A challenger for one of three District 18 delegate seats is questioning the commitment of incumbent Ana Sol Gutierrez because she took a trip to her native El Salvador during the 2014 legislative session.
Rick Kessler, one of seven District 18 Democratic candidates in this June’s primary, said Gutierrez’s absence from the General Assembly on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 to travel to El Salvador was “about commitment to the district and the office.”
“Running for office is a choice and taking the oath of office is a choice. She chose to do what she wanted to do rather than what she was elected to do,” Kessler said. “It’s only a 90-day session. She chose to leave some of those days rather than be here for us all of those days.”
Gutierrez traveled to El Salvador, where she was born, to vote in the country’s Feb. 2 presidential election. This was the first year U.S.-based Salvadorans were given the chance to vote from outside El Salvador, but there remained difficulties in registering from abroad.
“My only way to vote, which is the way I have always voted, is to go to El Salvador to cast my vote,” Gutierrez said then.
When reached for comment on Friday, Gutierrez said, “I’m not interested in this kind of story.”
“If you want to talk about issues, then we can, but not this kind of controversy. I don’t want to do that,” Gutierrez said.
Throughout the district, Gutierrez’s ties to her native country are no surprise. The English and Spanish speaking delegate was a Montgomery County Board of Education member from 1990-1998.
It’s the latest in what has been an at times contentious race for District 18′s three seats in the House of Delegates. All three incumbents — Gutierrez, Al Carr and Jeff Waldstreicher — are running. Kessler, Natali Fani-Gonzalez, Elizabeth Matory and Emily Shetty round out the field.
It appears Kessler and other competitors are targeting Gutierrez, the three-term incumbent who stated her intention to retire rather than run again in 2014 — at least according to challengers who said they got into the race with that open seat in mind.
Gutierrez told The Gazette earlier this month that she never said she wouldn’t run in 2014, saying her decision making on whether to retire is being used by challengers to hurt her campaign.
District 18 includes parts of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, North Bethesda and Silver Spring as well as Garrett Park, Kensington and Wheaton. It’s billed as the most diverse district in the state.
The incumbents plan to run as an official slate, complete with a Facebook page. On April 10, it posted that all four incumbents (including District 18 State Sen. Rich Madaleno) received the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.
NARAL’s endorsement process caused a brief controversy earlier this week, when Fani-Gonzalez claimed pressure from incumbents caused the organization to pull back its endorsement of her campaign.
NARAL said it committed an innocent clerical error. While the endorsement emails were meant for the three incumbent candidates, Fani-Gonzalez was supposed to get a 100% Pro-Choice rating, used for candidates who don’t get endorsements but who have Pro-Choice values.
Kessler, a Forest Glen resident and longtime political aide and activist, raised the most money in the field and had the second most cash on hand ($68,782) when campaign finance numbers were released in January.
In March, Waldstreicher said he was surprised that some of his opponents were touting their impressive fundraising hauls, an apparent shot at Kessler.
Waldstreicher boasted a district-leading cash-on-hand total of $113,873 when the January reports came out.
“The current team is very strong, but not because we’re incumbents,” Waldstreicher said. “We’re strong together because we represent the values of the district. All four of us are progressive Democrats fighting for economic justice, environmental projection and other important interests in our community.”
He’s called the incumbent team “Montgomery County’s most diverse delegation” for “Montgomery County’s most diverse legislative district.”
Carr is the only black delegate in the Montgomery County delegation and Madaleno was the first openly gay candidate elected to the state legislature.
As for Gutierrez’s El Salvador trip, there were 10 other delegates absent from a quorum call in the House on Jan. 30. There were 12 other delegates absent from a quorum call on Jan. 31. There were no votes held on either of the two days.
Still, Kessler said Gutierrez’s absences are troubling and he didn’t shy away from criticizing her publicly.