When former Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn abruptly resigned from the General Assembly — days before she was charged with bribery and wire fraud — it opened up a coveted House of Delegates seat in Maryland’s 45th District.
Thirteen people applied to fill the spot, arguing they were best suited to represent the people of east and northeast Baltimore. But those candidates didn’t have to convince the masses they were right for the job.
Instead, as protocol dictates, a seven-member Democratic central committee voted on who they wanted to send to Annapolis to complete Glenn’s four-year term. The chair of that committee, Chanel Branch, was among those seeking the seat. And with the other committee members split between candidates, Branch cast the deciding vote that won her the nomination. The final tally: 3-2-1-1.
Her recent nomination is reviving a debate about the way General Assembly vacancies are filled, and whether the process does enough to consider voters’ voices. Since 2016, roughly two dozen state legislators have been appointed in Annapolis without being elected. There are currently three vacancies: the 45th District, House District 44B on the west side of Baltimore County and Senate District 11 in northwest Baltimore County.
State lawmakers have introduced legislation this session that they say would make the process more democratic.
“The central committee does hold all the power,” said Joanne Antoine, director of Common Cause Maryland. “We’re hoping that with all these vacancies that have occurred over the last few months, the General Assembly feels the need to take action.”
Vacancies arise in the General Assembly for a variety of reasons. Twice last year, delegates left the chamber because of criminal charges. Others choose to resign, citing health problems or the need to get away from politics.
State Sen. Clarence Lam, who introduced a bill to change the vacancy-filling system, said it’s also not uncommon for legislators to leave to take on responsibilities in a new governor’s administration. When Gov. Larry Hogan swept into office, for example, he tapped then-Frederick County Del. Kelly Schulz as labor secretary.
“You have central committees appointing people into those positions and they could serve almost a full term without having ever been elected to that office by voters," said Lam, a Democrat from Baltimore and Howard counties.
Once a person is appointed, he said, they have the benefit of incumbency that can help them win another term. Several leaders in the General Assembly started out as appointees, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.
When a lawmaker vacates a seat, their political party’s central committee nominates someone to fill the empty slot. The nominations must then be approved by the governor.
Hogan, a Republican, has not yet signed off on the appointment of Branch, a Democrat. He received the letter nominating her Jan. 15, triggering a 15-day countdown for him to decide.
Branch’s nomination comes with a unique set of circumstances: She chaired the committee that recommended her; her father is Maryland House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch; and her chief competition was Caylin Young, who ran for the seat in 2018, finishing in fourth place with 3,955 votes.
“The central committee does hold all the power. We’re hoping that with all these vacancies that have occurred over the last few months, the General Assembly feels the need to take action.”— Joanne Antoine, director of Common Cause Maryland
Young received two votes from the central committee. He said he is considering his options to contest the vote. Some Baltimore Democrats have circulated a letter urging Hogan to reject Branch’s nomination and redo the vote.
Branch said she believes the process was fair and that there was no problem with her voting for herself to break a tie.
“I’m the best candidate,” she said.
Lam said the legislation he introduced related to filling vacancies is not tied to the situation in the 45th District. It has bipartisan support and will get a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Under his bill, central committees still would appoint people to fill empty seats. But, instead of allowing the appointee to carry out the rest of the term, there would be a special election in that district, held at the same time as the next regularly scheduled statewide election — typically every two years.
This move would in most cases limit the amount of time an appointed lawmaker could hold on to their seat and, he said, make them more accountable to their constituents.
“It’s really an accountability measure to make sure voters have a say in who is representing them in the General Assembly,” Lam said. “Going through an election is the best way for an elected official to get to know their district, so they can represent those views.”
Del. David Moon, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced a version of the legislation in the House. He has been trying since he joined the House of Delegates in 2015 to reform the way vacancies are filled in the General Assembly.
Originally, he wanted to require direct special elections for vacancies — like what will happen Feb. 4 in the 7th District to replace the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. But Moon said his idea was met with strong resistance.
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There were concerns about the cost of administering multiple special elections and low voter turnout for elections that had only one race on the ballot.
“You had further concern from some folks who didn’t like the idea of leaving a seat vacant for potentially months and leaving a district without representation,” Moon said.
This year’s proposal is a compromise, he said, intended to quell those fears while also representing a “vast improvement over the current system.”
The change would be a constitutional amendment, so even if it passes the General Assembly, voters would need to approve it at the ballot box in November.
“This time,” Moon said, “I would like to think we are in striking distance of getting something done.”
The Maryland Democratic Party also could take steps, without requiring legislative action, to change the rules surrounding this process. The party could prohibit, for example, a person from voting for themselves if they are seeking a nomination and a member of the central committee.
“From the party’s perspective,” spokesperson Arinze Ifekauche said, “we support whatever consensus our members come to.”