Josh Kurtz: Rich Man, Poor Campaign?

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The ghost of Josh Rales hangs heavy over John Delaney.

Rales was the Potomac multimillionaire who, after a lifetime of business success and good works, thought he’d run for Senate back in 2006. He took 5 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary after burning through $5.2 million of his own money.

Delaney is a Potomac multimillionaire who, after a lifetime of business success and good works, has decided to run for Congress in the newly-drawn 6th district, spoiling the coronation that state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola was expecting in the Democratic primary.

In a state where money has rarely translated into political success, it’s easy to dismiss Delaney as a latter-day Rales. That’s especially true now that Garagiola is coming to grips with the idea that he’s going to have to work for the nomination, even as he’s tied down -- some would say tied up -- in Annapolis. Garagiola -- probably correctly -- has identified Delaney’s wealth as a political scab he can continually pick at.

But political insiders underestimate Delaney at their peril.

This is not to say he’s going to win the primary -- that seems like a stretch at the moment. It would require spending millions of dollars and fatally wounding Garagiola, the establishment’s hand-picked candidate for taking back a seat that has been in Republican hands for two decades. If Delaney, a longtime Democratic donor ($97,000 to federal candidates alone since 2005), wants any kind of future in the political realm, if he wants to continue hanging out with bold-faced name Democrats, he will not blow up one of the party’s best chances anywhere in the country of flipping a House seat.

But anyone who thinks Delaney is a lightweight, another novice who figured it would be fun to get into the political game, to mindlessly chant the virtues of the business world without giving any thought to the problems facing the state, has another guess coming.

In a conversation the other day at a bakery across the street from his investment banking firm‘s headquarters in Friendship Heights, Delaney talked fluidly, knowledgably, almost breathlessly about a range of issues. He became so wound up, in fact, that he let his oatmeal get cold.

Delaney calls Virginia Sen. Mark Warner a role model. He talks not just about the economic imperatives of job creation, but the values, the morality, associated with government’s role in the process, and the kind of jobs government ought to be helping create. In a district that now stretches from Potomac and Germantown to Hagerstown and Oakland, he recognizes that there is no cookie-cutter approach, though he says that “fundamentally, it’s a consistent dialogue across the district.”

Delaney talks passionately about a recent tour of Cumberland, which, like so many communities in Appalachia, is desperately trying to reinvent itself. He marvels about the historic downtown (hope he made it to When Pigs Fly) and the arts district local leaders are trying to establish there.

Like a lot of wealthy people -- indeed, like a lot of Montgomery County politicians -- Delaney describes his trip to Cumberland with wonder, as if it’s a foreign country and there’s some kind of nobility in poverty. But to his credit, he isn’t just offering up fluff and he isn‘t afraid to inject a dose of hard reality. City officials, he says, want to build up their banking sector. He tells them why that isn’t practical, and vows to help them find what might work in its place.

Delaney talks expansively about energy -- and how to finance all manner of energy exploration. The lack of a coherent national energy policy, he believes, “has prevented us from creating the next big industry in this country.”

So bring on fracking, Delaney says, as long as “it’s intensely regulated and monitored.” But bring on solar and wind energy, too. Bring on a carbon tax, like the one in California, where, not coincidentally, 90 percent of the nation’s venture capital on energy development is taking place.

It is possible, Delaney fervently believes, to promote business and protect the environment simultaneously.

“We let ourselves get caught up by all these false choices,” he says. “We as Democrats can’t reject business. We can’t do that. The Republicans paint us as anti-business, anti-God, all that crap that just isn’t true. And we’ve got to make it stop.”

Delaney also warns that the federal government is going broke -- and that Maryland will not be able to rely on federal largesse to the degree it usually does.

None of it makes for a sexy message. And Delaney isn’t a sexy candidate. At age 48, he looks a little like Tim Conway, the old “Carol Burnett Show” mainstay. That’s quite a contrast from Garagiola, the chiseled military veteran with the camera-ready family.

But Delaney is savvy enough to know what he knows and know what he doesn’t. He’s hired two of the best in the business -- pollster Fred Yang and media strategist Bill Knapp -- to help guide his campaign (of course, the consultants know a good payday when they see one).

And he realizes, beyond all the wonkery, that the best message of all in his battle with Garagiola is the outsider vs. the insider. He’ll dissect Garagiola’s votes in Annapolis, call him a lawyer-lobbyist, and argue: “He’s got a track record -- he’ll fit right in in Washington… I think I’ll have a much better chance in the general election.”

As Garagiola jabs him for being very rich, Delaney will remind voters of his modest roots: He’s the son of a union electrician and the first in his family to go to college.

And just as Delaney is no Josh Rales, Garagiola isn’t the caliber of opposition that Rales faced six years ago, when he took on the well-respected Ben Cardin, with 40 consecutive years in elective office, and Kweisi Mfume, a national political figure.
Which isn’t to say that Garagiola won’t be formidable. He’s a skillful legislator and campaigner, a driven young man who has defied the political odds many times before.

Delaney knows that the “uber insiders,” as he calls them, will be with Garagiola, and he thinks that the race is wide open. But in a short primary in a district that was suddenly and dramatically remade, where confusion reigns, it’s only the insiders who will be paying attention, and that’s probably enough to get Garagiola through the primary. And just like Delaney himself, those high-priced consultants of his aren’t going to rough up the frontrunner too much, when all is said and done. They can’t run that risk.

So it’s hard to see John Delaney winding up in Congress next year -- no matter what he spends -- though stranger things have happened. But don’t shunt him off to the side so quickly. He should have a future in this state, if he wants it -- a stint as secretary of Business and Economic Development under the next governor, for example, seems very much within the realm of possibility. Maryland could do a lot worse.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Brawl We Won’t Be Seeing Here (Plus: Women Emerge in Maryland)

Free Shot

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?

O’Malley and the Mod Squad

Jim Rosapepe’s Boot & Roscoe Bartlett’s Poll

Walter Dozier, RIP
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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.