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Commentaryby Tiffany Jones and Andy Ellis5:05 pmJan 28, 20200

Friends-and-family approach to filling legislative vacancies in Maryland must end

Shameful 45th District vote illustrates why we should switch to holding special elections and loosen political parties’ grip on who goes to Annapolis [OP-ED]

Above: The 45th District Central Committee listened to candidates for a legislative vacancy but in the end selected their own chairperson, Chanel Branch. (Fern Shen)

Silence and shame.

No one ran up to the newly appointed delegate for Maryland’s 45th district to wish her congratulations. No one jumped up and cheered for her. No one was ecstatic about what they just witnessed.

After watching Chanel Branch, daughter of Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, break the tie between her and Caylin Young by voting for herself two weeks ago, the community walked out of the room in silence.

Some left with their head hung low, others with eyerolls. Why? Because as most of us already knew, “the fix was in.”

My name is Tiffany Jones, and I’m one of the 12 other people who interviewed for the vacancy that night – a spot that opened up after the resignation of Cheryl Glenn, who has since pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.

I’m a Democrat writing this op-ed with Andy Ellis, co-chair of the Maryland Green Party, because we think it’s important to work across party lines to make sure the voices of voters in our district are heard.

I am viewing the appointment process by the Democratic State Central Committee from the inside, while Andy’s perspective is from the outside.

But we strongly agree on the takeaway from what we saw: Reform is badly needed.

At a Democratic party meeting to fill a legislative vacancy, candidate Tiffany Jones said she felt

Candidate Tiffany Jones said she felt “unheard” at a Democratic Party meeting to fill a legislative vacancy. The winner, by a 3-2 vote, was Chanel Branch (left), the daughter of House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch. (Fern Shen)

Ellis: Parties Unregulated

When a member of the General Assembly vacates their seat, the Maryland Constitution requires the central committee of the party that person is a member of to supply a replacement’s name to the governor, who in turn makes an appointment to fill the remainder of the elected term.

Beyond the requirement that the central committee makes a recommendation to the governor, Maryland law has little to say about how the party decides which name is submitted to the governor.

The reasoning is that political parties are private entities and their duty to help the governor fill vacancies is governed by their by-laws, not by state law.

This means that there is no law regulating how many people get to vote in a central committee appointment process, whether they must be elected, whether members can vote for themselves or how the voting process works.

Upon a vote of three people, among them the candidate herself, Chanel Branch will represent 100,000 people in Annapolis.

The problems with this party-run process were clear to many residents and observers on January 13 when the seven members of the 45th District Democratic Central Committee met to decide who would serve out the remainder of Cheryl Glenn’s vacated term.

After 13 interviews, votes were taken. Four applicants received votes, and two of them were tied with two votes each.

Chanel Branch, as chair of the committee, voted for herself to break the tie. She won with three votes cast for her, and four votes cast for other applicants. The vote was Branch (3), Young (2), Tiffany Jones (1) and Marques Dent (1).

Appeals were filed within the Democratic Party. Four community leaders wrote a letter of protest to Governor Hogan as well as to Senate President Bill Ferguson and others in both parties.

But it didn’t matter. Yesterday, Governor Hogan appointed Chanel Branch to the House of Delegates to represent over 100,000 people in the 45th district for the next three years.

Chanel Branch awaits the results of voting that ended with her selection to fill a House of Delegates vacancy. (Fern Shen)

Chanel Branch awaits the results of voting that ended with her selection to fill a House of Delegates vacancy. (Fern Shen)

Jones: I Wanted to be Heard

It’s not a secret that Baltimore politics is plagued by cliques. You can’t get far in this city without knowing someone who’s part of the “in crowd.”

And that night it was obvious that the powers-that-be (in this case Talmadge Branch) still have a hold on the Baltimore City Central Committee. Thus, the votes went his way.

Among 13 candidates, there was only one that truly had a chance that night. That candidate was his daughter, Chanel.

Everyone deserves a fair shot at running for office. Every candidate deserves to be heard, and every resident deserves to be able to vote their voice. We need serious transformation in the balance of power in our city.

When I interviewed for the 45th delegate seat, I went in knowing that I wasn’t going to get it. I expected to walk out of the interview the same way that I walked – just Tiffany Jones. But I at least wanted to be heard.

That didn’t happen for any of us.

The candidates weren’t heard. The community wasn’t heard. The interview process was disrespectful to the candidates, and it was a disservice to our community.

The public will never see the true leadership that was present in that room, nor hear the ideas many of us communicated through our speeches and answers.

Even though we knew how it was going to go, candidates like myself put a lot of work and thought into the process. The community has strong alternatives to choose from, and they should be able to vote for those persons.

What’s Needed: Special Elections

The 45th district appointment was just one of many that has occurred around the state in the last two years. Some of these appointments will last for three to four years.

At this point, 20% of the Maryland legislature – that’s one in five representatives – is appointed by this process.

Against this backdrop there are two bills in the General Assembly (SB10 and HB103) that call for an amendment to the constitution that would require special elections to occur at the next statewide election in the case of a vacated seat.

Under this legislation, which if passed would appear as a statewide question on the ballot this November, an appointed person would still serve in the position until the election.

In the case of Chanel Branch, it would mean that her appointment would be temporary, and the seat would be on the ballot in the 2020 primary and general elections.

Some object to this compromise approach and believe special elections should be held as soon as possible, eliminating the party’s role in the process entirely.

We think we need to pass the bills this year and take the appointment process out of the hands of central committees and the statehouse and into the full view of voters.

Special elections will ensure that a sham vote like the one that took place on January 13 does not dictate who leads our community for years to come.

Voters in the 45th district are not happy with the current appointment process. Many feel shut out by the process and cheated by incumbent politicians.

We have to bring legitimacy into our city and into politics. We need special elections because we can’t continue to let small cliques control the city.

In order for critical issues to be solved, we need to have the right people in the highest of places. And when we say “right,” we mean those that are honest, bold, independent and will challenge the status quo.

To be clear, this is about a process, not about Chanel Branch. She might be the “right” person to serve the district in Annapolis, but that should be a decision made by voters, not by party insiders.

With a process where we all have a voice, filling a vacancy would feel not shady and shameful, but hopeful and empowering.

– Tiffany Jones is a lifelong resident of East Baltimore and a strong advocate for public safety. She was a Democratic Party candidate for 45th district state delegate in Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee‘s 2019 appointment process.

– Andy Ellis is the Co-Chair of the Maryland Green Party and an advocate for electoral reform. He was a 2018 candidate for 45th District State Delegate.

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