Josh Kurtz: The Worst

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The escalating battle to replace U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) in the 8th Congressional District is quickly becoming an embarrassment – a multimillion-dollar circus-like exemplar of everything that’s wrong with Montgomery County politics today.

You want candidates with a limitless ability to spend money? Candidates who overestimate their abilities? Candidates who have been stuck in their current positions for too long and are desperately looking for a way out? Candidates who misinterpret a couple of years in low-level positions in a presidential administration as sufficient training to serve as members of Congress? It’s all here.

Worst of all, the race is reinforcing the misguided and hard-to-shake perception across the state that the streets in Montgomery County are paved with gold. It will stymie the county’s imperative to be seen as a polyglot jurisdiction with genuine pockets of poverty and myriad needs. It will undoubtedly set back the county’s efforts to compete for badly needed state funds.

Let us stipulate that there are some talented, interesting and appealing candidates in the eight-way Democratic race. All would probably make decent members of Congress – good, reliable liberals who would represent the county (and the portion of the district in Frederick and Carroll counties) conscientiously.

But the way they are going about the business of running their campaigns and trying to win the hearts and minds of voters leaves a lot to be desired – unless you are a political consultant awaiting your bonanza from the torrent of spending on the race.

In this primary, for starters, we have the mega-rich and the merely rich.

In the former role is David Trone, the Bethesda booze baron who entered the Democratic primary just two weeks ago and immediately dropped $900,000 on TV and web ads, which have already become unavoidable.

In the latter category is Kathleen Matthews, the former broadcaster and Marriott executive who is married to MSNBC yakker Chris Matthews. Kathleen and Chris are part of the D.C. elite – a glamorous power couple from the rarified precincts of Chevy Chase, whose friends come from the same world.

Trone has an inspiring personal story and an interesting, almost utopian (but not socialistic) message about sharing the wealth. Matthews radiates charm and charisma – and you get the feeling she’d be a lot of fun to hang out with.

But you also get the feeling that Trone and Matthews don’t know a lot about the rest of us – and the communities they are presuming to serve. Do we really want someone with a sky’s-the-limit approach to campaign spending like Trone to represent us in Congress? Do we want someone like Matthews who seems to be accepting campaign contributions from every K Street lawyer, D.C. financier, media celebrity and bold-faced name?

If these approaches are unappetizing, Democratic voters have three seasoned state legislators to choose from.

State Sen. Jamie Raskin is an accomplished legislator, a genuine progressive, a nice guy – and a legal scholar to boot. But he has said he wants to be “a transformational” member of Congress – when all he’ll be, for the foreseeable future, is a junior member of the minority party.

Raskin is running a grass-roots campaign while keeping close to Matthews on the fundraising front. But this isn’t quite like Bernie Sanders’ $27 average contribution competing with Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street bucks. Raskin has plenty of big donors, too – from the extensive list of D.C. lefty intelligentsia.

Del. Kumar Barve, who has been in Annapolis for a quarter century and only last year became chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, is also an accomplished lawmaker and a nice guy – and doesn’t take himself too seriously. But Barve has been perhaps a little too cautious in his political career. You can’t help feeling that somehow, his moment to ascend to Congress should have been a decade or two ago.

Del. Ana Sol Guttierez is also a committed progressive who was one of the first public figures in Montgomery County, when she was on the school board, to acknowledge and craft policy that reflected the county’s demographic changes. But she has never really laid out a rationale for her congressional bid.

Gutierrez would be a freshman member of Congress at the age of 75. She is not running a serious campaign.

Will Jawando and Joel Rubin are young guys who have worked for the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill. There are tens of thousands of people just like them rattling around the D.C. area. They are smart, attractive guys and dedicated public servants with political acumen who rate more consideration from the voters than they’ll get when so many of their opponents are spending so aggressively. But maybe they should have looked at running for a more humble office than Congress to launch their political careers.

The eighth Democratic, David Anderson, an educator and consultant, seems to be competing for the gadfly vote – which in Maryland Democratic contests is never very big.

The last time there was a wide-open Democratic primary for the 8th District seat, in 2002, it was a feast for the voters. The leading candidates, Van Hollen, then a state senator, and then-Del. Mark Shriver, were princes of Annapolis. Van Hollen had a broad and deep record of accomplishment, and Shriver was highly effective on the causes he championed – and had the added bonus of being a Kennedy.

The third candidate, Ira Shapiro, was a foreign policy and trade expert with a long career of government service. He had a streak of arrogance but also a good sense of humor, and was every bit as fluent on the issues as Van Hollen and Shriver. Even kooky Deborah Vollmer, the fourth candidate, sort of became the conscience of the race, advocating for campaign finance reform and other progressive causes.

Van Hollen won because he had a locally seasoned political team around him, who figured out where his votes were, enabling him to eke out a victory in the primary over the more consultant-driven (David Axelrod, David Plouffe) Shriver campaign.

This time around, it feels different. This race is being defined by the obscene amounts of money, hubris, and the ambitions of careerist politicians.

If it’s any consolation, the 8th District will almost certainly wind up with a good member of Congress. That’s the good news. But the process is stomach turning and depressing.

Come back, Ira Shapiro. All is forgiven.

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.