8th District has plugged-in electorate

Congressional candidates can discuss esoteric issues

Election 2002

August 23, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA -- By day, they are Washington-based ambassadors and undersecretaries, chief counsels, chief financial officers, chiefs of staff.

Then they commute home to Maryland's 8th Congressional District and become PTA members, Little League coaches, soccer moms. And voters.

But not just any voters. The suburban 8th District, site of a hotly contested Democratic primary, may contain the most politically plugged-in electorate in the nation.

In other districts, candidates do bull roasts. Here, they hold policy forums on the Middle East. In other districts, the hopefuls run as Washington outsiders. Here, where median household income is about $76,000, they offer resumes and endorsements designed to impress those who watch C-SPAN for fun.

"It's a very different kind of district," said Democrat Michael Barnes, who held the seat in Congress until 1986. "I'd go to town meetings, and a person would say, `How do you feel about the way the Department of Agriculture is implementing Rule K?' and, of course, I've never heard of it. And this would be the guy who wrote it. Sometimes, they try to show you how dumb you are."

The electorate's unique composition shapes the Democratic primary campaign in the Montgomery County-based district, in which former Clinton administration trade official Ira Shapiro, state Del. Mark K. Shriver, state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and lawyer Deborah Vollmer are vying for the right to challenge Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella in the general election Nov. 5.

More than most, it has become a race not just over issues and personalities, but over who is best positioned to unseat Morella. That focus is a function of the district's proximity to Washington and voters' keen awareness -- many of them work on Capitol Hill -- that Democrats need a net gain of six seats in November to assume control of the House of Representatives.

"At some level, this is a national race," said Deborah Cohn, a Bethesda lawyer closely following the campaign. "When I talk to friends who are Democrats, they say, `Who is best suited to beat Connie?'" Democrats enjoy a better than 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans in the district, which also includes a sliver of Prince George's County.

Cohn is supporting Shapiro, 54, a "policy guy" whose background seems well suited to the somewhat wonkish district. Shapiro has no elective experience and talks frequently of his years in the Clinton administration and as a senior staff member on Capitol Hill.

He has gradually increased his visibility through a handful of forums replete with the sort of policy experts who command notice in this county, but would be little known outside the Capital Beltway.

"This has been his means to establish credibility -- issues forums," said pollster Keith Haller of Bethesda. "He's been able to turn out several hundred people on subjects some would consider arcane and academic."

One Shapiro forum -- on terrorism and the Middle East -- attracted about 375 people during an evening downpour July 23. Others had to be turned away so the fire marshal's limit was not exceeded.

A big reason for the overflow crowd: a lineup of panelists that included Samuel R. Berger, the former White House national security adviser, and Ambassador Dennis B. Ross, the former special Middle East coordinator.

It was as if the rock band Aerosmith had been invited to nearby FedEx Field. "In Montgomery County, that is Aerosmith," said Barnes, who was not surprised to hear about the good turnout.

Barnes was reminded of a town meeting that he organized late in his congressional career. Featured speakers included former presidential candidate Gary Hart and Rep. William H. Gray III, who then was chairman of the House Budget Committee.

The spring event happened to coincide with a men's national collegiate basketball final featuring Georgetown.

"We just had huge crowds, and I thought, `There has to be something else going on. These people can't be here for the federal budget on the night of the NCAA basketball championship,'" Barnes said. "But they were."

Said Douglas Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney: "There are a lot of bright people here. An incredible 65 percent of our jury pools have advanced degrees."

The voters' erudition often causes local candidates to adopt a different style than their counterparts in other regions.

While many lawmakers resist talking about foreign policy to their constituents because it is considered too esoteric, the subject is welcome here. "I was on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and that was a big plus in Montgomery County," Barnes said. "People were interested in the Middle East and Central America and Japan."

At a recent debate, Van Hollen made a point of highlighting his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where, as a staff member, he investigated the use of biological weapons by Saddam Hussein in 1988.

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