A risk-taker who's willing to make House calls

June 26, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

DR. PETER L. Beilenson has a prescription for the nation and for the Democratic Party: more straight-talking and outspoken leaders - and another doctor in Congress.

The doctor he has in mind, of course, is himself.

As Baltimore's health commissioner, he was responsible for preparing a major city for weapons of mass destruction. And he's been dealing with other weapons of mass destruction on city streets: HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, violence and a failure to confront them.

With the support of two mayors - Kurt L. Schmoke and Martin O'Malley - he confronted them all with considerable success. HIV/AIDS is down, violence is down, teen pregnancy is down and a willingness to fight back is up.

And now, with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin running for the U.S. Senate, the 3rd District House seat is open.

Open seats traditionally draw a multitude of contenders. That may be true in this case as well. Dr. Beilenson hopes his early declaration will give him an edge in a field that seems to have no obvious front-runner.

"I'm running," he declared recently when someone said he was thinking about running.

He'll be running in a politically schizophrenic district.

Through the marvels of politics, the 3rd is a hybrid of conservative Anne Arundel County to the south with more liberal city and Baltimore County precincts plus a bit of Howard County to the west and north.

Overall, the district remains Democratic in terms of voter registration. But the effective ratio of Democratic to Republican voters may be closer to 50-50. The well-known, nine-term incumbent, Mr. Cardin, won in the Anne Arundel precincts, but barely. Ample majorities in the city and in Howard and Baltimore counties made him the easy winner.

Dr. Beilenson believes he has sufficient name recognition in those sectors of the district to be more than competitive. And he thinks he can make a strong argument for himself in parts of the district he acknowledges are little known to him.

But why would someone who said he loved his job as health commissioner take the risk? Even if he wins, he could be a nonentity for years, quite a change for a man who has been credited with persuading political leaders to sponsor things such as needle exchanges for addicts who threaten to infect themselves and others with AIDS.

And yet not a change at all. The doctor is a risk-taker. And the risks have paid off with fewer AIDS cases and savings for taxpayers running into the millions of dollars. This is so, he says, because many new AIDS cases are cared for with the public dollar.

With his health care credentials and the threat of bioterrorism, he believes he would arrive in Washington with desperately needed expertise. What he brings to the table should be persuasive in households of both parties.

"If anything," he said recently, "I'm more passionate about public service now. I'm disturbed by the way the Bush administration and the Republican Congress have done things. I really do think they've taken the country in the wrong direction."

He wants to be part of the national debate, and he believes near-anonymity in the House might have its upside. Just as young Republicans made Congress into their bully pulpit on the way to holding a majority of the House seats, Dr. Beilenson sees himself as a rhetorical tonic for a Democratic Party that he says has frequently seemed weak and confused.

"I'm not going to be bombastic, but I think the war was a mistake," he said. "I think people are getting their arms blown off in the war, and I don't think we should have sent anybody over there. The only way the Democrats can succeed is to stop being milquetoast about things."

His candidacy will be a test of the voters' willingness to hear an uncompromising political true believer, someone who thinks the American people are looking for solutions - not just ideology.

That goal, though often invoked by politicians, seems to have few committed practitioners in the political world of today. His candidacy, then, will be an educational enterprise as well as a strictly political one. It's not bioterrorism or the murder rate, but a poisonous partisan atmosphere needs a cure, too.

"If we can't change that," the doctor said, "it's not good for the country."

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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