Josh Kurtz: A Guilty White Liberal Ponders the Maryland Senate Race

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You're a guilty white liberal. Who are you supposed to vote for in the April 26 Democratic Senate primary?

You've observed and admired Chris Van Hollen for two full decades. He's smart, savvy and strategic. He knows when to pick fights and how to win them. 

Van Hollen has policy chops and good political antennae. You have no doubt he'll be a hardworking, conscientious senator, with an ability to work both local, bread and butter issues, and high-profile national and international policy.

Mike Miller was a little inelegant when he said Van Hollen was "born" to be in the Senate – but he wasn't far from the truth, either. Through his words and deeds, in a quarter century in three legislative chambers, Van Hollen has proven that he would fit in well in the Senate and be immediately effective.

On the other hand, you can’t help but notice that Van Hollen isn't exactly running the most inspired campaign this time around. In his two previous tough races – when he knocked off Patty Sher in '94 even though all her Annapolis drinking buddies were against him, and when he defeated a Kennedy and then a popular Republican incumbent to win his congressional seat in '02 – Van Hollen was the insurgent, the underdog. His focus and intensity were scary. He carried a chip on his shoulder. He wasn't going to be outworked.

This time, not so much. He's still working hard, without a doubt. But it's a different footing for him, and it shows. Van Hollen is this cycle's Ben Cardin: seasoned, respected, a creature of the establishment – and thoroughly uninteresting.

Van Hollen doesn’t have that sense of entitlement, the way Cardin and Anthony Brown did. But he’s not firing anybody up, either. He may be deserving, but that’s become easy to forget. 

Van Hollen beat Mark Shriver in the 2002 Democratic primary because he was smarter, well-rounded, more accomplished. That kind of merit-based argument may work in Montgomery County, but it isn’t as effective, it doesn’t always play in quite the same way statewide.

So what do you do?

You admire Donna Edwards, too. You respected her fight against National Harbor, when she was a scrappy neighborhood activist (now she lives at National Harbor). You thrilled to her near-defeat of feckless Albert Wynn in 2006, and watched with satisfaction as she finished the job in 2008, a victory of unions and women and environmentalists and local agitators over political hacks with their hands out.

Edwards has been a full-throated progressive in the House, without apology or calculation or fear. She represents, in her words and deeds, a threat to the clubby party establishment, on Capitol Hill and in Maryland. She has been unafraid to tick off the Israel lobby – or anyone else.

And how great would it be, as Edwards herself says, if we replaced trailblazer Barbara Mikulski with an African-American woman? With just 20 women in the Senate, with just two black senators, that would be some potent symbolism – and something Marylanders could be proud of. Edwards would be a brawler in the Senate, just the way Mikulski is. If she can backdraft in the primary off the Baltimore city mayoral election, where the two frontrunners right now are African-American women, more power to her.

But unfortunately, symbolism is just about all Edwards seems to be offering in this campaign. Identity-based politics has its time and place, but is that all there is? Sure, Edwards’ life story is compelling – inspiring, even. But it’s being offered up ad nauseam to cover up the fact that her legislative skills and achievements pale in comparison to Van Hollen’s. With an overt racial appeal, Edwards may be missing an opportunity to connect with disaffected blue-collar voters.

That stuff Van Hollen has been hitting Edwards with lately – that her constituent service has been lackluster – that’s been thrown around too often and in too many circles to not have an element of truth to it. Constituent service is the most basic element of public service, and Edwards, by most accounts, has fallen short. That’s telling.

It may not matter so much that the Steny Hoyers and Mike Millers of the world hate her. Edwards probably wears that as a badge of honor, and in a way, that’s a selling point. The opinions of insiders, at a certain level, should be meaningless to average voters.

But look how deep the antipathy of her fellow elected officials runs – even African-American officials in her backyard. Edward partisans can dismiss that as jealousy, as the last vestiges of the Albert Wynn crowd looking to extract some revenge. But the ability to work and play well with others is another basic element of public service – and here, too, Edwards seems to have fallen short.

Some of the niceties of politics have eluded her – or maybe she just doesn’t give a damn. That is something to ponder.

So here we are, with less than a month to go. Will anything happen to change your opinion of the two contenders in that time?

There’s a glass half-full, glass half-empty element to this dilemma. No matter what happens, Maryland will wind up with a pretty good successor to Barbara Mikulski. But you can’t help but feel that the conversation has been lacking to this point.

And no matter how you ultimately decide to vote on April 26, you are going to feel guilty.


NOTE: I’ll be taking next week off. My next column should appear on April 12.

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.