A paucity of passion

September 15, 2015 · Posted in All politics is local, Campaign 2016, Delmarva items, Education, Maryland Politics, Politics, Radical Green · Comments Off on A paucity of passion 

I am struck by the difference between two recent meetings.

Last week I covered the first hearing regarding the prospect of an elected school board. Yesterday I also read a story by Susan Canfora in the Salisbury Independent about the city’s rejection of a park land donation sought by the county.

In the former case, the arguments for and against were delivered in a relatively quiet room, but those who were out to save the forest burst into applause with each speaker on their side and cheered when the measure died for a lack of a motion. Canfora’s report noted that the City Council meeting was standing room only, with more people spilling into the hallway. Having been to that venue before, I know the room can get 80 to 100 people in it if you all inhale and exhale the right way.

Of course, there was resolution in the county’s case – the city said no to the donation. On the other hand, the process of getting an elected school board is in the early stages of its latest iteration. So in that respect I am doing a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but I did see a useful tool in understanding the approach one side may choose in the school board debate.

Those who favored the expansion of the ball fields grounded their argument in economic terms. They could cite concrete facts and forecasts of how much impact these tournaments have locally, in dollars, cents, and jobs. Softball tournaments bring in hundreds of players each summer, and those participants have to eat, sleep, and play someplace.

Conversely, those supporting the forest played to the emotions of the audience and City Council. Suddenly that 35 acre plot of land was a magnet for low-impact tourism and a vital part of the natural beauty of Wicomico County. Just for sake of reference, 35 acres covers about 1/16 of a square mile. The Centre of Salisbury sits on about 58 acres, so this forest plot is barely half the size of that parcel.

Those same appeals to emotion come out when opponents of an elected school board bemoan the loss of “diversity” they are sure would come about with an elected board.

It’s always intrigued me that those who wail loudest about diversity are the least diverse of any group – sure, they may fill quotas with every possible variation of outward appearance and behavior trait under the sun, but when it comes to diversity of thought: forget about it! It’s the side that’s afraid to hold presidential candidate debates because their standard-bearer, the one who fills the “woman” quota their party wants to check the box of, might have to actually defend her record (or lack thereof.)

But let me back up the focus. To me, diversity is for ideas, which is why legislative bodies often split along party lines. I highly doubt the NAACP, the teachers’ union, or any of the other opponents of an elected school board will stop trying to participate in the process when an elected board finally comes to fruition. They will certainly have a slate of candidates, and those candidates will probably have a monetary advantage in their respective races. On the other hand, I would certainly push for the most conservative school board possible. Hopefully I get more victories than the other side, but I doubt either will have a clean sweep and it may be there are times they have to meet somewhere around halfway.

Regardless of what Don Fitzgerald may claim, there is some cronyism involved with the current system. Rarely does a complete political outsider get a seat on the school board because the current system has as its judge and jury political insiders up and down the line. (The same would hold true with a nominating commission.) The best chance for a concerned citizen would seem to be the electoral process, particularly since the system as envisioned would rely mainly on districts of about 20,000 people – not an unmanageable size for a small, well-organized campaign. Granted, there may be times when running countywide could be an advantage but my suspicion is that those couple spots will be filled with current board members who already have name recognition.

If there’s one lesson I want the class to remember, it’s this: you can easily figure out which side has the facts and which side runs on emotion. Diversity is the reddest of herrings, so don’t let them fool you into thinking their idea of the concept is anymore than skin-deep.

WCRC meeting – April 2015

We ha an unusual meeting tonight. It wasn’t devoted to club business; after we did the usual Lord’s Prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and introduction of several distinguished guests we were a treasurer’s report away from the first of three main events of a packed program.

Our first event was the presentation of the WCRC Scholarship to Andrew Boltz of Mardela High School. Boltz is active in the community, including an Eagle Scout project involving backpacks for the homeless. Boltz plans on attending Salisbury University to begin his pursuit of an engineering degree.

Sarah Rayne next addressed the group on behalf of 1st Saturday, a “free, family-friendly” event in downtown Salisbury intended to focus on the performing arts, as opposed to the visual arts highlighted at 3rd Friday.

