Sarah Elfreth: A Rising Star in Maryland Politics

Sarah Elfreth has political and advocacy skills beyond her years. Photo: Peter Cane Photography for the Arundel Patriot

You know how writers are supposed to keep their descriptions “brief”? Well, I can describe Sarah Elfreth in just two words: political virtuoso.

Over the past year, I have been in many activist and political meetings where Sarah was present, not knowing exactly who she was, but wondering why people – especially elected officials – treated her with such deference. After my first real conversation with her, I understand why.

I was interested in creating County-level legislation and was advised to ask her for help.  Within minutes, Sarah understood what I was trying to accomplish, gave me a quick run-through of things I should think about, then advised me to “give me a good concept paper as soon as possible.”  A few days later we met for about an hour and mapped out a comprehensive strategy to build a coalition of local stakeholders to get the bill enacted.

Like the young violinist who can play a symphony, Sarah was totally fluent in a proven strategy and likely reactions of key players, most of whom she knew very well.  Considering her more than 10 years of experience in advocacy it should not be surprising, but it was frankly amazing to me how deeply she seemed to understand, and be connected to the political process in Maryland, from city to county to state.

In college Sarah advocated for student rights, and as a senior was so well thought of that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) appointed her Student Regent for the University of Maryland System.

While she focused mostly on building coalitions and advocating for the system’s 150,000 students, Sarah was never afraid to get into the rough-and-tumble aspects of politics. She fought twice with then State Senator Andy Harris. When she testified as a freshman in support of expanding voting rights for college students, Harris told her she was “breaking the law” by daring to ask that college students be able to register to vote at their college campus. Two years later in a radio debate on freedom of speech issues which got national attention, Harris accused her of “not knowing anything because she is just a college student and her parents probably pay for it.” In fact, her tuition scholarship came from her parole officer mother’s union, not from a wealthy parent.

Some of Sarah’s strongest activist accomplishments were behind the scenes. These ranged from persuading a state legislator to switch positions on marriage equality to persuading the former Annapolis mayor to include a woman on the search committee for the next police chief. These are not things for which she gets media coverage, but they are significant contributions to a smoothly functioning democracy.

As government affairs director for the National Aquarium, Sarah used her advocacy skills to obtain some $10 million, part of which was used to ensure over 70,000 Maryland school children free access to the Aquarium every year. She speaks passionately about her efforts on behalf of the environment, from protecting sharks from the inhumane practice of finning to eliminating toxic microbeads from our food supply. She was instrumental in passing legislation for both the issues.

Sarah championed the “floating wetland” project which will connect National Aquarium visitors to the rich wildlife right there at Baltimore Harbor.

The Shark Fin Law, aiming to curb the killing of approximately 100 million sharks every year, was sponsored by now Attorney General and former Senator Brian Frosh and Delegate Eric Luedtke and passed by the Maryland General Assembly with bipartisan support.

Being a skilled fundraiser is an absolute requirement to run for office. In 2015 Sarah was able to create and help fund a scholarship endowment at Towson University “for the expressed purpose of ensuring that no undergraduate woman has to turn down an unpaid internship in politics or public policy because of income.” This made her the youngest alumna to endow a scholarship in Towson’s history.

Sarah is an enthusiastic Annapolitan. At Gavin Buckley’s request, she chaired the Democratic Coordinated Campaign for the 2017 City election. Already well known to the Indivisible community, she helped to smooth the campaign for those of us new to the Democratic Party process, and was especially helpful in leveraging support from all corners of Maryland on behalf of Mayor Buckley and aldermanic candidates.

Sarah campaigned for Alderman Marc Rodriguez and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley

She explained to me that she is “not good at talking about myself.” I responded, “you do not have to, just get some quotes from other people out there in the media –there are plenty of them!” So, I am going to listen to that wise man and give you a couple of quotes with links to the full articles.

Mike Busch said in the Capital Gazette and Maryland Matters, (Sarah) “Sarah is eminently qualified to be the next senator from District 30, understands the issues and knows what it takes to move this community and the state forward: quality education, quality health care, a clean environment and access to jobs.”

At his campaign kick-off, County Executive Candidate Steuart Pittman noted that Sarah had encouraged him to run, and said, as he introduced the other candidates, “She’s actually a pretty good political advisor. You all might want to listen to Sarah.” (Campaign kick-off video, at minute 21.30)

Maryland Matters said: If you’re a civic or political activist in and around Annapolis, you know Sarah Elfreth. Even if you don’t follow politics too closely, Elfreth may have appeared on your doorstep, campaigning for House Speaker Mike Busch (D) or for state Sen. John Astle (D) or for Anne Arundel County Councilman Chris Trumbauer (D) – or for politicians she admires who live farther away from her downtown Annapolis home.

Enough said for now.  You are going to be a hearing a lot more about this young and keenly focused political virtuoso in 2018.

John Wells is an activist, writer and photographer from Annapolis.

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