Josh Kurtz: More Than a Protest Vote

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By Josh Kurtz

If there was real justice in the world, Milad Pooran, and not Rob Garagiola or John Delaney, would win the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District on April 3.

It’s not that Garagiola and Delaney don’t have some appeal: Garagiola has a long record of accomplishment in Annapolis, bankable political skills and Kirk Douglas’ chin. Delaney has combined stunning business success with a long list of good works, and has offered thoughtful solutions to the state’s economic problems, even if he begins every sentence with the word “So…” Both would be fine members of Congress and reliable mainstream Democratic votes.

But what does it say about our political system that the two leading Democratic contenders are the ultimate Annapolis insider, who has bent state fundraising rules and had the seat handed to him on a silver platter -- and may still fumble the opportunity -- and a very wealthy guy who is trying to buy the seat, and political credibility, aided by a Washington Post editorial board that’s on one of its unfathomable crusades?

And what does it say that both men -- at the advice of their high-priced advisers -- see their path to victory as a race to the bottom, their opportunity to get to Congress possible only by tearing down their opponent? Folks, this primary may literally turn on whether Delaney gave 2,400 bucks to Republican Congressman Andy Harris, or whether Garagiola knowingly omitted information from his financial disclosure forms -- hardly the topics at any voter’s kitchen table.

Garagiola had a legitimate claim on this Congressional seat, once the lines were drawn the way they were. But he’s made a pact with the devil -- really, several devils -- as he’s waged his campaign.

The first devil, of course, was Senate President Mike Miller, who was loudest among party leaders in insisting that the new 6th district be drawn just so -- with Garagiola’s home in it, and other prominent Democrats out. Garagiola has considerable political talents of his own, but it only reinforced the notion, unfair but unavoidable, that he owes his entire political rise to Miller and Miller alone. Now Garagiola has the chutzpah to say he’d favor national redistricting reform.

Garagiola has raised money -- a lot of it -- from Annapolis lobbyists and other entities doing business with the legislature. State officials in Maryland are banned by law from raising money during the legislative session -- for state races. But it’s perfectly legal for them to raise money during session for a federal race.

During their epic Congressional primary in 2002, Chris Van Hollen and Mark Shriver, both state legislators at the time, agreed to lay off the fundraising during session. Of course, their primary wasn’t until September.

A decade later, Garagiola isn’t just shaking the tin cup while the legislature is meeting, he’s having lobbying firms host fundraisers for him -- something that’s also banned in Maryland. Just last week, as the Senate Finance Committee, on which Garagiola serves, was preparing to debate Gov. Martin O’Malley’s legislation to bring wind turbines to the Atlantic off Ocean City, Garagiola held a fundraiser with local utility executives -- whose bottom line will be affected by the bill.

You have to wonder whether the lobbyists are flocking to Garagiola out of any real enthusiasm, or whether they’re mainly trying to appease Miller – paying protection money in a way they’re not normally able to.

It’s a little reminiscent of when New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, whose dad is speaker of the state House, first ran for his seat a few years back. Did young Lujan suddenly become the favorite of the myriad special interests at home because they liked him so much? Or were they merely trying to curry favor with his powerful dad? Either way, with the promise of so much support, the young Lujan essentially cleared the field and now has a lifetime sinecure in Washington.

This is clearly a case of Garagiola having to sleep in the bed that he’s made for himself. Worse, from a purely tactical perspective, he has teed up his candidacy for an unending series of attacks from the Washington Post editorial writers, who hate Mike Miller and Annapolis lobbyists almost as much as they hate unions -- who, by the way, have also gotten behind Garagiola’s candidacy.

Which brings us to the Post’s favored candidate, Delaney. He seems like a good guy, and money shouldn’t be a disqualifier when considering a candidate’s merits. But haven’t we seen this movie too many times before?

Who the hell is John Delaney? Would we be giving his candidacy a moment’s thought if he didn’t have the ability to open his wallet to build a campaign apparatus? Would he have snared President Clinton’s endorsement if he hadn’t raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton’s White House bid? Would the Post editorial writers even be returning his phone calls if they didn’t see his candidacy as a vehicle to knock the unions down a peg or two? And what about that contribution to Andy Harris, anyway?

Which brings us last, but not least, to Milad Pooran, a man with an interesting story to tell and solid progressive ideals. His family emigrated to the U.S. from Iran when he was 6 years old. “I’ve walked the long path to citizenship,” he says.

He’s a military doctor who has seen the horrors of war – and poverty – up close. He supports achieving universal health care coverage in this country and does not rule out the possibility of pushing for a single payer system. He’s been endorsed by Howard Dean and the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“As your congressman, I will never be beholden to special interests – I will only be accountable to you,” he tells voters.

He argues that Dean would not have endorsed him if he didn’t think he could win, and that, as Garagiola and Delaney carve each other up in the primary, he has the best chance of defeating the Republican nominee – likely the 20-year incumbent, Roscoe Bartlett – in the fall.

Throughout history there are plenty of examples where an appealing underdog is able to sneak through a primary when the race between the frontrunners gets too nasty. That’s how Russ Feingold and Carol Moseley Braun landed in the U.S. Senate, just to name two. A Feingold-like miracle doesn’t seem likely at this point – but stranger things have happened.

In the Neil Simon play “The Sunshine Boys,” when Willie Clark, the old Vaudeville star, is no longer able to live on his own, his nephew gives him two options: Willie can move in with him and his family, or move to a home for old actors. Willie dislikes his nephew’s kids – one of them hit him over the head with a baseball bat once – and doesn’t want to go to the old actors’ home because it’s in New Jersey, a place he hates.

“That’s my choice – the baseball bat or New Jersey?” Willie cries.

That may be how 6th District Democrats are starting to view the upcoming primary. But they shouldn’t despair – they can vote for Milad Pooran.

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

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Doug Duncan’s Next Act

Marital Difficulties

Prince George’s Agonistes

Annapolis Bits

A Grown-up David in a World of Juvenile Goliaths

Rich Man, Poor Campaign?

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

Free Shot

Miller’s Crossing

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?
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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.