She noted that the event was timed to be after Saturday chores but allow for patrons to partake in the downtown entertainment venues and restaurants afterward, adding that no food trucks would be present to help with steering business to local eateries – in turn, they would be encouraged to make known their specials for the evening. It’s a “bring your own chair” event, modeled on a similar set of gatherings in Georgetown, Delaware, Rayne added.

Just as clarification, I asked if it was an all-year event. Sarah responded that 1st Saturday was “a warm-weather event” which would run April to October.

The final part of the evening was something that turned out to be a roundtable discussion of the latest General Assembly session by the Republican members of the Wicomico County delegation: Senator Addie Eckardt and Delegates Christopher Adams, Carl Anderton, Jr., Mary Beth Carozza, Johnny Mautz, and erstwhile member Charles Otto, who was redistricted out of the county.

Each representative began by speaking a few minutes about their perspective on the recently-completed session. As the one with the most experience, Senator Eckardt assessed our group as “a wonderful team…this is not a shy group.” She was pleased to have the opportunity to try and get our highway user revenues back, and called it “exciting” to have a Republican governor to work with on the budget. And while the goals of the administration were to cut spending, taxation, and regulation, the sad fact was that most of the governor’s initiatives did not pass.

Some of the budget battles that were fought included funding for the Geographical Cost of Education Index and maintaining the promised $300 million catch-up payment for state pensions. While the budget passed wasn’t fully in line with the initial expectations, Eckardt thought the governor “was in a good position going forward.”

Getting PMT regulations as opposed to statutes and repealing the rain tax law allowed Addie to declare a couple victories. “From my perspective, I was floored” with the things accomplished during the session, Eckardt concluded.

From the House perspective, Delegate Otto was rueful that Wicomico County residents could no longer vote for him, but added he still represented us as the chair of the Eastern Shore delegation – a group that was expanded to include residents in the 35th District, covering Cecil and part of Harford counties. He was pleased the budget grew by less than projected revenue growth, a departure from the previous administration.

Otto noted that “everything bad for agriculture” came out at the House this year, including the “chicken tax” bill and a measure eliminating sales tax exemptions farmers can employ.

Delegate Adams felt “blessed to be a Republican in Maryland” right now because it enabled him to stop items detrimental to our interests, especially at the committee level. One highlight to him among the bills passed was several enacting the recommendations of the Augustine Commission, which included a cabinet-level Department of Commerce. His assessment that Maryland was too dependent on federal employees made him hopeful that the business climate could be changed.

“What a strange, fun, exciting ride it’s been,” said Delegate Anderton. He urged us to ignore people who say “you can’t do it” because he did get things accomplished: the Evo bill which will add 50 jobs in Salisbury while preventing 70 others from leaving, a grant to Three Lower Counties to assist them with a new OB/GYN clinic, and money for improvements to Perdue Stadium essential to keeping the Shorebirds here. And while he was “scared” about the PMT regulations, Anderton believed we had “built a great foundation.” Overall, his first year was “an experience better than I could have imagined.”

Delegate Mautz said the Eastern Shore is “working closely together” and trying to get leverage for its legislative goals. However, he noted that watermen and seafood producers were “under tremendous pressure,” detailing abuses by the Department of Natural Resources. As it turned out, watermen, hunters, fishermen would have been the beneficiaries of many of the bills Mautz worked on, while cheese producers will get a boost.

Yet while Mautz believed Governor Hogan “controlled the debate” on fiscal issues, there was still “serious partisan divides” in the General Assembly. He predicted “a lot of legislation” in the next session.

Johnny also called the events going on in Baltimore “a major setback” for the area and state as a whole. Delegate Carozza picked up on that, asking the group to take a moment of silence and prayer for the city, adding the National Guard had finally been sent in.

Mary Beth also believed we had a “terrific Shore delegation,” agreeing that Governor Hogan had “set the tone’ in his first session. While the budget had a smaller increase than previous years, though, she only voted for the original House budget. She voted against the conference budget because of the raids it made to the pension funds.

