Josh Kurtz: Campaigning for Congress From a Barstool in Annapolis

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On the night before the Maryland Municipal League convention last month, House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D), a candidate for Congress, was having dinner in Ocean City with uber-lobbyist Bruce Bereano and a couple of other Annapolis insiders.

The town was crawling with municipal officials, many of whom could be helpful to Davis as he campaigns for Congress in a nine-way Democratic primary. Prince George’s County, where the 4th congressional district is based, has 27 municipalities – most of any Maryland county. But, for that meal, anyway, Davis chose to be with Annapolis friends and not campaigning.

Last Wednesday, Davis was on the Eastern Shore again, hanging out with scores of political insiders in Bereano’s circus tent – it is now, fittingly, literally that big – at the Tawes crab feast. If there were District 4 voters in that cavernous space, you could count ‘em on one hand.

It’s a funny thing, running for Congress when you serve in the state legislature, especially if you’ve been there a long time. In many ways, it’s a logical progression: five of the 10 members of Maryland’s congressional delegation previously served in Annapolis.

In presidential election cycles, when state lawmakers don’t have to sacrifice their seats, you find many state senators and delegates running for Congress. There isn’t much to lose. Remember the 1996 special election to replace Kweisi Mfume when he left Congress to run the NAACP? Five legislators ran in the 27-way Democratic primary, which Elijah Cummings won handily.

This cycle, six state lawmakers are running for Congress so far: Davis and Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D) in the 4th district, state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), House Environment and Transportation Chairman Kumar Barve (D), and Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D) in the 8th district, and freshman Del. Dave Vogt, vying for the Republican nomination to take on Congressman John Delaney (D) in the 6th district. What makes this election unique is that two powerful committee chairmen, one-third of the committee leaders in the House – are running.

Early media coverage of the latest campaign finance reports, released last week, understandably focused on the half-million dollar takes of two of the 8th district candidates, Raskin and former broadcaster and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews, and on the dismal fundraising performance of former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), running in the 4th, for the second straight quarter -- click here for details of his last dismal report.

But more intriguing were Davis’ and Barve’s Federal Election Commission reports, for the amount of money they took in from special interests and Annapolis lobbyists. Here’s the irony: These lobbyists and entities with business before the General Assembly are filling the chairmen’s coffers not because they necessarily want them to win, but because they are hedging against the very real possibility that the chairmen lose – and retain their gavels in the House of Delegates.

When it comes to raising money from special interests, Davis’ committee has an enviable portfolio, as it sets policy on health care, energy, banking, real estate, liquor, technology and labor law, just to name a few. And give these industries did: At least $138,000 of the $188,000 Davis raised since entering the congressional race came from industries and entities that have business before his committee – and the people who are paid to advocate for them.

For Davis, it must have been like shooting fish in a barrel. His list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of top State House lobbyists: Bereano ($2,700), Kenneth Battle ($1,000), Tabb Bishop ($1,000), Eric Bryant ($500), Joe Bryce ($250), Capitol Strategies LLC ($2,700), Haley Evans Polansky ($1,000), Gerry Evans ($2,700), John Favazza ($750), Thomas Graham ($2,000), Lisa Harris Jones ($2,700), Marta Harting ($500), Jonas Jacobson ($250), Mike Johansen ($400), Ivan Lanier ($500), Nick Manis ($250), Kevin O’Keeffe ($250), Tim Perry ($1,000), Bryson Popham ($500), Steve Proctor ($1,500), Justin Ross ($2,700), Joel Rozner ($500), Sushant Sidh ($900), Major Riddick ($1,000), Ellen Valentino-Benitez ($250), and Josh White ($1,000).  

Barve’s take is considerably more modest when it comes to Annapolis special interest money, but is still noteworthy. Big-time lobbyists giving to him: Frank Boston III ($500), Capitol Strategies LLC ($2,700), David Carroll ($900), Rob Johnson ($900), Sidh ($900), Devin Doolan ($250), Evans ($1,000), Favazza ($250), Eric Gally ($150), Harting ($500), Deron Johnson ($250), Larry Levitan ($250), Len Lucchi ($1,000), Sean Malone ($250), Manis ($250), Isaac Marks ($500), American Joe Miedusiewski ($250), Bill Pitcher ($500), Popham ($250), Ross ($1,000), Rozner ($500), and Valentino-Benitez ($250).

These lawmakers and lobbyists have known each other, and in many cases, have been friends, for years. Barve has served in Annapolis for a quarter century, and Davis has been there for 21 years. There’s a comfort level, to say the least.

But running for Congress – at least if you’re going to do it seriously and successfully – means getting out of your comfort zone. You have to spend time with a broader section of the electorate than you normally do. You have to cast a far wider net when it comes to raising money.

In 2016, the congressional primaries in Maryland will take place in late April, about two weeks after the annual General Assembly session ends. It will be a challenge for candidates who are state lawmakers to get out of Annapolis and back to their districts while the session is taking place.

But every congressional candidate is different. Allowing for the fact that plenty of legitimate business keeps a lawmaker in Annapolis late, there are still opportunities to make it back to the district many evenings to attend political or community events or knock on voters’ doors.

It is always interesting and telling, in Annapolis at night, to see which congressional candidates have raced back home, and which ones are going through their usual routines: standing in the buffet line at the Calvert House, knocking back cold ones at Harry Browne’s, and plopping themselves down in the comfy chairs at the front of the Red, Red Wine Bar.

If you look at the five members of the Maryland congressional delegation who previously served in Annapolis, all are very talented politicians who had distinguished careers in the legislature.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D) spent 20 years in the state House, including eight as speaker, before being elected to Congress in 1986. His family had a long history in Maryland politics, and he had enough of a statewide following that he was gearing up to run for governor that year, until William Donald Schaefer sucked the oxygen out of that gubernatorial election, as he so often did.

Although he was not elected to Congress directly from the legislature, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) had been state Senate president and a candidate for lieutenant governor before winning a special election in 1981. He was also a key member of a powerful Democratic machine in Prince George’s County, which helped him get to Congress.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) was one of the most effective members of the legislature in his day, combining policy chops with finely-tuned political antennae and a sense of when to get involved in the most high-profile battles. Cummings brought an evangelist’s fire to his legislative career and always worked his neighborhoods conscientiously.

Even the congressional delegation’s lone Republican, Rep. Andy Harris, was effective in Annapolis in his own way – as a bur in the side of Democratic leaders, which endeared him to GOP primary voters.

Do any of the current crop of congressional candidates running from the General Assembly have the legislative records and profiles back home to duplicate the success of Cardin and the four congressmen? Maybe Raskin does, but he had a local – and national – following as an activist and legal scholar before he ever got to the legislature.

Barve and Davis will tout their legislative experience on the campaign trail and pick their pet issues. But their reputations back home seem hazy at best. They may be popular and powerful figures around State Circle, but the voters know them best as guys who have been around and on the ballot for a long time – and not much else.

Which doesn’t mean they can’t win their primaries – just that the advantages they imagine they possess due to their status in Annapolis may prove to be very ephemeral.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.