Frederick County Democratic committee narrowly picks incumbent in disputed race

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In what has been an extended and tumultuous primary season, Frederick County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) is headed to a re-election fight in the November general election.

Keegan-Ayer was appointed Thursday evening by the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee to the ballot vacancy in the District 3 council race after her primary opponent, Jazmin Di Cola, was disqualified by a county judge last week.

The emotionally charged vote was 6-5, with five members supporting Tarolyn Thrasher, the candidate backed by Di Cola after the judge’s finding.

Di Cola wrote on Facebook that she’d chosen not to appeal the judge’s decision.

The central committee faced a Friday deadline to name a nominee to the ballot vacancy; paperwork to forward Keegan-Ayer’s name to elections officials was signed Thursday night. The Republican nominee in the District 3 race is Shelley Aloi, a former Frederick alderman and 2014 lieutenant governor candidate. She was uncontested in the Republican primary

After a re-tabulation of votes and recount in the District 3 Democratic contest earlier this month, Keegan-Ayer lost to Di Cola by a single vote: 2,297 to 2,298. Simultaneous with the recount, Keegan-Ayer filed a lawsuit in Frederick County Circuit Court challenging whether Di Cola met the residency requirement for the council seat. After a one-day hearing, Di Cola was disqualified from running.

In written comments, dozens of interested community members beseeched the central committee to fill the vacancy in a way that would not disenfranchise voters, a tough assignment given the unprecedented circumstances.

“No matter what happens here tonight, there is going to be approximately half of voters who actually showed up and cast a vote in County Council District 3 who will feel disenfranchised and disappointed,” central committee member Thomas Jackson said.

Stoking division within the county party was a quote from Keegan-Ayer after the court ruling.

“I think there is a desire for the immigrant community, and the Hispanic community in particular, to have a voice in our government,” she told The Frederick News-Post last week. “But they have to be honest, and they have to be truthful about who they are.”

On Facebook and in a subsequent article, Keegan-Ayer apologized for her wording and issued a statement that her comment was not meant to refer to the city’s Hispanic and immigrant communities, which make up a significant portion of the council district, but specifically to candidates and elected officials.

That explanation was not enough for some members of the central committee, including Jackson.

He said he could not in good conscience vote for Keegan-Ayer to fill the vacancy based on her recent and some past statements.

Other members of the committee, however, felt that supporting Keegan-Ayer was the right course of action, considering her two prior terms on the county council and the closeness of the primary race.

“She put her name on the ballot and campaigned for the position and almost won — or maybe tied,” committee member Tom Slater said.

Still an issue of concern is whether Di Cola could face legal action for having cast the winning ballot in the race despite a judge later finding that she did not reside in the district. Multiple members of the central committee noted that state law would have required the committee to choose a non-disqualified candidate if the race had ended in a tie.

Mari Lee, the committee’s vice chair, wept during comments before the vote and expressed admiration for Thrasher. Lee said she was torn on how to vote, given that a future court decision could determine that the race ended in a tie if Di Cola’s ballot were thrown out. At the moment, there is no litigation over the issue.

Lee ultimately backed Keegan-Ayer for the nomination, though she said the council president’s comments were, “at best, insensitive and divisive.”

Violet Williams, who had been secretary of the committee, resigned shortly after the committee’s 6-5 vote.

“Today we chose wrong. Today we chose a divisive, biased woman who lost her primary,” Williams said, reading from a sheet of paper while others who attended the meeting were reacting to the just-concluded vote. Associate member Robert Van Rens also resigned.

Outside the office, Williams and Thrasher embraced. Some supporters of Di Cola and Thrasher cried at the outcome.

Thrasher, who had placed fifth in the primary race to represent Legislative District 3 in the House of Delegates, said she was not particularly surprised by the outcome and noted that Frederick County has not elected a person of color to a countywide position in the past.

“Frederick has a long way to go,” Thrasher said, referring to representation in elective office of the city’s immigrant and minority neighborhoods.

Lee and others suggested that Keegan-Ayer will have to work hard to unify members of the party.

Keegan-Ayer said in a phone interview after the vote that she intends to meet with people throughout the community.

“I am pleased with the vote, but it is clear that there is a need for healing in the community and I am making a commitment to continue to reach out to the stakeholder groups to address their concerns and to ensure that everyone feels their voices are heard and that they have a seat at the table,” she said. “The healing process begins now.”

Members of the central committee indicated they plan to seek meetings with Keegan-Ayer as well.

The central committee was already planning a unity party for county Democrats this coming Sunday, an event Williams had a part in organizing.

After a break following the vote on the vacancy, members returned to the meeting to continue planning the event.

“It needs to happen,” one of the central committee members said.

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