Josh Kurtz: Campaign Kicks Into High Gear as Session Begins

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The 90-day General Assembly session, which kicks off on Wednesday, is intense and exhausting for all 188 lawmakers.

But for eight state legislators, the stress level this year will be even higher: They’re in the home stretch for the April 26 primaries, just two weeks after session ends, and will be preoccupied with legislative business while their opponents are on the campaign trail full-time.

Del. Kathy Szeliga (R) is running for U.S. Senate. State Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh (D) is running for mayor of Baltimore. Sen. Jamie Raskin (D) and Dels. Kumar Barve (D), Dereck Davis (D), Ana Sol Guttierez (D), Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D), and David Vogt (R) are competing for congressional seats.

What’s their strategy for balancing their official duties with the need to be out campaigning? How do they plan to cope?

Center Maryland caught up with five of the eight lawmakers in recent days (the other three did not respond to messages left at their campaign and Annapolis offices) and came away with a variety of interesting responses.

“We’re going to figure it out,” said Raskin, one of seven Democrats competing in the 8th district primary, noting that he’ll still have time to “press the flesh” at night and on weekends.

“I have a commitment to my constituents from Silver Spring and Takoma Park to legislate and engage on public policy throughout the entire session, and I’m going to meet that commitment,” he said.

Barve, one of Raskin’s Democratic primary opponents, has the added burden of being chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. But it also enables him to set the committee’s schedule.

“Being chairman is actually an advantage – it allows me to be very economical with my time,” he said.

Even more important, possessing the gavel helps Barve shape the committee’s agenda – and by extension, the House’s. Among the environmental measures that will be before his panel this year will be bills dealing with lead paint and antibiotics in animal feed. The committee may also scrutinize the Hogan administration’s transportation priorities, Barve said.

“There’s going to be a lot of important legislation being worked on,” he said. “The legislature is an opportunity for me to show how effective I am.”

Barve also vows to get back to the 8th district as often as possible.

“Fortunately, Annapolis is an hour away from much of the district,” he said. “It’s not like I’m running in the 6th district and have to get to Accident, Md.”

Davis, the chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, is in the top tier of candidates running in the 4th district’s eight-way primary. His committee, which oversees energy, utilities, banking and finance, technology, real estate, liquor, hospitality, labor and consumer issues, has a vast and economically potent portfolio that boosts Davis’ fundraising abilities. But it’s also known for its endless hearings and time-consuming voting sessions.

Davis conceded that the value of the gavel for him in the congressional primary “is in the eyes of the beholder,” and that his tenure as chairman will be part of the way voters evaluate him.

“The strategy” for dealing with his Annapolis commitments, he said, “is pretty simple. We’re going to take it day by day, step by step. I know that sounds trite. But my first responsibility is going to be to my constituents and the House of Delegates.”

And, Davis points out, winter weather means that certain campaign activities – like sign-waving on street corners – won’t be possible anyway.

Pena-Melnyk, one of Davis’ opponents in the Democratic primary, said she isn’t sweating her absence from the campaign trail at all, because of all the work she put in during the past several months in anticipation of the legislative session.

“If you wait till the last minute [to put a campaign apparatus together], then you worry,” she said.

“I know I can be in Annapolis because I have a strong team and they know what to do,” Pena-Melnyk added. “I have a good manager, good field. We are pretty set. And I’ve gotten more endorsements than anyone because I’ve worked my butt off. I’ve worked around the clock.” 

Pugh similarly said she isn’t worried – and believes she’ll be able to get back to the city frequently even with her legislative portfolio.

Pugh said that except for the chaotic final days of the session, her schedule is fairly regimented, with floor sessions and hearings in the Senate Finance Committee and voting sessions set for predictable times. 

“I don’t consider it a tight schedule,” she said. “It’s like anyone else [running for office] who has another job.”

Additionally, she noted, she’s lucky because “I’m on one of the most efficient committees.”

Barve, echoing his candidate colleagues, said, “Every moment that I’m not a legislator, I’m going to be campaigning. You’re not going to see me hanging around with friends. You’re not going to see Kumar having dinner in Annapolis.”

But the candidates will also be careful not to be seen as shirking their official duties. Former Del. Jon Cardin (D), who was found during his unsuccessful 2014 campaign for attorney general to be missing a substantial number of his committee votes, serves as a cautionary tale to all of them.

In addition to all the campaigning, the candidates, in contrast to their Annapolis colleagues, will also continue shaking the tin cup.

Legislators are prohibited from raising money for their state accounts during the 90-day session. But that ban doesn’t extend to the federal campaign accounts they’ve created to run for Congress.

And in Pugh’s case, state election law allows her to use her state account to run for mayor and raise money during session, said Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division of the State Board of Elections – as long as she’s an officially declared candidate for that office with the city’s election board.

Legislators who are running for Congress and other offices are occasionally attacked by their opponents for continuing to raise money during session, because the ban was enacted to prevent special interests from having undue influence on the lawmakers while the General Assembly is debating legislation and state spending. The loophole enabling Pugh to use her existing state account for the mayoral campaign seems like something reformers ought to strive to close.

But Davis said regardless of any criticism, “you have to do it,” because you can’t risk falling behind your non-legislator opponents on the fundraising front – especially when congressional races are so expensive.

“This is not a delegate campaign,” Pena-Melnyk said. “It’s a different animal.”


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.