“We still need your help,” she added. “Divided government is really tough.” We were encouraged to express our opinions on issues like charter schools, tax relief, and regulations because opponents were relentless and having the constituents as backup strengthens our position. And Democrats “are already coming after (Larry Hogan),” she said.

She gave a couple examples of bills she worked on. One that passed with ease was a bill allowing Seacrets to move its distillery operations to Maryland – Mary Beth got support from Senator Jim Mathias and convinced lawmakers that bringing jobs back from Delaware was worth fighting for.

On the other hand, a veterans procurement bill which sailed through the Senate had a tough time in the House for several reasons, at least one of them territorial as a particular committee chair wanted to do a more large-scale procurement bill next session. She learned that she had to sometimes sell bills, and ended up with a compromise that doubled veterans procurement from 0.5% to 1%.

Once this part finished, we opened the floor to comments and questions. Naturally, a perspective was sought on why we did not get an elected school board vote and what we had to do.

“It’s an easy fix,” said Delegate Anderton. “Eliminate the excuse.” By that, he meant have the public hearings Senator Mathias sought, as two people noted he was on record as supporting the idea with public input. We also learned the Wicomico County Education Association actually supports a fully elected board.

But Senator Eckardt added we “need both Senators in agreement” to get the bill through.

A related question came about school vouchers, which weren’t brought up in this session. Rather, a lot of discussion went toward charter schools because it was the governor’s initiative, said Delegate Carozza. Delegate Adams added charter school reforms enjoyed bipartisan support, while Senator Eckardt noted the BOAST tax credits had been introduced again – these would allow private businesses to direct funding to private and public schools.

On that same front, it was asked if a Religious Freedom Restoration Act-style bill was introduced, and none was to their knowledge.

Turning to taxation, Senator Eckardt stated that few tax rollbacks were surviving the Ways and Means subcommittees.

Farming issues were the subject of a couple queries, and the industry as a whole was considered “low-hanging fruit” by environmentalists, said Delegate Adams. Even though 27 percent of Chesapeake Bay’s phosphorus could be traced to the silt behind Conowingo Dam – according to the Army Corps of Engineers, a fact which came out in a hearing on one of the PMT bills – environmentalists still demanded more regulations on agriculture.

Finally, Anderton responded to a question about road funding by noting he had helped bring it back to some extent through his memory of where the money was placed last year. The state found it again, to the tune of $19 million to municipalities and $4 million for counties. However, he added, some counties were reticent about full restoration because they wanted to use it as an excuse to have their own gasoline taxes.

All in all, it was a chock-full meeting you should be kicking yourself for missing. Because the next fourth Monday of the month is Memorial Day, we next meet June 22.

Afraid to face up

May 2, 2014 · Posted in Delmarva items · 3 Comments 

I have to admit something: I missed a series of events which probably belonged in the “should have known better” department.

On Sunday I posted an article about the upcoming Wicomico County Education Association balloting on the question of whether they would disassociate from the Maryland State Education Association, one which I actually wrote several days ahead of time in order to post closer to the actual balloting date. I have no idea how many Wicomico teachers actually read my site – although my updates are occasionally linked from various outlets – but I felt it was important to note that this separation has been completed before.

Obviously other events have interceded in my life so last night I was curious to see how the vote went down, particularly since I was surprised to hear nothing about it. Where I should have known better is that the MSEA and its minions surely had no intention of letting the WCEA speak in any sort of secret ballot which may not have gone their way; in fact, the events of the last two weeks would seem surreal to the outside observer but predictable to one familiar with the political power game. It all played out in the 24 hours or so following the original writing of my Sunday post, for which I used the delayed publishing feature I employ for scheduling posts.

