The Kid Prepares for Her Close-up
By Josh Kurtz
If you’ve been around Maryland Democratic politics for the last several years – especially Young Democratic circles and women’s groups – you know Sarah Elfreth.
If you’ve worked the State House during a recent legislative session, you’ve probably seen Elfreth there.
If you’re a civic or political activist in and around Annapolis, you know Sarah Elfreth. Even if you don’t follow politics too closely, Elfreth may have appeared on your doorstep, campaigning for House Speaker Mike Busch (D) or for state Sen. John Astle (D) or for Anne Arundel County Councilman Chris Trumbauer (D) – or for politicians she admires who live farther away from her downtown Annapolis home.
Now Elfreth, 28, is about to take the next step in her political journey: On Thursday, she’s filing paperwork to become a candidate for Astle’s District 30 Senate seat. A formal event to launch her candidacy will take place in mid-July.
Elfreth’s pitch: That she’s “passionate and accessible, someone who is going to listen and work hard” to advance the interests of District 30 in the State House at a time when Astle is leaving to run for mayor of Annapolis.
The race to replace Astle could become one of the most contentious in the state in 2018. Republicans believe they have a strong chance of flipping the district – which Astle, a known commodity, barely held on to in 2014 against a political nonentity. This time, the GOP has former state Del. Ron George – who owns a venerable jewelry store on Main Street in Annapolis – running for the Senate seat, and Del. Herb McMillan is still pondering the race.
But Democratic leaders, including Busch, Astle and Senate President Mike Miller (D) are rallying around the political novice, betting that Elfreth’s youth and energy will appeal to voters in a time of great political upheaval.
“She has been very active in the community and has what it takes to work on behalf of all of our communities,” said Busch, who has represented the capital city since 1987.
At first glance, Elfreth is a typical striver seizing on a vacancy and a potentially ripe political opportunity. Her resume is almost too good to be true – a series of golden building blocks for a well-scripted political career.
But it was all in the name of education. Elfreth in fact had an apolitical upbringing and only recently began imagining a life on the political front lines.
She grew up in Barrington, N.J., outside of Philadelphia. Her mom was a parole officer and her stepfather was an engineer for SEPTA, the commuter railroad. Both took advantages of the wages, benefits and protections that their union jobs provided – something that made an impression on young Elfreth.
But Elfreth herself did not become politicized until she attended Towson University. She became involved with student government and found herself traveling to Annapolis to lobby the legislature on funding, student voting rights and other issues.
When Elfreth was a rising senior, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) appointed her to be the student member of the University System Board of Regents. In an instant, a college kid found herself on equal footing with such well-known board members as Tom McMillen, the former congressman and basketball star; Patricia Florestano, the former state secretary of Higher Education; and Gary Attman, a politically plugged-in lawyer.
“You grew up quite quickly,” Elfreth recalled. “Couldn’t ask for a better senior year of college.”
Elfreth said she took away two things from her year as a regent: The dedication of board members who were highly successful in their professional lives but still wanted to give back to their communities, and the fact that the various constituency groups she met as she traveled the state, particularly in more faraway places, were grateful that someone was listening to them.
“It was seeing how much people value being heard,” she said.
By that point, Elfreth figured she’d have a career in public service. But she didn’t really think about electoral politics until a few years later, when she heard a speech by former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D), the first and only woman chief executive in the state’s history. Elfreth called it “a watershed moment.”
“If you’re passionate and capable, it’s your obligation as a woman to run for office,” she recalled Kunin saying. “And that really resonated with me.”
From that point, Elfreth put herself on a trajectory to one day be a candidate. She got a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University – and worked in the Hopkins government affairs office at the same time.
Elfreth had a stint at House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s office in the Capitol. She then spent more than four years as the government affairs director at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Later she worked for Margrave Strategies, the group headed by former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) that is working on the redevelopment of College Park and Towson.
Elfreth moved to downtown Annapolis several years ago, even though she was working in Baltimore. “I simply got happier when I was in Annapolis,” she explained. “Something about the place really charmed me.”
So she became immersed in her community. She joined the Ward 1 Residents Association, and served on the board. She spent two years as president of the District 30 Democratic Club. She helped Trumbauer, Busch and Astle win re-election in 2014.
“I’ve learned a lot about what the district cares about,” Elfreth said.
But she has also stumped with other lawmakers she admires, like Dels. Brooke Lierman in Baltimore city, Steve Lafferty in Towson and Ariana Kelly in Bethesda, to observe and absorb their campaign styles. She went through the training for women candidates sponsored by the group Emerge Maryland. Now she is helping her boyfriend, Marc Rodriguez, as he campaigns for a seat this fall on the Annapolis City Council.
So is Elfreth ready for the rough and tumble of the campaign – as the principal for the first time?
“I feel I have done my homework,” she said. “I know this community. I know what’s important to the people of D30. I know it won’t be easy, but I feel confident in my ability to focus on the work.”
Elfreth will take baby steps next week, marching with supporters in three Fourth of July parades – in Shady Side, Galesville and Annapolis. Then she’ll start door-knocking. A formal announcement, originally scheduled for this week, was put off until mid-July, so Busch, who is recovering from a liver transplant, can be there.
She has developed a platform likely to appeal to District 30 voters, focused on school funding, protections for the Chesapeake Bay, and greater opportunities for small business. She also senses that voters are more engaged than they’ve ever been – and that they’ll respond favorably to her pledge to hold monthly town halls.
The 30th district has traditionally been divided, between Annapolis, which trends liberal, and south county communities, which are more Republican. GOP strategists are excited about the pick-up opportunity.
Asked whether he worries about a potential anti-Trump surge in Annapolis benefiting Democrats in District 30, one Republican operative replied, “But they really like [Gov.] Larry Hogan (R) in south county. And come on, the Democrats are running a 29-year-old. Against Ron George.”
But Democrats don’t think that argument is going to work.
“Sarah is eminently qualified to be the next senator from District 30,” Busch said. “Sarah understands the issues and knows what it takes to move this community and the state forward: quality education, quality health care, a clean environment and access to jobs.”
Elfreth said she senses that the political dynamic in the district is changing. Hogan remains popular, but south county, she argued, has changed, even since the 2014 election. Young Democratic and Independent families have moved in, seeking affordable housing, access to the Bay, and affordable child care.
“I don’t think I’m going to speak any differently to a Republican than I am to a Democrat,” she said. “I want to make people feel they have a voice – which is more powerful than party label.”
Elfreth knows the political odds – but believes she’ll provide a good contrast to her eventual Republican opponent.
“The Republicans have targeted this district,” she said. “Herb McMillan and Ron George both have $75,000 in the bank [actually, it’s $67,000 for McMillan and $89,000 for George]. Beating them is going to require someone who has a lot of time and energy and can knock on a ton of doors. I have the ability to do that at this point in my life.”
[DISCLOSURE: Sarah Elfreth co-hosted a low-dollar fundraiser for Maryland Matters in Annapolis earlier this year.]