Josh Kurtz: Redemption Song

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On a recent Saturday in Fort Washington, Anthony Brown was crammed shoulder-to-shoulder along a rickety table with eight other candidates for Congress. He peered out at a dimly lit auditorium, which was two-thirds empty.

This is not where Brown pictured himself a couple of years ago.

At that very moment, out in the breezy sunshine, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), accompanied by aides and cabinet secretaries and a security detail, was in the middle of a three-day swing through Southern Maryland, dispensing generous sums of highway funding, vowing to fight the plague of heroin addiction, and meeting with local business leaders and elected officials to hear their concerns.

If Brown was aware of Hogan’s activities, he wasn’t letting on. But it was easy to imagine that he’d much rather be in Hogan’s shoes that afternoon, instead of scrapping for the votes of 50 senior citizens with his two most formidable Democratic primary opponents, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk and former State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey, and half a dozen longshot candidates of varying levels of sanity.

Brown, of course, had a chance to be in Hogan’s position. But nowadays, with the governor riding so high in the polls thanks to his everyman persona and advisers who seem capable of spinning dross into political gold, it’s easy to forget that Brown and his team essentially blew the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Say this for Brown, though: He is not complaining publicly about his lot in life. He’s never been a natural or easy-going campaigner, and that hasn’t changed. But like the professional soldier he once was, the former lieutenant governor and state delegate seems to be slogging through.

In a conversation after the forum, Brown professed to be having fun. Not too long ago, he was the guy with the entourage and the security guards, poised to make history, campaigning side-by-side with President Obama and Hillary Clinton, with U.S. senators and other dignitaries. But he says he now welcomes the opportunity to meet voters on a human scale.

“I said early on in this campaign that running for Congress more closely resembles running for the House of Delegates than running for governor,” he said. “You’re close to the voters. You get quality touches.”

It was a little reminiscent of the manager in the classic movie “This Is Spinal Tap,” insisting that the band preferred to be booked into smaller venues than the arenas where they used to play. But he also sounded sincere.

Welcome to Anthony Brown’s 2016 Redemption Tour.

At the Fort Washington forum, Pena-Melnyk was all fire and passion, cranked up to 11, to keep the “Spinal Tap” metaphor going. Ivey was friendly and conversational, like a man talking to his neighbors at the kitchen table. He definitely won the “Who would you most want to have a beer with?” question.

And Brown was Brown – talking in his hoarse monotone about his immigrant parents and his patriotism and his long record of public service. Other than mentioning his desire to protect Obama’s policy victories and his shots at the Republican Congress for attempting to meddle with Social Security, his pitch hasn’t changed much from 2014.

“I’m running for Congress because I love our country and I love our state,” Brown told the audience, later adding, “We need to strengthen our communities so we can strengthen our families.”

No one suggested Brown’s political career was through after his stunning loss to Hogan in 2014. He was only 53, and political comebacks are common enough. Perhaps with sufficient time, the conventional wisdom went, he would be able to rehabilitate himself.

No one imagined an opportunity would present itself so quickly, but then Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) announced her retirement, and Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D) announced she was running for Senate. Four months after losing to Hogan, and two months after his term as lieutenant governor ended, Brown was back on the campaign trail.

The results have been decidedly mixed. Brown, who raised millions of dollars in his run for governor, has struggled on the fundraising front. He heard a clamor for his fast return to the political arena that no one else seemed to detect. And his presence in the race did not dissuade other appealing contenders like Ivey and Pena-Melnyk from jumping in.

There is little to distinguish the leading candidates on the issues. So asked after the recent forum what the April 26 primary will turn on, and Brown replied, “The race is going to turn on what voters think about the background and experience of each of the candidates to deliver for the constituents of the district.”

As someone who worked closely with government bureaucracies as lieutenant governor, as a former member of the state legislature, and as a military veteran, Brown argued that he possesses the “depth of service” required for the “increasingly dangerous world in which we live.”

One prominent Prince George’s County politician who has known Brown for years and respects him, suggests Brown’s line about his commitment to public service is starting to wear thin. It’s commendable enough, this savvy politician went on, but it has been repeated too often and isn’t immediately apparent to voters what it means for them.

Yet no one is counting Anthony Brown out, either.

Ask Maryland political wise guys and gals what they make of the 4th congressional district primary, and many say that Pena-Melnyk is running the best campaign. She lives outside the district and won’t be able to vote for herself. It’s unclear whether a sufficient number of African-American voters will pull the lever for a Latina. But Pena-Melnyk has racked up key endorsements, has a passionate following, and is maximizing her strengths.

Ivey has a political base and countywide name recognition, impeccable credentials for serving in Congress, and a political spouse who is a force of nature. He enjoys the endorsement of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) and other officials, and is running a visible campaign in the Anne Arundel County portion of the district. But he seems laid-back compared to Pena-Melnyk, and she may cut into some of his areas of geographical strength.

Brown is probably the best known of the three leading contenders, and that matters. He lives in the heart of the 4th district. His campaign manager got Jack Johnson elected county executive in 2002, and Brown seems best equipped of the candidates to capture the voters who propelled Johnson into office (though Leslie Johnson, the former county councilwoman and incarcerated executive’s wife, is supporting Ivey).

And the comeback story itself may contain a certain appeal.

In our conversation, Brown joked that only journalists ask him about his 2014 loss. But he quickly added, “What folks say is, ‘Look, I wish you had won.’ They realize [as they see Hogan pursue his agenda] that elections matter.”

There really isn’t anything more American than picking yourself up after a fall and plowing ahead. That may make Brown more relatable – and more appealing – than anything else.

“I’m staying in it,” Brown said. “People in their lives have successes and failures. Whatever their walk of life, they appreciate that you stay in it.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. 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.