Ken Ulman tapped to lead Maryland Democrats, says party’s success is not guaranteed

Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/TNS
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Entering another potentially nail-biting election year — one in which national Democrats will be counting on Maryland to be part of President Joe Biden’s reliable base of support — the new chair of Maryland’s Democratic Party is offering a warning based on experience.

“Nothing is given,” said Ken Ulman, who was elected to the party’s top position Saturday, nearly a decade after Republican Larry Hogan’s upset win over him and Anthony Brown in the 2014 gubernatorial contest.

Ulman, who was the lieutenant governor nominee on that Democratic ticket, had previously won and served two terms as Howard County executive.

Now returning to party politics, he’s stepping into a statewide role at a time when his party is gearing up to back the incumbent president and support candidates in multiple rarely open congressional races.

Democrats have a more-than 2-1 voter registration advantage statewide and will be widely expected to win in each scenario next November. Biden won Maryland by 33 percentage points in 2020 and Democrats hold seven of the state’s eight U.S. House seats.

But as Ulman knows, surprises happen.

“When people say you’re a blue state, it’s easy to get complacent,” Ulman said in an interview. “We can’t get complacent. You’re complacent and then one day there’s an election that goes a different way.”

Ulman was elected by an overwhelming majority of 192 Democratic central committee members after a recommendation last month from Gov. Wes Moore, the party’s effective leader.

Since he left office in Howard County, the 49-year-old has been building up and running a consulting business focused on economic development projects. He said he didn’t have the party job on his radar at all until he got a call from Moore after former Chair Yvette Lewis said in September she would step down.

The two men have been friends for years; Ulman and Dawn Moore, before she married the future governor, worked together in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening when they were both recently out of college. When Moore won his election a year ago, he named Ulman one of his transition co-chairs.

He said he felt compelled to accept the governor’s recommendation after considering “this moment in our country’s history when democracy is on the ballot,” referring, in part, to the likely rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump.

He’s hoping, he said, to “play a small role in making sure that we are a country that has opportunities for everyone and follows the rule of law and respects the Constitution.”

Part of the draw for Democrats to hit the polls next year will be the ballot referendum on abortion, Ulman said.

Maryland lawmakers passed the initiative — which will ask voters whether abortion should be enshrined in the state constitution — earlier this year after the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Other states have offered similar ballot questions, leading to wide support from voters, even in conservative-leaning states. The question will be on November 2024 ballots in Maryland.

The other draws, Ulman said, will be the U.S. Senate race — spurred by longtime U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin’s decision to retire at the end of his term — and at least two open U.S. House seats in Maryland.

Competitive Democratic primaries are already underway in each of those races, though the party organization will not endorse anyone until after the primaries, Ulman said.

Still, Ulman acknowledged he had previously donated to and pledged support for Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in the Senate primary — a fact that did not go over well with Alsobrooks’ top opponent in the contest.

“While Ken Ulman has built a successful career on his cozy relationships with real estate developers and special interests, I question his ability to independently steer our party in support of working people — and I oppose Ulman’s selection as the next chair of the Maryland Democratic Party,” U.S. Rep. David Trone said in a statement earlier this month.

Trone, a Montgomery County Democrat, has spent millions of his own personal wealth on his campaign while Alsobrooks has racked up endorsements from most of the Democratic establishment, including Moore.

A statement from Trone’s campaign spokesman Monday did not explicitly target Ulman again but said the campaign “will continue to work with Democrats who believe our party should lead the way, rejecting that broken status quo and working to bring an end to the PAC and lobbyist contributions that are stopping progress in its tracks.”

Ulman said he will be “absolutely neutral” in the primary battle moving forward.

“Had I known this was even a possibility for me, I would have been neutral then,” Ulman said of his earlier endorsement.

He said he’s also told multiple personal friends who are running for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes that he will have to be neutral in that race as well.

Sarbanes, whose district covers Howard County and parts of Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, said last month he would not run for a 10th term. Trone’s place in the 6th Congressional District, which covers Western Maryland and part of Montgomery County, is the other district up for grabs.

Meanwhile, Ulman said he will keep his day job as president of Margrave Strategies, where his top client is the University of Maryland College Park Foundation.

Asked about potential conflicts of interest between his clients and his new role, Ulman said he would take any potential conflicts “incredibly seriously” but that the voluntary party chair position is also outside government and thus not directly involved in policymaking.

Ulman’s term as party chair will run through December 2026, after the general election in which Moore would be running for a second and final term. Charlene Dukes, a former president of Prince George’s Community College, was elected Saturday to serve in the same period as vice chair, also after Moore’s recommendation.

Ulman’s rise also means both major parties in Maryland will have new leadership for the next election cycle.

After Republicans came up short across the board a year ago, Nicole Beus Harris replaced Dirk Haire as chair of the Maryland Republican Party. Harris, a veteran conservative political and marketing consultant, is married to Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the only GOP congressman elected in Maryland.