Josh Kurtz: Grand Slam

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Just days after delivering a State of the Union address that lasted 64 minutes, President Clinton traveled to Annapolis in February 1997 to talk some more.

He used a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly as the backdrop to further promote his agenda for building a 21st century economy. But he was careful to talk about Maryland, too – paying tribute to the state’s history and to many of the elected officials who were in attendance.

Standing at the rostrum in the House of Delegates chamber, Clinton noted that the state House had served as a breeding ground for Maryland’s congressional delegation. It was a perceptive observation: At the time, five members of the delegation were state House veterans – then-Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) and four of the eight U.S. House members.

“It’s obviously a good training program here,” Clinton said to laughter and applause.

It was a typical masterful Clinton performance. “I feel like I’ve just met the Dalai Lama,” one dazzled state delegate – a Republican, no less – told me at the time.

Among those sitting in the chamber that day was Chris Van Hollen (D), another former delegate who was then midway through his first state Senate term. Van Hollen, of course, would also go on to be elected to the House of Representatives, five years later.

But now Van Hollen is attempting a rarer feat: If he wins the U.S. Senate election next year, he will be the first Maryland senator since Millard Tydings (D) to have served in the House of Delegates, the state Senate, the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate.

Tydings’ political career began in 1916, at the age of 26, when he was elected to the House. He served there for four years, including two as speaker, before spending two years in the state Senate. In 1923, he made it to Congress. He was elected to the Senate in 1926 and served there for two dozen years, before being voted out of office.

Millard Tydings’ career paved the way for his son, Joseph Tydings (D), to thrive in politics. Joe Tydings served in the House of Delegates and as Maryland’s U.S. attorney and then spent a term in the U.S. Senate – but he never achieved the political grand slam his father did.

How rare is it for U.S. senators to have served in both chambers of their state legislatures and both chambers of Congress? Only five current U.S. senators have done so: James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

It’s a diverse group, and each has had a fairly long political career – even Murphy, a young man in a hurry (he’s only 42) who spent four years in the Connecticut state House, four years in the state Senate and six years in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate in 2012.

Stabenow, Inhofe and Menendez all spent time in local elective office as well. Stabenow had a 26-year career before being elected to the Senate in 2000. Isakson won his first election 28 years before he was elected to the Senate in 2004. Menendez’s first elected position was on the Union City Board of Education, 32 years before he was appointed to the Senate in 2006. Twenty-eight years separated Inhofe’s first election to the state House and his first election to the U.S. Senate in 1994.

Each is a skillful legislator by any measure, and all have displayed flashes of bipartisanship – even Inhofe, who is a severe critic of President Obama’s environmental agenda (and famously called global warming a hoax) but works closely with liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on transportation and infrastructure matters.

Three of the five senators are chairmen of major committees – or have been. That speaks not just to their seniority but also to a level of maturity – and the respect they command from their colleagues.

What does all this have to do with Van Hollen?

Van Hollen is also a talented legislator, who has thrived at every level of government where he’s served – whether in leadership or as an insurgent, whether in the majority party or in the minority. He’s an authority on the budget and appropriations, and works domestic and foreign policy issues with equal skill. He’s a policy wonk with keen political radar. And if he’s elected to the Senate in 2016, it will be 26 years after his first election to the House of Delegates, when he was 31.

Yet none of this is a guarantee of success at the polls. Van Hollen is trying to achieve his political grand slam at a time when public opinion of Congress is at an all-time low and when voters are wary of career politicians. Insurgents make political hay of their outsider status. Although Maryland is a state where politicians are forever being told to pay their dues, novices like Larry Hogan and Donna Edwards and John Delaney have succeeded in recent years over opponents with much greater government experience.

But Van Hollen is lucky in a couple of respects. He’s running in Maryland, a state with close ties to the federal government. And his principal Democratic opponent, Edwards, is also a member of Congress – albeit one with considerably less government experience.

Ultimately the voters will decide who they want to represent them in the Senate – and how important a qualification a candidate’s level of experience is. Edwards, if she wins, will be making history. Some of the Republicans running for Senate would also make history in the unlikely event that one of them is elected.

But we should at least acknowledge what a rare thing Van Hollen is trying to pull off here – and, whether we’re for him or against him, tip our caps to the potential achievement before the race ratchets up to a new level of nastiness.

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.