Age takes center stage in primary for 21st District state Senate seat

Incumbent Dorman, 75, in contentious race against Giannetti, 38

August 29, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

When asked what message he wants to send to voters, state Sen. Arthur Dorman thinks a minute and declares, "I am not an invalid."

It's a little odd, given that Dorman's 38 years in the state legislature have yielded him a long list of accomplishments and endorsements he could push. Instead, what he wants voters in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties to know is that he walks a mile every day.

The bitter, nasty race for the state Senate in the 21st District has largely become a referendum on Dorman's age - 75 - and health. He missed 10 of the 12 weeks of the past legislative session because of back surgery.

Dorman's opponent in the Democratic primary is 38-year- old Del. John A. Giannetti Jr.

Giannetti, who could pass for 28, says age isn't an issue, but he reminds voters of his youth at every turn. His age is even on his campaign signs.

"I'm more energetic than he is," Giannetti said last week in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Laurel. "He has become complacent. He's shown a political arrogance that needs to be dealt with."

Giannetti says he is no stranger to hardball politics. Running for delegate in 1998, he awoke on the morning of Election Day to find his cat shot to death on his front porch.

Dorman has never lost a race for elected office and doesn't intend to start now.

No Republican is running for the seat. The Sept. 10 primary will effectively decide who represents the district, which includes Odenton, Jessup, Russett and Laurel and parts of Prince George's County.

The candidates have spent weeks accusing each other of making false claims of endorsements, misusing campaign funds and misrepresenting each other's records.

Giannetti sends out news releases with headlines such as "Dorman Caught Red-handed" and "Dorman Exposed." A firestorm erupted over which man was endorsed by the wife of the late mayor of Laurel; both claimed her support.

Less about issues

The race has become one of the most competitive and closely watched in the state, say political observers. The candidates differ on some issues, but the split is more about personalities than politics.

"Instead of debating real issues, the candidates have become the issue," said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Many, many voters are going to stream to the polls and only have the vaguest impression of who these two guys are.

"And probably it will come down to a matter of the age and experience you have with Dorman versus the youth and vigor you see in Giannetti."

Dorman has a larger campaign fund - about $30,000 as of Aug. 6, compared with Giannetti's $10,000 - but Giannetti raised more money this year and said he has the momentum.

Aggressive campaigner

Giannetti has worked hard to show his energy to voters. He spends several hours most evenings knocking on doors, and he has the bruised knuckles and tattered shoes to prove it.

On a recent evening, he canvassed Dorman's neighborhood in Beltsville. Giannetti had put up 27 of his signs on Dorman's street so that the senator would see them every day. This night, Giannetti started on Wicomico Avenue and knocked on the door of Charles Mischke's red brick home.

Mischke emerged wearing a Ravens T-shirt and listened to Giannetti's spiel: "This district needs a more energetic senator - someone who can vigorously represent it."

Mischke had already made up his mind; he was voting for Giannetti. "I think it's time to make a change," Mischke said.

In talking to voters, Giannetti highlighted some of the differences between himself and his opponent: Giannetti favors the Inter-County Connector highway between Montgomery and Prince George's counties; the magnetic levitation train from Washington to Baltimore (as long as it doesn't run through Odenton); and slot machines at racetracks and select locations in the state.

Dorman opposes all three ideas. He favors more mass transit options, an increased emphasis on recycling and more efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. He says his decades of service give him influence that Giannetti lacks.

Among his accomplishments, Dorman notes his role in reorganizing the state university system in 1988, designating the University of Maryland, College Park as the flagship campus; extending kindergarten across the state; and sponsoring a recent bill to ban phosphates from the bay.

Letter flap

The biggest flap of the campaign happened late last month, when the Laurel Leader published a letter purportedly from Etna Casula, the widow of popular and longtime Laurel Mayor Frank P. Casula. The letter endorsed Dorman.

Dorman said his campaign staff wrote the letter after Etna Casula agreed to it. But she backtracked and asked to have her name taken off the letter. By that point, Dorman said, it was too late.

"I think Giannetti badgered the poor old lady," Dorman said.

Dorman said he is feeling a little badgered himself. "I want to talk the issues, and he keeps bringing up that I'm 75 years old," he said. "I'm just as spry and agile and able to do the job I did 20 years ago."

Giannetti, a lawyer who has represented Laurel in the House of Delegates for four years, says he is holding Dorman accountable for what he has said and done.

"Art is sitting back, resting on his record," Giannetti said while canvassing last week. "And that's not what this district needs. This district needs someone fighting for it."

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