Josh Kurtz: Pondering What Might Have Been

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By: Josh Kurtz 

When freshman Congressman John Delaney (D) filed for reelection on Feb. 18, one week before the deadline for candidates to officially come forward, most political people assumed that the question of his plans had been settled: he wouldn’t be making a last-minute bid for governor.

But for Delaney, a wealthy former financier, it still wasn’t a settled matter.

The filing, he said in two recent interviews, had strictly been a matter of convenience. He was going to be in Annapolis that day anyway, and figured he was likely to seek a second term in Congress, so he may as well turn in the paperwork.

In the days that followed, however, Delaney continued to ponder his options.

Rumors that the congressman might be interested in running for governor had been swirling for several weeks, fueled by his unceasing criticisms of the state’s health care exchange. So political insiders didn’t write off an 11th hour bid completely. After all, Delaney has the personal funds to finance a statewide campaign, and no particular allegiance to the state Democratic establishment. At least three ambitious Montgomery County Democrats – Dels. Kumar Barve and Bill Frick, and state Sen. Roger Manno – began mentally preparing for the possibility that Delaney would jump into the gubernatorial race, leaving his congressional seat open (Barve even hung out at the Montgomery County Board of Elections last Tuesday night, just in case).

But politicians are used to their fellow pols flirting with a run for one office or another and then never pulling the trigger, and many figured the same would be true of Delaney.

In the end, they weren’t wrong. But Delaney came closer to running than many people think.

In January, he had paid for a poll testing his strength in a hypothetical four-way gubernatorial primary. Based on the results of the survey – taken by Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, because Delaney’s regular pollster, Fred Yang, is working for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the frontrunner in the gubernatorial race – Delaney had come to the conclusion that he could not win a four-way primary, and that Brown would probably prevail. Yet he was convinced that he could be very competitive in a three-way race – though the poll never tested that scenario.

One number stood out: A poll Delaney had seen in May of 2013 found that 53 percent of Democratic primary voters wanted the next governor to follow the same course as outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). By January, that number had fallen to 37 percent. Voters were especially uneasy about the maintaining the status quo when it came to the state’s economy.

What followed over the next few weeks was typical for any would-be candidate agonizing about what to do next. Delaney talked to several people in the broad political realm – business executives and civic activists, labor leaders and fellow politicians. And he deliberated at length with himself. It became apparent that the two runners-up in the public polls – Attorney General Doug Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur – had no intention of leaving the race, though one tantalizing late-breaking rumor had Mizeur teaming with Delaney and becoming his running mate.

Ultimately, Delaney, who has an unusually ambitious agenda for a House freshman serving in the minority, focusing on such issues as infrastructure and transportation spending, housing, and the environment, decided to stay put.

“I’m actually enjoying what I’m doing and I think I’m doing productive work,” he said Monday. “It’s been my experience in life that if you’re doing something that you enjoy and something that’s productive, you ought to stick with it.”

Delaney said he continues to watch the gubernatorial race closely, but in contrast to both of the state’s U.S. senators and four of his fellow House members, all of whom have fallen in line behind Brown, he isn’t ready to offer an endorsement in the race. Gansler is an old friend. And Delaney has expressed admiration for the high-energy, grass-roots campaign Mizeur is waging.

“It’s early,” he said. “Very little has been communicated about these candidates at this point.”

But even though he didn’t run, we should not consider Delaney’s exploration of a gubernatorial bid a failure. In contrast to his congressional colleague, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), Delaney has emerged from the pre-primary jockeying stronger than before, revealing himself to be a risk-taker who cannot be dismissed as a rich dilettante.

Ruppersberger reveled in the attention every time he was mentioned as a possible contender for governor this election cycle – just as he has every time he has been mentioned since…1996! But there has rarely ever been tangible evidence that he has been laying the groundwork for a statewide run, and that has been especially true in recent months.

Ruppersberger repeatedly said that his duties as the No. 1 Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee have made him too busy to plot political strategy, and there’s an element of truth in that. But you’ve got to mobilize and put together a campaign at some point, and even before then you have to become engaged in what’s going on at the state level. On that score, Ruppersberger fell woefully short.

By contrast, Delaney, who months ago injected himself into the statewide debate over raising the minimum wage and more recently has become a persistent critic of the failure of the state health care exchange and, along with it, Brown’s leadership, has been right in the thick of it, and not just drinking in the entreaties of people urging him to run. To be sure, he is a freshman congressman with a far less weighty portfolio than Ruppersberger. But having just pulled a stunning upset in the congressional race two years ago (Ruppersberger’s last competitive campaign was in 2002), with a political operation still largely intact and with an ability to self-fund, Delaney perhaps should have been taken more seriously as a potential gubernatorial contender all along.

Maryland in the last couple of decades has not been kind to rich guys who have wanted to run for statewide office – think Stewart Bainum, Ray Schoenke and Josh Rales. But Delaney ran a very skillful race for Congress and probably could have done the same if he had run for governor.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, a wealthy businessman, Tom Wolf, has completely transformed the Democratic primary for governor in just a matter of months. The field includes the state treasurer, a popular Philadelphia-area congresswoman, well-respected local officials, and a former state environment secretary who has been endorsed by Al Gore. But with a handful of effective TV and radio ads, Wolf – who previously served as state revenue secretary and has a long history of civic involvement – has leaped ahead in the polls, and it may be tough for anyone else to slow his momentum. His campaign could certainly have been a model for Delaney’s.

That’s all just conjecture now. But this is fact: If Delaney is determined to become more of a player in state political and policy matters, he is quickly proving his mettle.

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

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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.