First-time candidate faces uphill race for U.S. Senate

Rales' bid could get boost from philanthropic efforts

May 02, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Rockville -- Debby Rales, wife of U.S. Senate candidate Josh Rales, propped open a book called Chickens Aren't the Only Ones and asked the second-grader what he saw.

Ousmane Amadou, a pupil at Beall Elementary School in Rockville who has met weekly with Rales since September as part of the countywide tutoring program she and her husband help finance, turned the pages of the book with his long slender fingers and scanned the illustrations intently.

"Here I see crocodiles, turtles and snakes, dinosaurs, frogs, toads and lizards," Ousmane said in a soft voice, his brown eyes widening. Together they read the book, which describes the many animals and amphibians that - like chickens - lay eggs.

"Good reading!" Debby Rales said when they finished, squeezing the shoulder of Ousmane, who teachers say is now reading at grade level thanks to the program and his own initiative.

The Ruth Rales Comcast Kids Reading Network, named for Josh Rales' mother, who died of breast cancer in 2004, is one of the couple's many philanthropic efforts in Montgomery County. As Rales launches his Senate campaign, he'll build on those efforts - and the connections they have provided - to try to make inroads in a contest so far dominated by more experienced politicians.

There is no question that Rales - founder of the real estate development firm Rales Family Investments and who in official filings estimates his net worth and income at $120 million - and his family are well-known in the Washington suburbs, especially in the Jewish community. Two of his brothers are on Forbes magazine's list of the nation's billionaires.

But it remains to be seen whether Rales' generosity, long-standing ties to the area's business and charitable leaders, and willingness to sink a reported $5 million or more of his own money into the race can give a big boost to his political hopes.

"This is our own little world of things we're trying to do to help make people's lives better," Rales, 48, said in an interview in the reading room where Ousmane finished the book. "We believe in giving back, and we're trying to do it in the best way we know how - within our community."

The Democratic primary field for the Maryland Senate seat soon to be vacated by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes is crowded, but it is dominated by two candidates who draw support from different communities.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term member of Congress and former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, leads in polls so far and is backed by several of the state's most influential party leaders. Former Baltimore congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume has trailed Cardin in both the polls and in fundraising, but remains popular in the African-American community.

Low in the polls

Rales, on the other hand, still polls in the low single digits, a position he shares with several other candidates: American University professor Allan J. Lichtman, who also lives in Montgomery County; perennial candidate A. Robert Kaufman of Baltimore; and Dennis Rasmussen, the former Baltimore County executive.

But if he uses his ready cash to hit the airwaves early, Rales, a former Republican and Republican Party donor, could make inroads in Montgomery County, which holds 16.4 percent of the party's registered voters statewide, second only to Prince George's County's 18.2 percent, political observers and those who know Rales say.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, who taught Rales as an undergraduate, said he remembers him as idealistic but also policy-oriented, smart and thoughtful.

"When you're trying to break in, it's especially tough to break in at the top," Sabato said. "People naturally ask, `Well, what's there? Is there just a big wallet or is something else there?' Based on my experience, there's something else there."

Ron Peters, Rales' varsity football coach at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, in whose honor the Raleses recently renovated the school's courtyard, put it differently: "No matter how well he did, he was always trying for more."

Jennifer Duffy, editor and political analyst for the Cook Political Report, an independent newsletter analyzing elections and campaigns, said Rales has a rough road ahead of him.

"First-time candidates have to jump much higher hurdles in proving themselves," Duffy said. "I'd like to see if he connects with voters. I'd like to see if they overlook his dalliance with the Republican Party."

There have been Senate candidates who were political novices but won after pouring ample amounts of personal cash into their campaigns - think John Edwards of North Carolina and Jon Corzine of New Jersey. Others, however, have crashed and burned.

Meanwhile, new campaign finance laws, which first affected the 2004 election cycle, include a so-called "millionaires amendment" that aims to discourage the wealthy from giving excessively to their own campaigns. The more they give, the higher the donation limits for other candidates.

Primary challenge

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