Not only did Democrats sweep Frederick’s general election for the first time in at least 40 years — and possibly ever — Tuesday’s results also mark the first time two black candidates were simultaneously elected to the Board of Aldermen.
Along with Democratic Mayor-elect Michael O’Connor, Democrats Kelly Russell, Derek Shackelford, Roger Wilson, Donna Kuzemchak and Ben MacShane were elected to serve the city for the next four years.
“I am terribly excited about it,” O’Connor, a sitting alderman, said Friday of the opportunity to work with his newly elected board. “It’s not just a highly diverse group, but they are exceptionally gifted thinkers and doers and I’m just excited about what we can accomplish together.”
O’Connor noted that he is no stranger to working with a progressively diverse board, as he was the only man elected during his first term in 2009, a fact he called “cutting edge.” He said the election of two black candidates — Shackelford and Wilson — helps to bridge the gap between the residents and the officials who represent them.
“I think it’s important for our elected officials, boards and staff to look like the community we live in,” O’Connor said.
According to 2015 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, the city’s population was 65.4 percent white, 19.2 percent black and 6.2 percent Asian. The data also shows more females than males lived in the city, with the numbers shaking out to 52 percent female and 48 percent male.
A history-making election
Shackelford and Wilson are not the first black aldermen elected to the board, however, they are the only two to ever serve simultaneously.
Claude DeLauter made history in 1973 as the first black alderman elected in Frederick. In 1986, Bill Lee became the second, followed by Bill Hall in 1997. Each of the aldermen served two terms but none of them ever served together.
Shackelford earned the second-highest number of votes in Tuesday’s election, trailing only Russell, who earned 442 more votes to retain her role as president pro tem, and her third consecutive term. Wilson came in third place, just 20 behind Shackelford.
On Friday, Wilson called the win “historic” and commended the voters for coming out and making it happen.
“I feel very good. I think it’s a step forward for Frederick County,” he said. “And I feel very, very fortunate to be a part of that inaugural team. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Wilson works as Frederick County’s director of government affairs and public policy and said he looks forward to adding the role of alderman to his résumé.
“I feel very good that the city voters have trusted me with this opportunity and I’m going to work very hard to solve problems, the small problems and the big ones,” he said.
Shackelford, a basketball coach, pastor and former member of the Democratic Central Committee, said he believes the diversity on the board is positive not only because of how they look but also because of their different views, experiences and backgrounds.
“I think there’s great representation in terms of, also our own various experiences and views making up the board and making for a great exchange of ideas in a way in which we can be more in tune with our constituents. That’s very important,” he said.
Kuzemchak, who will begin her second consecutive term in December and fifth term overall, received the fourth-highest number of votes, according to the results. She commended the voters for not only electing Wilson and Shackelford, but also re-electing two women — Russell and herself.
“The elected body should represent the physical body of the city,” she said. “When we talk about equality, women don’t have it. We can say it as much as we want, but women do not have equality, and until we have people of color and women helping govern, we are not going to move that particular ball forward. ... Now we have a mixture on the board and I think the mix — the whole mix — is what’s important.”
The candidates also weighed in on the fact that the entire board is Democratic; the majority of the newly elected officials, however, have said they would be in favor of at least talking about city elections becoming nonpartisan.
Some officials, namely current Mayor Randy McClement, have said repeatedly that local issues, such as picking up trash and dealing with blighted buildings, do not fall along party lines, and thus electing partisan leader does not really make a difference.
the other side
Frederick County Republican Central Committee Chairman Darren Wigfield agreed that local issues do not typically fall under the umbrella of party politics, a fact that he believes helped McClement win in both 2009 and 2013.
In turn, he said McClement would have had a much better chance of winning Tuesday’s election — despite the current national political divide — if the race were nonpartisan.
“Randy always won because he was just a genuine, very likable person and Democrats voted for him because of who he was,” Wigfield said. “So to me, with the mainstream media constantly bashing Republicans now, it’s hard for Democrats to vote for Republicans even though he’s done a good job as mayor.”
He added that he expects one partisan change could come to the city now that all Democrats are in office, though.
“If there’s going to be a partisan change, it would be in the fact that Randy didn’t raise taxes for eight years. I’m not optimistic for the city that is going to happen in the next term,” he said.
Despite that, Wigfield also said he is not concerned about the Republicans losing their seat at the table now that McClement is no longer in office and no Republicans sit on the board.
For the past several terms, the board was mostly represented by Democrats. Currently, McClement and Alderman Phil Dacey are the only Republicans in elected office in Frederick. It was the same makeup in 2009, with McClement as mayor and one GOP board member.
In 2005, one Republican sat on the board with a Republican mayor, and in 2001, two Republicans served on the board with a Democratic mayor.
O’Connor said he focused on three key areas in his campaign: community engagement and how to use technology, economic vibrancy and expanding opportunities, and sustainability. He plans to focus on those same areas as he transitions into his new leadership role.
“I am working now to structure the transition effort,” he said.
As far as specifics, the mayor-elect said he has a few things he wants to tackle with the aldermen at the beginning of his term. He stayed mum on the details, however.
“I feel confident we are going to be able to accomplish some things that are in those broad areas we heard during the campaign,” he said. “But it’s too early to have those kinds of conversations. I want to get in there, get the lay of the land.”
One of O’Connor’s first orders of business is spending time with staff members and changing his relationship with them, as he will be moving from working with them as an alderman to becoming their boss. He said he does not anticipate making any major staff changes at this time.
“I feel the first thing for me to do as my relationship with senior staff changes over the next couple of weeks is sit down with them and be clear about my expectations and how our relationship will work,” he said. “I’ve worked with these people for eight years and I believe we have an opportunity to challenge them and present new opportunities for them and a new direction.”
O’Connor also said he plans to keep the meeting and workshop schedules the same and likes the idea of McClement’s Talk to the Mayor Tuesdays, where members of the public were invited to come to City Hall during specified afternoon hours and talk to the mayor about anything they wish. O’Connor said he wants to change it up a bit, though, by taking it outside City Hall and switching the hours to a time more convenient for people who have daytime jobs. He also said he wants to look into adding regular press briefings to help keep the community informed about what’s going on in city government.
The next few weeks for O’Connor will consist of working with the outgoing mayor and smoothly transitioning into his new role. He also has to quit his current job as business manager at St. Katharine Drexel Roman Catholic Congregation when he officially becomes mayor, as city law does not allow the mayor to hold outside employment.
“I’m not just working on one transition, I’m working on two,” he said. “Like jumping between two parallel locomotives.”
Once all of that is set, it will be time to start tackling the fiscal 2019 budget. O’Connor said transitioning from weighing in and voting on the budget as an alderman, to leading the charge of putting together the numbers as mayor, will be different but he is confident he is up to the challenge.
“We will try to pull together a budget for the city that is reflective of values and shared goals and reflective of the community in the key areas of communication and technology and economic vibrancy and sustainability priorities,” he said. “The Board of Aldermen and I will do everything we can to align the budget to the message of the campaign and what we’re starting to do.”
O’Connor added that he is fortunate to take over during a time when the city is doing well financially.
“We are fortunate that there’s no crisis that has to be contended with, we are not facing the budget constraints we did in 2009,” he said.