Candidates Focus on Experience, Priorities During District 20 Forum

Darian Unger (standing) responds to a question during the District 20 delegate candidate forum Thursday night. Other candidates are (left to right) Yvette Butler, Lorig Charkoudian, Amy Sabo Cress, Daniel Koroma and Jheanelle Wilkins. Photo by Mike Diegel.

With little to differentiate each other in terms of policy, candidates for state delegate focused on their priorities, background and experience to try to stand out before a standing-room-only crowd attending a forum Thursday night at the Silver Spring Civic Building.

Yvette Butler, Lorig Charkoudian, Amy Sabo Cress, Daniel Koroma, Darian Unger and Jheanelle Wilkins are vying for the appointment to fill the vacancy left in District 20 when then-Del. Will Smith was appointed to fill the state Senate seat vacated by now-U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin.

Candidates had 2 minutes to make an opening statement about themselves, their experience and qualifications for office. The balance of the forum was devoted to answering questions from the sponsoring organizations and the audience.

The candidates were first asked what their legislative priorities would be should they be named as delegate. Several of the participants pointed out issues they already had been working on and would like to continue to do so.

For example, Charkoudian, executive director of Community Mediation Maryland, has been working on criminal justice reform, and said, “We’ve made incredible progress over the last couple of years on that issue, but one huge issue that still missing in the criminal justice reform area is mental health reform.”

She’d like to get bill passed that would allow those who need mental health assistance to receive it instead of jail time.

She said she’s also interested in healthy food access, particularly for low-income individuals, and supporting small farmers, along with school discipline reform.

Cress, an activist for several causes, primarily prevention of gun violence, pointed out “individuals who are convicted of domestic violence are not legally allowed to possess firearms, but there’s no process in place to make sure they surrender those firearms.”

She’d also like to see an increase in subsidies for child care.

“We are underfunding families who need child care subsidies. If parents can’t work or they can’t go to school, they can’t improve lives for their families,” Cress said.

In addition, she would focus on bail bond reform.

Koroma, who is community outreach manager and liaison to African and Caribbean communities with the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships, said his number one priority is education, including special needs students, and listed transportation needs, including the Purple Line, as another priority.

Unger, an environmental engineer and professor at Howard University, would continue his work to stop fracking in Maryland, “but that’s just the first step in significantly increasing renewable energy in Maryland and making Maryland a model for environmental sustainability.”

Another priority for Unger would be police accountability.

“It’s an incredibly important part of criminal justice reform and it’s vital to have trust in our police and a fairer society,” he said.

For Wilkins, a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee and senior field manager with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, her top priority would be to make Maryland a sanctuary state for immigrants. Second would be transportation projects, including the Purple Line and ensuring reliable Metro service. She, too, would focus on banning fracking.

Butler’s first concern was ensuring adequate funding for education. She also expressed her concerns over health care in light of the current threat to the Affordable Care Act. She, too, is interested in criminal justice reform.

The audience questions were asked in groups of three and the candidates had 1 minute each to address them. The complex nature of most of the topics meant the candidates struggled to respond to each question within the time limit.

Candidates were asked about various issues, including how to respond to the expected federal attacks on access to health care, how to protect undocumented immigrants, death with dignity legislation, legalization of marijuana, gun control/safety issues, dealing with food deserts and food insecurity in District 20 and more.

The MCDCC will meet Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Silver Spring International Middle School cafeteria, 313 Wayne Ave., to select a nominee. The nomination will be submitted to Gov. Larry Hogan, who will make the formal appointment.

Additional information about the candidates, including endorsements, is available on the MCDCC site, though Butler’s application had not been posted as of this writing.

The African American Democratic Club of Montgomery County, the African Immigrant Caucus, the Greater Silver Spring Democratic Club, the Latino Democratic Club, MCDCC, the Muslim Democratic Club of Montgomery County, Montgomery County Young Democrats and Progressive Neighbors sponsored Thursday’s forum.

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