Josh Kurtz: Primary Colors

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At long last, the jungle has come to Montgomery County.

Politics in the county have never been as polite as people make it out to be. With its proximity to Washington, D.C., and hundreds of politically ambitious people running around, you always find a few epic Democratic primaries under way –- elections that defy conventional wisdom, alter alliances and create lifelong nemeses.

Still, when you think of some of the slugfests that have taken place through the years in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County and elsewhere in the state, well, Montgomery County politics often seems pretty tame – and pretty lame. Even the most legendary Democratic primaries in Montgomery have been driven by questions like who’s smarter, or better-connected on Capitol Hill, or more pure when it comes to accepting money from special interests, rather than the rawest of bare-knuckle politics.

But this year is noteworthy.

Bitter Democratic primary contests are taking place in half of the county’s state Senate districts –- races that are being propelled by personal animus more than ideological differences. In at least two of the four districts, you can say, quite simply, that the challenger and the incumbent simply don’t like each other. And in three of the four districts, it’s fair to say that the challenger doesn’t want to wait around for the incumbent to voluntarily move on. Each race is guaranteed to get even nastier in the final two weeks.

So here are quick tip sheets on the races in Districts 14, 17, 19 and 39 – which, as the Sept. 14 primary approaches, remain among the hottest (and hardest to call) in the state. We’re predicting two challengers to win and two incumbents to prevail. But we could be completely wrong in each and every race.

(Full disclosure: I am not completely unbiased when it comes to the Dist. 17 race. I covered both the incumbent, Sen. Jennie Forehand, and the challenger, former Del. Cheryl Kagan, for seven years in Annapolis. Kagan and I became friends –- and after she left the legislature and I stopped covering Maryland full time, I served on the board of a nonprofit group she was running. I am rooting for her in this primary. But Forehand has been a dedicated public servant –- and I have a personal connection to her as well. Forehand is the neighbor of a dear friend of mine, and when I first moved to Maryland to cover Annapolis, Forehand was very kind to me, turning over some of her briefing books and other material as I was learning the ropes. I’ll always be grateful for her help and generosity.)

DISTRICT 14 –- Olney, Burtonsville, parts of Silver Spring
The incumbent: Sen. Rona Kramer (D)
The challenger: Del. Karen Montgomery (D)
Tale of the tape: This is the one Senate primary in Montgomery County where ideology plays an important role. Kramer, daughter of former Montgomery County Executive Sid Kramer (D) and sister of Del. Ben Kramer (D), is a prominent county businesswoman –- and votes like one in Annapolis. This has infuriated unions and other progressive interests in the state and county, and in Montgomery they have found a more traditional liberal willing to sacrifice a safe House seat to promote their agenda. Both Kramer and Montgomery were elected to their respective posts in 2002.
The X Factor: Turnout should be a little higher in District 14 than in most of the rest of the county because Montgomery’s decision to give up her House seat, along with Del. Herman Taylor’s (D) ill-advised run for Congress, has created a highly-competitive race for the district’s three House seats, with only one incumbent seeking re-election. There’s also a competitive primary for the local County Council seat.
Other Factors: The last round of campaign finance reports showed that Kramer has yet to spend a ton on her political survival; this is somewhat surprising. Perhaps there will be a last-minute deluge of spending.
The unions are targeting this race –- but they’ve got a lot of balls in the air at the moment and it’s hard to say where this falls on the priority list. They could push the challenger over the top –- but the Kramer name still means a lot in Montgomery County.
Wild Guess: Tilts ever so slightly to Kramer