In covering the “palace coup” which occurred on April 15, I wondered if the members would even be allowed to vote. Turns out the answer was no. In fact, not only had the MSEA fans of the rump directorate scrubbed the vote, but they’ve cleansed the WCEA website of any of the information the local union put out to promote their pro-local side. Instead, there’s a message on the front page of the site:

On April 15 a majority of the members of the Wicomico County Education Association stood together and took necessary steps to prevent a small minority of members from dismantling the union with attempts to disaffiliate from our state and national Associations. The members have spoken and have declared that we are stronger together, and the support we have from the Maryland State Education and National Education Association adds to that strength. We have collected the necessary signatures to recall the officers of WCEA and have put an interim board of managers in place, effective immediately. This board will assume day to day operations of the Association and will move to conduct an election of a new slate of officers. These actions clearly reflect the wishes of the majority of our members who are anxious to move forward and who remain committed to giving Wicomico County’s public school students the excellent instruction and service they deserve.

So if it were truly a majority, why not have the vote and prove it? Ah, that’s the beauty of a “palace coup” – they leave nothing to chance. Far from dismantling the WCEA union – which was never at question – the vote would have only changed the bylaws so members need not be members of MSEA if they wished to simply be in the local union. But when $537,000 is at stake – or perhaps more, as the local union backers suggest based on recent state law – the truth can be a casualty.

Fortunately, the vote may go on soon, as a local court ordered yesterday that control be restored to the elected leadership.

On that note, it was amusing to see a Facebook comment stating “If you took half the effort to educate us on your side as you do bashing the other, maybe you’d get somewhere.” But if the website was scrubbed of that educational information it would sure make learning difficult, would it not? (This is a screen shot of how the WCEA website looked pre-coup, although it doesn’t link to the information which was placed on it during March.)

Perhaps this a good reminder of the points originally made. Somehow the rump directorate didn’t get hold of the WCEA Youtube page.

This struggle has achieved national notoriety for our small corner of the world, with the rump committee posting an update on Salisbury News. It appears the superintendent had recognized the coup; fortunately the legitimately elected board of directors had at least one information outlet available to them before the court ruling. WCEA President Kelly Stephenson wrote there:

Dear Respected WCEA Members:

There will be an all-member vote on the proposed WCEA Bylaws amendments, however, the vote will be postponed for a short duration, for the following reasons:

1. This vote will be overseen by Certified Public Accounting firm Pigg, Krahl and Stern, to ensure the validity and anonymity, so that no side has a role in the execution or calculation of the results of the vote. They will be providing additional information, including voting instructions, in coming days.

2. The duly elected WCEA leadership has been forced to file a lawsuit in the Wicomico County court system as a result of the unlawful and inappropriate actions of the “Interim Managers.” It is unfortunate that these measures must be taken, however, the duly elected WCEA leadership is confident that the results of the initial hearing will demonstrate the truth in this issue, verify who is rightfully in control and enable members to have a say in the future of this organization.

It is clear the seizure of the WCEA office and assets in the middle of the night through unauthorized measures was only an attempt to intimidate your elected leaders and to prevent your voting voice for the future of WCEA. The duly elected WCEA leadership continues to believe that all members have the right to express their opinion and will hold the all-member vote to enable you the opportunity to state your choice.

Please make your voice be heard: vote!

Kelly Stephenson, WCEA President

While the court has spoken, the battle is not likely to be over until voting commences. This exercise was obviously meant as a lesson to other counties which could consider the same action that dissent will not be tolerated.

The template

April 27, 2014 · Posted in Delmarva items, Education · 1 Comment 

There was something I didn’t know when the whole Wicomico County Education Association drive to decouple itself from the Maryland State Education Association came to light: it’s been done before, most recently in Michigan. Back in 2012, teachers in the Roscommon Area Public Schools decided – by a fairly wide margin – to drop their affiliation with the Michigan Education Association, and by this particular account the change has been welcomed. Like Wicomico County, the town of Roscommon is far away from the populated areas of Michigan and teachers there felt shortchanged by the state union based on a perceived lack of attention to their needs.

This video, created by Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Poilicy, speaks with the leader of the Roscommon effort.

Notice the focus in the Roscommon case was similar to the complaints here: dues which were too high and the desire for improved services. Their effort, however, has been a longstanding one as it took 21 years to convince teachers to make the switch – presumably as the old guard retired and newer teachers saw the situation, the votes for breaking away began to tally up.

