — but they're not alone.
U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, recently passed over for Clinton's running mate but still a likely candidate for attorney general in a potential Clinton administration, is often discussed as a possible contender to return to state politics. Former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who mounted an unsuccessful primary campaign for governor in 2014, told The Sun recently that he's being asked "pretty much every day" about 2018.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett is sometimes mentioned, and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who flirted with a run for the Maryland's open Senate seat for the better part of a year, remains popular statewide.
But in Philadelphia, it is Baker, Delaney and Kamenetz who are sponsoring meals and late-night receptions — putting their names before state Democrats and giving them platforms to address the entire delegation. They are the three most aggressively working the banquet halls and buffet lines.
Each offers unique strengths and weaknesses. Kamenetz represents an important political battleground in Baltimore County, but is still building relationships with Democrats statewide. Delaney, a former banker, has struck a centrist tone in Congress and could pump millions of his own money into a campaign, but has a touchy relationship with labor and progressives.
Baker, the only African-American of the three, oversees an important Democratic stronghold but would need to work to expand that base into neighboring Montgomery County and the Baltimore region.
"We are here to build a base for 2018 because elections matter," said Baker, who stressed he was referring to Democrats broadly — not necessarily himself. "We are setting the stage to make sure that we take back the State House in 2018, and I think we're going to have some terrific candidates."
In one example of the kind of networking potential candidates take part in here, Kamenetz met Monday morning with J. David Cox, the head of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The meeting was an opportunity for the Baltimore County executive to make his intentions known to a federal employee union with significant sway statewide.
"I want Larry Hogan gone," Cox told Kamenetz repeatedly.
"I need your help, and I need it early, obviously," Kamenetz responded.
Kamenetz told The Sun that he's looking at a run for governor in 2018.
"We're here as party leaders of the state, and Baltimore County is the third-largest jurisdiction in Maryland," Kamenetz said. "We have an obligation as Democrats to provide leadership to the entire state party. Our goal is to make sure that we're electing Democrats in this November and following Novembers."
A spokesman with the AFGE did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.
Hogan, who has said he will not vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, did not attend the GOP convention in Cleveland last week. Joe Cluster, the executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, said he does not believe that will amount to any disadvantage for the incumbent.
Cluster quipped that the Democratic hopefuls are all in Philadelphia because "they have to find support out of state."
"Larry Hogan seems to be pretty popular inside the state," he said.
Politicians who attend their party's conventions do so in part because they benefit from an unusually high concentration of news media, potential donors and fellow party officials — from statewide office holders to longtime county-level volunteers.
Before the 2018 election, Delaney is running against Amie Hoeber — a well-funded Republican candidate — to hold onto his Democratic-leaning congressional district. The second-term lawmaker largely demurred on questions about 2018, saying he isn't doing anything out of the ordinary in Philadelphia.
"I'm just meeting with the same kind of people I would normally meet with," he said. "I'm focused on my re-election in 2016 — that's my singular focus — but I also am being supportive of my party in Maryland."