DISTRICT 17 -- Rockville, Gaithersburg and Garrett Park
Incumbent: Sen. Jennie Forehand (D)
Challenger: Former Del. Cheryl Kagan (D)
Tale of the tape: A lot of people are comparing this race to the epic primary that took place in Montgomery County in 2006, when law professor Jamie Raskin ousted then-Sen. Ida Ruben (D), who, like Forehand, was a 70-something incumbent who had been on the political scene for more than three decades.
That comparison doesn’t really hold up; Raskin and Ruben couldn’t have been more different. Raskin is a constitutional scholar with far-left politics; Ruben was a political insider who reveled in bringing home the bacon. Raskin had a sunny personality; Ruben was nobody’s favorite, although many people owed her for what she was able to bring home. In Annapolis, she often got her way because people didn’t want to get in her way.
Forehand is the exact opposite. She’s one of the nicest, most gracious people around, and that has helped her constituents at times. She has been visible on women’s issues, anti-smoking efforts, and for her advocacy of the Intercounty Connector highway.
But voters are right to wonder: after 32 years in Annapolis, is that all there is? Forehand simply should be more of a player, more of a force. And there is scant evidence that she has ever been able to stand up to all-powerful Senate President Mike Miller (D), either publicly or privately.
That’s a tough, subtle and somewhat sophisticated argument for Kagan to make to average voters. So what she has been selling instead is her energy and vitality –- which are plainly evident. It allows Forehand and her allies to argue that Kagan is practicing a not-so-subtle form of ageism –- and maybe she is. But Kagan has attempted to promote her own assets while being respectful of the incumbent.
Still, some Montgomery insiders compare Kagan unfavorably to Tracy Flick – a rap she will forever be struggling to overcome.
Kagan is a master political strategist whose own record in Annapolis was mixed –- she never seemed to completely find her niche. But that should be a lot less difficult in the Senate, where you don’t always have to get along to go along. Kagan has similar views and priorities as Forehand –- but a lot more political courage, and a far more nimble political mind, and a dizzying array of political and policy contacts. So it’s hard to argue that District 17 voters shouldn’t take a chance on Kagan. Forehand isn’t going to get more powerful -– and many people thought she should have taken her victory lap four or eight years ago. Kagan, who is 49, has decades to amass power in Annapolis and make an impact.
The X Factor: The district’s three House incumbents are supporting Forehand. But they have no opposition and haven’t had to campaign much on their own behalf. Kagan has been careful to tell voters how much she admires and is looking forward to working with the three delegates.
Other Factors: Kagan has run the most energetic campaign in Montgomery County this election cycle. Forehand seems to be putting up a good fight recently, but has clearly been outhustled for most of the campaign.
Wild guess: If Kagan properly identifies her vote, she’ll win.

DISTRICT 19 –- Aspen Hill, parts of Rockville and Silver Spring
The incumbent: Sen. Mike Lenett (D)
The challenger: Del. Roger Manno (D)
Tale of the tape: To be very flip -– and not altogether inaccurate -– about it, this race can be simply characterized as Asshole vs. Bigger Asshole.
Lenett was elected four years ago, winning a three-way open seat primary against two longtime delegates who had resented each other for years (and their principal supporters had resented each other for even longer). So Lenett kind of plowed his way through the middle, and he came off like a very energetic breath of fresh air.
But it was evident from the beginning that Lenett held a very high opinion of himself, and might not work and play that nicely with others. And that has proven to be the case to a degree.
Manno, a former Capitol Hill staffer, is just as ambitious –- but a little less like a bull in a china shop. He appears to have done a better job of reaching out to key community leaders and veteran politicians in the district than Lenett has – and Lenett may be paying the price.
The X Factor: As in District 14, there is a free-for-all House primary taking place in 19, with Manno’s decision to challenge Lenett and the retirement of veteran Del. Hank Heller (D).
Other Factors: Mike Miller has endorsed Lenett, but Montgomery County politicians seem split on the race.
Wild Guess: Leans Manno. Just a hunch. A legislative district is small enough that if you make enemies, it can come back to bite you.

District 39 – Montgomery Village, parts of Germantown and other upcounty communities
The incumbent: Sen. Nancy King (D)
The challenger: Del. Saqib Ali (D)
Tale of the tape: Another case of a race where the two candidates really dislike each other. This dates back to 2007, when King, who was then a delegate serving with Ali, edged him out in a county Democratic committee vote to fill a Senate vacancy. Ali almost immediately signaled his intention to challenge King this year -- and he kept his word.
King and Ali come from two different, but time-honored Montgomery County paths to political power, which are almost always at odds: King, the suburban mom who paid her dues and worked her way up the political ladder, from president of the county PTA to school board to state House to state Senate; Ali, the young man in a hurry. Ali ousted an incumbent delegate in the 2006 Democratic primary and his colleagues in the District 39 delegation have always viewed him with suspicion.
But Ali is nothing if not energetic; he’s raised a lot of money and put together a fresh coalition of supporters. King is relying on her establishment ties and traditional Montgomery County electoral partners.
The X Factor: King has gone thermonuclear on Ali in recent weeks, with a series of attack mailers and an attack website, questioning the challenger’s commitment to his work and his fitness for office.
Other Factors: What can Ali do to adequately respond?
Wild Guess: Two weeks ago, this race felt like a tossup. But it’s hard to believe that King hasn’t done some damage to Ali with her attacks. For that reason alone, we’ll say leans King.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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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.