State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger - a 26-year veteran of Maryland politics and one of the most influential members of the Senate - announced her candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday, ending months of speculation and heating up the race for Maryland's 3rd Congressional District and her own General Assembly seat.
Appearing in a plaza fronting the University of Maryland Medical Center and before a crowd of supporters holding "Nurses for Hollinger" and "Women for Hollinger" signs, the sole female head of a Senate committee stressed her experience as a legislator and former nurse.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions on the 3rd Congressional District race incorrectly spelled the name of Kevin O'Keeffe, an aide to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.
The Sun regrets the error.
"Today, I want to use the restorative power of cooperation to heal a Congress that is paralyzed with partisanship and help nurse the country back to health," said Hollinger, 64, a Democrat who represents the 11th District in Baltimore County.
Hollinger faces at least three other Democratic contenders in an increasingly crowded field for the seat being vacated by longtime incumbent Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. He is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring.
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's high-profile health commissioner, resigned from his position last month to declare to his candidacy for Congress. Last week, Anne Arundel County Councilman Bill D. Burlison, a former five-term congressman from southeast Missouri, announced his candidacy. State Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, has also said he intends to run, though he won't make an official declaration until the fall.
Other Democrats considering a run include: Del. Jon S. Cardin, Benjamin Cardin's nephew; Oz Bengur, an investment banker who lost a primary fight to incumbent Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in 2002; and Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' name has also surfaced, as has that of one of her top political advisers, Kevin O'Keefe.
Possible Republican candidates include Ed Miller, an attorney and deputy chief of staff for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
First elected to the House of Delegates in 1978, Hollinger holds a powerful position in Annapolis as chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee. With only four standing committees in the Senate, chairs such as Hollinger wield extensive authority over legislation.
A shrewd politician who uses a grandmotherly touch to push tough issues, Hollinger is known for tackling divisive topics such as stem cell research and the punishment of doctors who make medical mistakes, as well as women's rights. Her interest in federal issues, she said, is what spurred her to make a run to be a freshman member of Congress and give up a role of authority that took years to achieve.
"Believe me, it's hard to give up a position of power, being in the majority, being the top woman in the Senate as chair of one of four committees," said Hollinger after her speech. "But I have done my service in the legislature, and my issues are federal," she said ticking off stem cell research, waiver bills and senior citizen issues as examples.
Like Beilenson, Hollinger focused on education and health issues in launching her campaign, pointing to helping senior citizens with prescription medicines, saving Social Security from privatization and preserving abortion rights as among her priorities. "My record fighting for our seniors is unparalleled among candidates in this race," she said.
Political observers say Hollinger is a vigorous campaigner who is popular with voters in Baltimore County. But to win the race, she will have to lock up support in an oddly configured district that includes about equal numbers of Democratic voters in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City, with a smaller number in Howard County.
"By reasonable accounts, this is a wide-open race," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based polling firm. "No one of the major candidates begins with a substantial base districtwide."
But Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Hollinger's base of support in Pikesville - in northwest Baltimore County - remains the bedrock of the district.
"Northwest Baltimore County has always been the core of that district, which gives Hollinger a slight built-in advantage," said Schaller. "But Anne Arundel will be an important focus of the campaign. The battleground could very well be Anne Arundel."
In addition to the regional element, the race could be affected by gender and the Jewish vote, said Schaller.
"I think the Jewish vote is going to be split among a number of candidates," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who attended Hollinger's speech. "But clearly, Senator Hollinger has a very strong record of support for the issues that the Jewish community has advanced."
Hollinger's announcement also opens the door for candidates who have been seeking the seat she has held for nearly 20 years. Chief among those is Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who intends to announce his state Senate candidacy Monday.
Both Hollinger and Beilenson said yesterday that they intend to run positive campaigns.