Six Democrats have entered the race so far to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) for Maryland’s 8th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, with a number of prominent LGBT leaders lining up behind the two now considered the frontrunners.
The seat became vacant when Van Hollen announced he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
State Sen. Jamie Raskin, an American University law professor who played a leading role in securing passage of Maryland’s marriage equality and transgender rights laws, and former WJLA-TV news anchor and Marriott Hotels executive Kathleen Matthews, also a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, appear to be drawing support from well-known LGBT rights advocates.
The remaining four candidates — State Dels. Kumar Barve and Ana Sol Gutierrez, former Obama White House official William Jawando, and former Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin – each have solid records of support on LGBT issues, according to Jeffrey Slavin, the gay mayor of the town of Somerset, Md., which is in the 8th congressional District.
“I’m an officer with the state Democratic Party,” Slavin told the Washington Blade. “So blessedly I have to remain neutral because I’m friends with all of them,” he said. “They would all be fine members of Congress and they’re all strong friends on LGBT issues.”
But eyebrows were raised among some of Maryland’s LGBT activists in June when several national LGBT leaders who don’t live in Maryland helped organize a LGBT fundraising reception for Matthews at the home of lobbyist and Washington socialite Heather Podesta.
Among those declaring their support for Matthews at that time were Elizabeth Birch, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign; and Aubrey Sarvis, former head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which led efforts to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law banning gays from serving openly in the military.
Gay public relations and communications executive Bob Witeck and gay political consultant Jeff Trammell, both longtime Democratic Party advocates, were the lead organizers of the Matthews fundraising event. Witeck lives in Virginia and Trammell lives in D.C. Gay lobbying firm director Tom Sheridan, a D.C. resident, also helped organize the event.
“This was primarily but not exclusively an LGBT fundraiser,” Witeck said. “It was intended to identify Kathleen’s bona fides as an LGBT ally. She and her husband, Chris Matthews — they’ve both been very deeply committed to the community.”
Witeck was referring to Chris Matthews’ role as host of the MSNBC political talk show “Hardball,” in which he has spoken out in support of LGBT issues.
Witeck said he has been friends with Matthews since the two met through mutual friends when Matthews was a student at Stanford University and throughout her 25-year career as a journalist and later during her tenure of nearly 10 years as chief communications and public affairs officer for Marriott International.
“My experience in the business world is that she has been consistently articulate in advocating LGBT policies among her business peers for quite a long time,” said Witeck, who added that Matthews played a lead role in strengthening LGBT supportive policies at Marriott.
Raskin’s LGBT supporters, meanwhile, appear to be mainly Maryland residents, including activists who have observed first hand his longtime support for LGBT issues in the Maryland Legislature.
“I see this as a local versus national thing,” said Raskin supporter Dana Beyer, executive director of Gender Rights Maryland, a state transgender advocacy organization.
“Jamie was integral in passing the transgender rights bill and marriage equality in Maryland,” Beyer said. “So the Maryland people know him.” Beyer said the LGBT vote will likely go to Raskin.
“They are both very good supporters,” said Beyer. “They have both been great for the LGBT community. They will fight it out on other issues.”
Among the other LGBT advocates backing Raskin are Carrie Evans, former executive director of the statewide LGBT group Equality Maryland; State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County); Vic Basile, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign; Dan Furmansky, former executive director of Equality Maryland; and LGBT rights advocate Tony Varona, an American University law professor and colleague of Raskin.
Although most LGBT advocates agree both candidates are deeply committed on LGBT issues, some progressive activists and bloggers have attacked Matthews for a single contribution of $2,600 she made to the 2016 re-election campaign for U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Blunt is a longtime opponent of LGBT rights and vocal opponent of same-sex marriage rights. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has targeted Blunt for defeat in 2016 as part of the Democrats’ effort to regain control of the Senate.
A spokesperson for the Matthews campaign couldn’t immediately be reached. But Matthews spokesperson Ethan Susseles told the Huffington Post in May that Matthews’ contribution to Blunt was based on his support for bipartisan travel and tourism programs that coincided with Marriott’s business interests.
Susseles also pointed out in the Huffington Post story that Matthews also made campaign contributions to at least 16 Democratic candidates in recent years, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
Progressive activist Howie Klein, who publishes the blog Down with Tyranny, rejected that explanation, saying Matthews’ contribution to Blunt disqualifies her for the Maryland congressional seat.
“And since this donation is for the 2016 cycle, Matthews is essentially endorsing a Republican senator at the same time she’s running as a Democrat,” Klein wrote in a May 28 blog posting. “Does that mean she supports Blunt’s anti-choice agenda? Does that mean she supports his pro-gun agenda? Does that mean she supports his anti-gay marriage agenda?”
LGBT supporters of both Matthews and Raskin called Klein’s criticism unfair, saying Matthews’ LGBT record and her record on progressive issues are solid. Witeck said many people involved in the business world, including Democrats, often must make tough decisions over whether to support candidates who are good on some issues and bad on others.
When asked about Matthews’ contribution to Blunt and the support she is getting from some LGBT leaders, Raskin told the Blade he preferred to talk about his own record on progressive issues.
“Everybody has friends and people are entitled to support whomever they want,” he said. “I’m running very proudly on a record of pro-human rights advocacy in Annapolis. I led the floor fight for marriage equality. I led the floor fight for transgender civil rights. I’ve got a strong record of progressive, effective accomplishment to stand on in Annapolis.”
Raskin, Matthews and the four other Democrats are competing in Maryland’s April 26, 2016 Democratic primary. The 8th Congressional District includes most of Montgomery County and parts of Frederick and Carroll Counties.
Raskin and Matthews had each reported raising about $500,000 in the most recent campaign reporting period in early July.