By Adam Pagnucco.
This is a good day for Seventh State, MoCo political junkies, and anyone who loves a great fight. That’s because one of the all-time cage-shakers of MoCo politics from a decade ago has returned to run for office again.
Yes, it’s true. Saqib Ali is running for Delegate in District 15.
Saqib first showed up in MoCo politics in 2006 when he ran for Delegate in District 39. At that time, the three incumbent Delegates – all of whom were running for reelection – were Nancy King, Charlie Barkley and Joan Stern. Stern was a lackluster two-term Delegate who was best known for introducing legislation that would let customers bring dogs to restaurants. Her colleagues dumped her from their slate. Saqib got the Apple Ballot and beat her by more than 1,200 votes.
This was an early sign that Saqib Ali does not fear incumbents.
One year later, District 39 State Senator P.J. Hogan stepped down. Saqib, King and former Delegate Gene Counihan interviewed with the county’s Democratic Central Committee for an appointment to succeed him. Counihan was eliminated in the first round and Saqib lost to King in the second round by a 13-9 vote. Rumor had it that Senate President Mike Miller was making calls on King’s behalf. Saqib didn’t take his defeat well, drafting legislation that required central committees to take open votes on appointments. MoCo’s central committee voluntarily shifted to open votes rather than see Saqib’s bill pass.
For the next two years, Saqib and Nancy King co-existed uneasily. No matter what King did, Saqib went to her left and noisily announced it – especially when the two diverged on slots. In 2009, Saqib even published a four-part blog series analyzing how much more progressive he was than King on marriage equality, tax policy and alcohol.
But Saqib wasn’t just an attack dog – he mixed in repeated doses of social media comedy to delight his fans. Saqib was one of the earliest and most effective users of Facebook in MoCo politics. He often rewarded articles published about him – including ones that were not particularly nice – with lots of promotion and trackable eyeballs. I certainly noticed! I called him “Facebook’s favorite Delegate” and wrote, “If Ali changed his pajama color, it would go public.” No freshman politician in all of MoCo got more online attention than Saqib Ali.
In April 2010, Saqib pulled the trigger and did what everyone expected him to do: he announced he was running against Nancy King. What followed was one of the wildest primaries in MoCo political history. King was supported by the teachers, the Washington Post, the Gazette, SEIU, the AFL-CIO, the fire fighters, the police, NARAL, the realtors and virtually the entire Annapolis establishment. Saqib was supported by MCGEO, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and Casa in Action. Both candidates had tons of money. King had backup from Mike Miller’s team. Saqib’s campaign manager was Ben Shnider, who would go on to wage an improbable but almost successful challenge to Montgomery County Council Member Sidney Katz eight years later.
The dominant feature of the 2010 District 39 Senate race was the ruthless, bloody-fisted negative campaigning waged by both sides. This was one of the nastiest political wars of all time. Saqib depicted King as a tool of corporate bosses in the alcohol and gambling industries as well as political bosses in Annapolis (especially Miller). King depicted Saqib as a lazy fool who accomplished nothing and slept on the job at the statehouse. King even coined a nickname for her opponent – “Sleepy Saqib” – that was featured prominently in an attack website as well as her mail.
Here are a few of King’s attacks on Saqib.
And here are a few of Saqib’s attacks on King.
In the end, Nancy King prevailed with 51.7% of the vote, a 248-vote margin over Saqib. In the following redistricting, Saqib’s residence was moved into District 15 to prevent him from challenging King again. Saqib finished last in a five-person school board primary two years later and is now one of Maryland’s leading advocates for a boycott of Israel, something that is sure to come up in his race. As for King, she has never been seriously challenged since. (That’s a good thing for her because that one race was equal to five really tough ones!)
There is nothing particularly objectionable about District 15’s current legislators. Senator Brian Feldman is one of MoCo’s top go-to people in Annapolis. Delegate Kathleen Dumais has been a vice chair of two House committees and was once parliamentarian. Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo was a leader in the effort to ban fracking in 2017 and freshman Delegate Lily Qi is a prominent voice for economic development. Together, they’re a solid crew and have little in the way of obvious weakness.
But for better or worse, none of them are Saqib.
Having watched Saqib up close ten years ago, his playbook is easy to understand. He will blast the incumbents for any tough budget votes they have to cast next year. He will go to their left on every issue imaginable. He will be all over social media. He will have more than enough money to compete. And most of all, he will bring enormous energy to the campaign. Whatever else he is, Saqib is a hard worker who concedes nothing to incumbents. He may or may not win, but if he is the same Saqib he was in 2010, he will make the incumbents work harder than they ever have in a political race to survive.
And Seventh State will be watching.