Behind Closed Doors: Sarah Elfreth’s Machiavellian Moves & Power

In the wake of Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s death on April 7, 2019, State Senator Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat, emerged as a pivotal figure in the appointment process for Busch’s successor.

Speaker Busch passed away at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore just as the Maryland General Assembly concluded its annual 90-day legislative session.

His passing created a leadership void in the Maryland House of Delegates, specifically for the pivotal role of Speaker.

Now, in a significant shift in her political career, Senator Elfreth is vying for a seat in Congress, representing Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District.

This is a photograph of the late House Speaker Michael Busch.

Sarah Elfreth’s Role in Selecting Busch’s Replacement 

Elected to the Maryland State Senate in November 2018, Senator Elfreth quickly found herself at the center of the delegate selection process.

Her influence became apparent as she navigated the intricate political dynamics following Busch’s death, consolidating her position within the state’s political hierarchy.

This is a photograph of Sarah Elfreth, the late Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley.

And it was less than four months into Elfreht’s first term that she solidified herself as a behind-the-scenes Annapolis power broker who should not be crossed.

It was Sarah Elfreht’s proverbial ring that would be kissed.

The Delegate Selection Mechanism 

The responsibility of filling the vacant District 30 House seat fell to the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee.

This constitutional process required the committee to propose a candidate to then-Governor Larry Hogan.

Shortly after Mr. Busch died, the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee began accepting applications to fill the District 30 House seat.

The Committee chose Annapolis Alderwoman Shaneka T. Henson, who was later appointed to the House of Delegates by Hogan.

The application period they spanned 14 days, culminating in a meeting of the central committee at Village Commons Community Center in Gambrills on April 25, 2019.

Notably, this location was outside the boundaries of District 30 at the time.

Alice Cain’s Perspectives

Alice Cain, who resigned from her House seat in March 2020, provided insights throughout the 2019 selection process.

She highlighted the breadth of interest in the vacancy, noting that numerous candidates had contacted her.

However, she remained discreet about the identities of these individuals.

“14 people are vying for the seat so far,” she said, and “a number of them [applicants] have reached out to her about the vacancy.

“I am saying yes to everyone who asks to meet and was in the office today for several such meetings,” Cain said.

Sarah Elfreth and Alice Cain’s Delegate Criteria

Elfreth and Cain outlined their expectations for the new delegate in an April 2019 op-ed published in the Capital Gazette.

The state lawmakers noted that candidates seeking appointment must have integrity, teamwork, work ethic, and respectful discourse – qualities reflecting Speaker Busch’s legacy.

Below is an excerpt from their Capital Gazette op-ed:

“First and foremost, a person of integrity who sees public service as an honorable way to serve their community.

Second, someone who understands that, as the speaker often said, “serving in the legislature is the ultimate team sport.

Third, someone who has demonstrated work ethic as a candidate themselves or a serious campaign volunteer. It is one thing to want to be appointed to an office — something else altogether to put your life on hold for a year or more and to work every single day to earn your seat.

Fourth, someone who knows how to listen and how to disagree without being disagreeable. Some of the most touching tributes to the speaker have come from people he frequently disagreed with – but he earned their respect by always treating them with respect.”

This is a photograph of State Senator Sarah Elfreth.

Behind-the-Scenes Influence and Controversy 

Sources familiar with the delegate vacancy selection process told A Miner Detail that Sarah Elfreth and Alice Cain pushed their central committee to choose Shaneka Henson,

Henson, an attorney, was first elected to the Annapolis City Council in November 2017 in Ward 6. She defeated Democratic challenger DaJuan Gay in a September 2017 primary.

Elfreth praised Henson when asked whether she was privately pushing Henson to fill Busch’s house seat.

“I think Shaneka would make a wonderful delegate and certainly shares many of the Speaker’s values and work ethic.

I haven’t been shy about telling people that when asked, but I’m also not telling the central committee how to vote.”

Shaneka Henson did not run for state delegate in 2018.

Alice Cain and Speaker Busch defeated Aron Axe and Mary Reese in a June 2018 Democratic primary.

Elfreth Demanded State Delegate Brian Crosby Stay Out of the Delegate Vacancy Selection Process 

Sarah Elfreth was reportedly furious when she learned that state Delegate Brian Crosby, a St. Mary’s County Democrat representing District 29, contacted some Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee members to support Aron Axe.

Elfreth reportedly called Crosby and told him to “stay out of her district” and refrain from what she considered outside interference in the District 30 delegate selection process.

To date, Crosby has not publicly commented on his phone call with Elfreth nor disputed the veracity of our reporting.

This is a photograph of Sarah Elfreth, a Maryland state senator.

Elfreth Doubled Down on Henson When Questioned 

When questioned about her phone call to Crosby, Elfreth doubled down on her support for Henson.

“Alice and I really like Shaneka and think she would be a great addition to the team and a great asset to the community,” Elfreth said.

Cain echoed Elfreth’s comments about Henson.

“I think Shaneka – who meets three out of three of the top qualities I’m hoping for in my seatmate – would be great, and I told her that. I have a lot of respect for what I’ve seen from her in City Council meetings and around the community.”

This is a photograph of Maryland state Delegate Shaneka Henson.

Cain told A Miner Detail that her “thinking on all of this was influenced by the Speaker, who did not endorse in the Democratic primary” but did encourage her to run for office.

“He [Busch] may have encouraged other candidates to run, too, so it feels like following his tradition by encouraging people, including Shaneka, to run without actually endorsing anyone. But this is uncharted territory, so I suppose I could change my mind,” she said.

Elfreth Axed Former Marine Corps Officer From Delegate Vacancy Selection Process 

Aron Axe is a United States Naval Academy graduate, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, and a Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate.

He taught political science courses at the Naval Academy from 2010 to 2012 and taught a graduate-level course at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

This is a photograph of Aron Axe, who ran for state delegate in District 30 in 2018.

In 2018, Axe placed third in the Democratic primary behind Speaker Busch and Alice Cain, earning 19% of the vote, 2,773 votes, respectively.

Despite Axe’s academic and military credentials and a respectable showing in the 2018 Democratic primary, Elfreth, especially, did not consider him a viable candidate for Busch’s seat.

Next Up: Sarah Elfreth Seeks Congressional Seat 

Nine-term Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes announced on Oct. 26, 2023, that he would not seek re-election to the United States House of Representatives in 2024.

One week after Sarbanes declared his intentions not to run for re-election this cycle, Sarah Elfreth announced her congressional bid.

Maryland’s primary is set for May 14.

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