Obviously the comparison isn’t perfect, since the Roscommon district is far smaller: perhaps the best local analogy to it would be the Mardela feeder system within the Wicomico County schools. It’s also different because Michigan is a recent convert back to a right-to-work state; unfortunately Maryland legislation to that effect never gets out of committee.

Still, Roscommon union leader Jim Perialas has made it clear he was no proponent of right-to-work, just an opponent of “big, bureaucratic unions.” Even so, the Michigan Education Association has taken the time to condemn Perialas for leading the effort away from the MEA. Local leaders should expect no less.

If the vote this week is one which supports the decoupling of the WCEA and MSEA, look for the cries of “fraud!” to erupt from both the state union and the rump directorate which tried to take control of the union a couple weeks ago. Conversely, a vote to maintain MSEA/NEA affiliation will likely result in another dues increase and Wicomico County being forgotten again until it’s time for the dues check to arrive.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have a child in Wicomico County public schools (but do pay taxes) so I really don’t have a dog in the fight. It won’t affect my life one way or the other, but hundreds among us will be affected by the outcome. So it’s your choice – choose wisely.

Did the state union strike back?

As a follow-up to a story I wrote about a few weeks back, the leadership of the Wicomico County Education Association is accusing opponents of an upcoming vote to disassociate the union from the Maryland State Education Association of entering the WCEA headquarters, changing the locks, and taking over operations. WCEA president Kelly Stephenson announced the following on their website and Facebook page:

On April 15, 2014, Gary Hammer et al., entered the WCEA offices, changed the locks and codes, removed or altered office equipment and purported to illegally fire the Association’s only employee. These actions were not taken in accordance with the governing documents of WCEA or in accordance with the law.

The democratically elected leadership of WCEA would like everyone to know that we are continuing to exercise the duties of the office. We will not be bullied and these actions will not affect the business affairs of the Association. Member services, including member representation and contract negotiations with the Wicomico County Board of Education, will continue unchanged. Further, this attempt to subvert the democratic process will not succeed: on April 28th and 29th, the Association’s vote on Bylaws changes will proceed, and members will be able to decide for themselves whether to become self-governing.

There’s little doubt that the vote will be acrimonious, with the local union putting out flyers and messages like the ones below.

One voice WCEA flyer.

WCEA focus.

Opponents of the change – or at least of the current leadership – began a petition drive to recall those leaders, with the office entry being the result of what they claim was a successful recall with over 700 members signing their petition and simultaneously selecting an interim slate of directors. I don’t doubt this rump directorate is comprised of those who favor remaining in the MSEA and decided this lockout was the way to go.

The obvious question becomes whether this “palace coup,” if you will, is valid. This amended version of the WCEA bylaws (with the changes slated to be voted on later this month) suggests the answer is no. But as I see it this episode demonstrates the lengths the state union would go to in order to keep its county-level affiliate in the fold. And even if the membership is allowed to vote and decides to maintain its ties to the MSEA, how many people will lose trust in the union’s leadership as a result and drop out of the union?

In doing the research for this piece, I noticed the accusation about my “right wing blog” support. Naturally there is a political aspect, but I find it interesting that one of the small handful of Republicans the MSEA endorsed around the state was from here in Wicomico County: they backed Christopher Adams for one District 37B seat over a Democrat. But I don’t have a dog in this fight, aside from the notion that it’s an interesting story based on the aspect of localizing government, which is a conservative point of view and fits right in with a rather conservative county mindset. Our child doesn’t attend a public school.

Interesting times lie ahead for the public school teachers of Wicomico County. For the first time in a long time, it appears the state union is actually taking Wicomico County seriously.

Local teachers seek local control

March 26, 2014 · Posted in Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · 2 Comments 

It’s not just frustrated and disgruntled members of the public who are looking to bring their government to a local level closer to the people, rebelling against what they consider outsized influence from Washington and the various state capitals. In the case of the Wicomico County Education Association (WCEA) – a bargaining unit representing teachers and various other school employees in this semi-rural outpost of the Eastern Shore of Maryland – their aim is to break away from the much larger Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), making the case in an open letter from WCEA president Kelly Stephenson to the MSEA and community that:

In the years I have been representing WCEA, several things have become clear for all to see. First, many school employees believe MSEA has not represented them properly over the last decade and find it ironic that your people only show up when the $537,000 dues money is at risk. It is clear that you and your people on the “other side of the bridge” have a different agenda from those of us on this side of the bridge. Wicomico County, to most of us, is like a family – WCEA will work out our problems for the betterment of all – not just for the betterment of the Annapolis elite. In short, WCEA Board has heard repeatedly that your organization’s presence is not seen as a plus for our community.

