Josh Kurtz: The Natural

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Even with a dozen beauty queens present, there may not have been a better-looking person marching in the Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade Saturday than Will Jawando, one of seven Democrats looking to succeed U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) next year. And even with an endless succession of officeholders and office seekers waving to the crowds, there may not have been a smoother pol on hand than Jawando, either.

From humble beginnings in Silver Spring to work on Capitol Hill to service in the Obama administration, Jawando, who is 32, with a wife with her own D.C. political and policy chops and three adorable young daughters, has just about the perfect pedigree for an aspiring young politician. He even has a white mother from Kansas and an African father.

Figuring out Jawando’s place in the high-profile, expensive 8th District primary, however, is no easy task with five months to go. The conventional wisdom and short-hand analysis on the race suggests that state Sen. Jamie Raskin, the favorite of many progressives who has raised $929,000, and Kathleen Matthews, a D.C. celebrity who has taken in more than $1 million and may have unlimited financial reserves, are the frontrunners, with Del. Kumar Barve, who has a long and distinguished legislative record, a step or two behind.

A three-week-old poll released by Raskin’s campaign on Monday showed him solidly in the lead with 30 percent of the vote – and Jawando trailing badly, with just 2 percent. Clearly Raskin is consolidating support from all the progressive elements of the electorate.

But does that narrative underestimate Jawando’s standing and potential? Is he a genuine contender, with room to grow as the primary develops? Or is he doomed to be an also-ran, a two-time loser – and worse yet, a potential spoiler looking for payback?

Under either scenario, Jawando is, arguably, the most fascinating candidate in the race. Even with seasoned and effective legislators in the race, even with a professional communicator like Matthews, he has far and away the most natural political talent.

Asked for his own assessment of the primary minutes after marching in the parade the other day, Jawando was upbeat. “It’s been a big week,” he said.

First, Jawando gave a solid performance in a debate last week – though it’s hard for any of the candidates to break out when they hold the same basic views. Then he was endorsed by the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus, which will help. And he had the biggest entourage of any politician in the Silver Spring parade – “a bunch of fired-up people,” as he put it, who were chanting and singing and waving signs.

“This is really exciting,” Jawando told his 40 assembled supporters after posing for group photos. “We’re really honored to have your support.”

Even this long before the primary, the race can be boiled down to a get-out-the-vote equation, with all the campaigns looking to persuade, identify and turn out voters. In Jawando’s estimation, the numbers look something like this: The primary winner, he figures, will get perhaps 25 percent of the vote. African-American voters represent about 20 percent of the Democratic electorate in the district – and he’s the only black candidate. About a third of the primary electorate is younger than 40 – and he’s the only candidate in that age demographic.

Some other numbers are also important: the $272,000 that Jawando has raised so far for the election. That’s dwarfed, of course, by Matthews’ take and Raskin’s, but it’s still pretty solid. In most districts, he’d be envied. In the open seat race in the adjoining 4th District, he’d be among the leading fundraisers.

“We’ll have enough to get our message out,” Jawando insisted, pointing to Van Hollen’s victory in the 2002 Democratic congressional primary despite being significantly outspent by his chief rival, Mark Shriver.

Jawando’s 3rd quarter campaign finance report says a lot about who he is and who he knows. There are contributions from typical Maryland givers like real estate developer Nathan Landow, but also donations from elite and relatively young African-American political professionals, like Reggie Love, President Obama’s former body man; DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL players’ union; former Congressman Steven Horsford; former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous; former U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who is now an Apple vice president; Rodell Mollineau, a former top aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid who later led a top Democratic PAC; lawyer Scott Bolden, the longtime chairman of the D.C. Democratic Party; Cassandra Butts, an Obama confidante and law school classmate; and Paul Brathwaite, the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus who now works for the powerhouse Podesta Group. Congressman Elijah Cummings and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke are also among his contributors.

But despite this high-flying group of endorsers, there have been disappointments for Jawando as well. His wife, Michelle, is a vice president at the Center for American Progress and a former general counsel to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). But Gillibrand’s PAC cut a $10,000 check to Matthews.

Michele Jawando is also close to Angela Riemer, a pharmaceutical lobbyist and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC who is married to Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer (D). But Hans Riemer endorsed Raskin in the congressional race.

Looked at a certain way, Jawando’s motivations for running for the same seat as Raskin seem almost operatic.

Last year, Jawando was one of nine Democratic candidates running for the three House of Delegates seats in District 20 – where Raskin is the senator. Late in the campaign, Raskin issued an astonishingly long treatise outlining his preferences in the House primary – though he was careful to say nice things about each and every Democrat.

That Raskin would endorse Del. Sheila Hixson (D), the chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee in Annapolis who has held the seat since 1976 – and the only woman and only incumbent running – was unsurprising. So was his decision to endorse David Moon, a blogger and activist who had been his campaign manager when Raskin was elected to the Senate in 2006.

For the third slot, Raskin went for Will Smith, another handsome, 30-something African-American from Silver Spring with experience in the Obama administration. Raskin persuaded most of the interest groups supporting him to get behind his ticket. Their pictures appeared together everywhere in the final days of the primary. In the end, even though Jawando could tout the endorsement of The Washington Post, Smith took the third slot in the Democratic primary with 6,000 votes – 380 more than Jawando.

It’s a pretty good bet that if Jawando were not running for Congress this year, the lion’s share of his votes would go to Raskin in the primary. No doubt, Jawando’s presence in the race is good news for Matthews and Barve.

But Jawando insists he is not running a Kamikaze campaign against Raskin. He says that because of the dangerous state of the world, because he worries about his three daughters, who are 5, 3 and 1, Congress is where he wants to serve – even though Democrats will remain deep in the minority in the House for the foreseeable future.

“Annapolis is not Washington,” he said. “I’d love a two-thirds majority [of Democrats] the way Jamie has, to pass all those bills.”

But Maryland is a place where young Democrats are repeatedly told to wait their turn. And it’s hard not to wonder: What if Jawando had waited his? What if he had decided to work hard for Raskin in this primary?

If Raskin is elected to Congress, that sets off a domino effect, with potential rewards for younger Democrats. Surely this could have presented an opportunity for Jawando not too far down the line.

Instead, Jawando runs the risk of losing his second straight tough primary, and it’s hard – though not impossible – for two-time losers to resurrect their political careers. There are, of course, a few exceptions. Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich (D) lost four council races before being elected in 2006, and he was the top vote-getter in the past two at-large primaries. And look how many times Bernie Sanders ran for office before being elected mayor of Burlington, Vt., and then congressman, and then senator.

But Jawando is thinking of none of this. “I think we need fresh voices in Congress,” he said.

If the voters agree, he could go a lot farther than people think.

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.