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Local Politics - DC-Maryland-Virginia

Maryland State Sen. Sarah Elfreth Wins Crowded Democratic Congressional Primary, Defeating Asian American Candidates

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Posted May 15, 2024 at 8:00 AM EDT
Maryland State Senator Sarah Elfreth stood out from the pack of 22 Democratic candidates vying for Maryland's 3rd Congressional District. She clinched the victory over her fellow State Senate colleague Clarence Lam and State Assembly contender Mark Chang, both Asian American Democrats and frontrunners in the race.

CLARKSVILLE, Md. - Amidst a sea of political campaign yard signs lining the polling places in Maryland's third congressional district, there were only a few of Sarah Elfreth's signs that didn't exactly jump out for attention. That didn't stop her from clinching victory in one of the nation's most crowded primary races.

Maryland State Senator Sarah Elfreth stood out from the pack of 22 Democratic candidates vying for Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, defeating fundraising frontrunner and her fellow State Senator colleague Clarence Lam, as well as State Assembly contender Mark Chang, both Asian American Democrats and frontrunners in the race.

The competition for Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District was jam-jacked due to an opening. The incumbent, Rep. John Sarbanes(D-MD), will retire after 18 years in Congress. 31 candidates threw their hats into the ring for this open seat, with 22 Democrats and nine Republicans vying for the position.

Among the nearly two dozen of Democratic candidates, five are state legislators, including Elfreth. However, none have managed to rake in as much campaign money as Harry Dunn, a former Capitol Police Officer, with over $4.5 million from donors across the country.


Yuan Media's student reporter, John Gao, is interviewing Harry Dunn, a Congressional Candidate and former Capitol Police Officer, running for Congress in Maryland third Congressional District.(Photo: Pingping Yin)

"A lot of them are career politicians, but I'm a career public servant," said Dunn, talking about his candidacy to Yuan Media.

Dunn drew public attention for his emotional congressional testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the House select committee hearings in 2022. He announced his congressional candidacy for the district just one day before the three-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Clarence Lam, a Maryland State Senator like Elfreth, was one of the frontrunners in the race, coming in third in the primary election. Lam is a second-generation Chinese American. His parents immigrated from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

While popular within the district’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, Lam preferred to highlight his career as a physician during campaign rallies, intending to leverage his expertise as a public health specialist in Congress.

“As someone who often represents underrepresented populations, folks that are in the medical field, folks that are Asian Americans. It’s important for us to step up in that role,” Lam said at a fundraising event in Howard County, Maryland, in early February.

Lam expressed his optimism about the race during an exclusive interview with Yuan Media in January, noting his familiarity with competitive primary elections. He was elected to the State Assembly in 2014 and then to the State Senate in 2019, facing nearly a dozen contenders in both races.

Lam's wife, Catherine, and their two-year-old daughter frequently joined him during his campaign rallies. In their presence, Lam underscored his commitment to family values and his dedication to safeguarding the interests of women and children, drawing on his medical expertise.

Yuan Media's student Reporter is interviewing Catherine Lam, wife of Clarence Lam, Congressional Candidate and Maryland State Senator running for Congress in Maryland third Congressional District.(Photo: Pingping Yin)

On election day, Catherine Lam stood steadfast in the rain outside Clarksville Middle School, a polling place in Lam’s district. She waved her husband’s political campaign signs to voters, making a last-minute push to support Lam's bid for Congress. Despite their anticipation of victory, she expressed readiness to throw their support behind the next federal legislator elected to represent the district if they were to lose.

“I think a lot of it is also just shaping the discussion, the conversation, recognizing what is important, and having that voice,” said Catherine Lam.

Mark Chang, a fellow Maryland State legislator and second-generation Korean American vying for the seat, placed fifth in the primary. Chang boasts a decade-long tenure in the State Assembly. Currently, he holds the positions of vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis and chair of the Capital Budget subcommittee.

“I oversee the $63 billion operating budget and the $10 billion capital budget and because of that, I’ve been able to work with all the counties and all the communities within the third congressional district,” said Chang, hoping to bring his experience in State budget management from Maryland to Washington, DC.


Two AAPI congressional candidates, Maryland State Legislators Mark Chang (front) and Clarence Lam, are introducing themselves at a congressional candidate forum hosted by the Chinese American Parent Association of Howard County two weeks before Maryland's primary election. (Photo: Pingping Yin)

In addition to his political experience in the State Assembly, ​​Chang’s humble beginnings were a cornerstone of his campaign narrative.

Chang’s parents immigrated from South Korea in 1975 with only $100 in their pockets. Chang lost his mother at a young age. His father, the family’s only breadwinner, worked 16 hours a day running a small carry-out to put food on the table. Despite his father's efforts, the family faced financial hardship throughout Chang's childhood. He often went to school without lunch money and returned home to a cold house.

“I wanted to be able to get back and serve people that now, in 2024, if there’s a ‘Mark Chang’ out there whom I can help who’s in a similar situation,” said Chang.

Being one of the few Asian State legislators in Maryland, he was seen as a role model for representing the AAPI community by State Delegate Chao Wu, a junior State Delegate and a first-generation Chinese American immigrant who affectionately referred to Chang as his "big brother."

During an exclusive interview with Yuan Media two weeks before the primary election, Chang said that if elected to Congress, “I will do my part to cultivate and help the next generation of AAPI leaders who are coming up…because it’s not about Mark Chang, it’s about we, as a community. And we’re stronger if we have more representation.”

Mark Chang was never a front-runner, neither in polling nor fundraising. However, during the interview, he emphasized that whether or not elected to represent the district in the Capitol, he would remain committed to serving the community, especially the AAPI communities, in the state of Maryland with the same passion as always.

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