And those fighting words serve to buttress one point: MSEA representation is expensive for the average teacher in Wicomico County. Depending on salary and position, annual dues can range from $197.28 to $598.50. Supporters claim the WCEA proposal would shave up to $260 off that cost.

But controversy has been brewing for several years, and heads were turned in 2012 when it was learned that an embezzlement case in adjacent Worcester County was handled internally by MSEA and the local association rather than alerting authorities at the time of discovery back in 2009 – the thefts occurred over a three-year period before that. Meanwhile, complaints began to pile up in Wicomico County about ineffective representation services, a lack of support in negotiations, concerns about the political direction and activities of the state union – which endorsed Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a year ahead of this November’s election and commissioned polls to tout his lead – and constantly increasing dues, particularly when union leadership was making far more than the average Wicomico County teacher.

Exasperated, WCEA members started a petition drive to change the local unit’s bylaws and remove the provision requiring concurrent membership in the MSEA and National Education Association (NEA), citing the concern that membership rolls were dwindling because many potential members simply could not afford the dues. Local leadership has been careful to stress that WCEA members may still be members of MSEA/NEA if desired – although apparently the MSEA begs to differ:

It is difficult to understand why the MSEA leadership has suggested they would not welcome you in the future to be a member of MSEA if WCEA chooses to disaffiliate when the information on the MSEA website tells a different story. From the MSEA website under FAQs:

“Q: How do I join MSEA?

A: If you are employed in professional education work for any school district in the state of Maryland, are a student or retired educator, or work for an accredited institution of higher education, you are eligible to become a member of MSEA as well as your local association and NEA.”

The WCEA goes on to say that many of its benefits would continue even without MSEA membership – and in some cases, strictly local representation can provide members a better deal, particularly when it comes to legal representation and similar services. The WCEA also reminded its members that they are the legally recognized bargaining unit for the teachers and staff, soliciting a local attorney to verify that there is no legal connection between the WCEA and MSEA – only the membership requirement in the WCEA bylaws.

All this back-and-forth is leading up to a vote of the WCEA membership slated for April 28-29; a balloting which is expected to be close and rather divisive. Some opponents of the change are skeptical that a WCEA which “goes it alone” would be powerful enough to stand up to the local Board of Education, which by state law is appointed by a representative of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and thus holds a 4-3 Democratic majority. The current teachers’ contract, which was signed last year, runs through June 30, 2016; however, health insurance coverage and other fringe benefits can be revisited on an annual basis if both sides agree.

But even if the opponents of the bylaws change prevail, it’s obvious that there are serious misgivings between the Wicomico County rank-and-file and the state union, just as there’s a great deal of skepticism from the residents of the state’s Eastern Shore about the goings-on within state government in general. Chesapeake Bay is much more than a body of water dividing the state geographically; it also seems to separate the two sides in politics and their all-around attitude towards life. Politically, the Eastern Shore sends a significant share of the state’s minority Republicans to Annapolis and most of its counties are dominated by the GOP; moreover, the denizens of those areas east of the Chesapeake seem to take a perverse pride in being what one former governor called the state’s outhouse. (The actual term was more, shall we say, descriptive.)

So this election should be closely watched as a test case. If the local Wicomico County bargaining unit can convince their teachers that breaking away from the MSEA is to their benefit, it may encourage a number of the other counties in the state to consider a similar move, perhaps costing the MSEA several million dollars in dues they would otherwise collect. While $537,000 may not be a lot when it comes to a union’s budget –  the county’s dues only cover four “average” MSEA employees – it can still be spread around to a host of state and federal elected officials, and it’s that political purchasing power MSEA worries most about losing.

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