Josh Kurtz: Political Teases

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Tell the truth, was anyone surprised when Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (D) announced last week that he would not be running for Senate in 2016?

The Senate campaign, it seemed, had long passed Ruppersberger by – just as many other statewide campaigns had in the past two decades. But until last week he insisted, half a year after U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) had announced her retirement plans, that he was still mulling the race.

When it comes to political teases, Ruppersberger is the current Maryland champion. But he’s hardly alone.

It has been 19 years since Ruppersberger first floated his name as a possible candidate for statewide office. Remember the drama back then? Ruppersberger, then the Baltimore County executive, and now in his seventh term in Congress, was part of a cabal of Democrats who descended on the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention in Ocean City, plotting to deny incumbent Gov. Parris Glendening (D) a second term in 1998.

Ruppersberger, a leader of the cabal, was seen as a possible challenger to Glendening for the Democratic nomination. So was Doug Duncan, then the Montgomery County executive and another key figure in the coup-plotting. And so was Ben Cardin, then in his fifth term in Congress, who was blocked from running for governor a decade earlier by William Donald Schaefer and still hungered for the job.

Nineteen more MACOs have come and gone, and we’re still waiting for Ruppersberger to run for statewide office. He didn’t run for governor in 1998 (only Eileen Rehrmann, then the Harford County executive, was man enough to take Glendening on in the primary). He prepared to run for governor in 2002, but pulled back at the last minute, intimidated by the impenetrable-as gossamer Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and convinced by Steny Hoyer’s importuning that serving in the House might be more worthwhile than he thought.

When then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) announced his retirement in 2005, Ruppersberger publicly contemplated running for Senate but didn’t. He openly contemplated running for governor in 2014 but didn’t. Did anyone really think Ruppersberger was going to pull the trigger on a 2016 Senate run? He’s 69 now – and while Cardin may not seek a third Senate term in 2018, while the Democrats will be seeking a candidate for governor then, the window for Ruppersberger to run statewide has probably closed.

Every state has its share of political teases – people who enjoy seeing their names mentioned whenever there’s a real or perceived political opening. Sometimes they float their own names for these races – occasionally even after thoughtful deliberation. Sometimes they just welcome the spotlight. Sometimes pundits and insiders include these politicians on lists of potential candidates almost reflexively, out of habit.

Ruppersberger at this stage has been in all three categories. But he’s not the only one.

Ruppersberger’s successor as Baltimore County executive, Jim Smith (D), also seems to be mentioned constantly for different political races. The chatter was loudest when it seemed like then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was looking for someone to take on Comptroller Peter Franchot in the 2010 Democratic primary.

State Senate President Mike Miller (D) and his lieutenants tried to get Smith to run for state Senate in 2014, but he declined. O’Malley finally made Smith his transportation secretary, and it was widely assumed that Smith would keep the job in the Anthony Brown administration. Oops.

Now, though Smith is 73, some people are still speculating about his political future.

Ike Leggett, the Montgomery County executive, told an interviewer in August that he did not plan to run for governor in 2018. Leggett will be 74 then, and nobody really thought he was contemplating such a race. But someone asked, so Leggett answered.

Leggett has always craved attention and consideration when it comes to being mentioned for higher office. He’s a canny politician – and a trailblazer – but he rose to prominence at a time when African-American politicians weren’t automatically being considered for statewide offices.

Leggett’s easiest way in was probably to have accepted the No. 2 spot on Townsend’s ticket in 2002. But Leggett’s puzzling public deliberations about running with KKT back then made Mario Cuomo’s “Hamlet on the Hudson” act about running for president seem bold and clear-cut by comparison. It’s still not clear whether Leggett talked himself out of running, talked himself off the ticket, or whether Townsend was going to go a different way all along.

A couple of other Montgomery County politicians also belong on the teasers’ list, though one is redeeming himself at long last.

State Sen. Brian Feldman (D) was elected to the House of Delegates in 2002, and even before then he was mentioning himself as a candidate for higher office. Now he frequently shows up on other people’s lists – for Congress, comptroller, county executive, you name it.

Feldman also talked openly of challenging his state senator, Rob Garagiola, in a 2014 Democratic primary, until Garagiola resigned in 2013, paving the way for Feldman to be appointed to the seat. Feldman seems risk-averse, to say the least.

Del. Kumar Barve (D), first elected in 1990, twice created exploratory committees to run for Congress, but never took the plunge. He has talked openly about running for comptroller. He has made it known that he would like to become House speaker whenever Mike Busch (D) moved on.

But for years, Barve seemed paralyzed, or at least blocked, by more shamelessly ambitious or nimble politicians. Now Barve is running for Congress in the 8th district and is making a serious go of it. And if he loses, you’ll probably start hearing his name mentioned for other offices again, since he doesn’t have to sacrifice his legislative seat to make the congressional bid.

Similar to Barve, Glenn Ivey is running for Congress at last, in the 4th district, after multiple flirtations. Ivey has been a rising star for ages – at least since Glendening appointed him to run the Public Service Commission in 1998. After that, it seemed that Ivey, with vast Capitol Hill experience and an Ivy League pedigree, could run for any office he wanted – including U.S. Senate.

He ran instead for Prince George’s state’s attorney in 2002 – a job with inherently more political risks. After eight solid years in the job, he wasn’t sure where to go next. He deferred to his friend Rushern Baker and didn’t run for county executive in 2010. He made an aborted campaign against Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D) in 2012, and is finally running for her House seat now that she’s running for Senate.

Ivey is one of the frontrunners for that seat this time, and at 54, he’s a relatively young man. But many admirers thought he’d go farther faster.

Among Maryland Republicans, the prize for political teases goes to Bob and Kendal Ehrlich. The drumbeat for Kendal Ehrlich to run for office began almost as soon as her husband was elected governor in 2002. She finally tried to win the appointment to be Anne Arundel County executive in 2013, but fell short.

Even with his 1-2 record in gubernatorial races, Bob Ehrlich likes to think of himself as a hot political property – remember, he almost ran for president this election cycle. Some people think he could attempt a political comeback, maybe with a bid for Senate or a congressional seat, at some point.

The Ehrlichs are still fairly young – he’s 57 and she’s 53. And they’ve earned the special status they possess within state GOP circles.

But at the same time, the Ehrlichs seem to have been eclipsed by current Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who for now seems to be running a far more successful administration than the one Ehrlich led. Will the Ehrlichs’ tease continue?

And speaking of teases, what’s Elijah Cummings up to?

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.