A long shot knocks doors, piles up debt

August 06, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

We're at 2113 W. Pratt St., east of downtown Baltimore, with Kevin O'Keeffe, a candidate for Congress from Maryland's 3rd District.

There's an open seat in the 3rd, attracting a diverse field of strong candidates.

Candidate O'Keeffe is wondering if anyone's noticed. Of 200,000 eligible Democratic voters, he calculates, as few as 60,000 might turn out Sept. 12, primary election day. That would be well below 50 percent.

"Let's see what happens," he says, ringing the front-door bell.

The muffled barking of a dog is what's happening. The candidate walks around to the back, looking for signs of human life. Nothing there, either.

He makes the effort because, according to the list he bought from the Democratic Party for $2,500, this is the home of a "better voter," someone who turned out for a recent party primary or general election.

He mourns the falling off of interest in government, but he sympathizes with it as well.

"People don't feel connected to anyone in politics," he says.

Maybe it's the professionalization of politics, the reliance on television over block captains and disciplined precinct organizations with clubhouses and year-round, election-by-election efforts.

Maybe it's the laughable distortions of one-person-one-vote, the law that requires a balancing of voters district by district. In practice, the process allows incumbent members of Congress, using computers, to slice and dice the electorate into constituencies likely to re-elect them.

The result of redistricting in Maryland's 3rd is an amoeba-like affair with three population nodes: one in the city, one in Anne Arundel County and one in Baltimore County. The idea that voters in these areas have anything in common was an afterthought at best.

Mr. O'Keeffe runs as if to make up for the excesses of those who came before him.

"This is America," he says, "a guy like me running against the son of a senator and a congressman. My family never had a car, never had a checking account."

His opponents are Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, former Baltimore health commissioner; state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger; John P. Sarbanes, an attorney and son of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes; businessman Oz Bengur; Andy Barth, a former WMAR-TV reporter; and Mishonda M. Baldwin, an attorney and retired Army officer.

He pronounces them all worthy, all talented - plenty good enough to produce a good turnout.

A former government aide in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County and the author of a book on Baltimore politics, Mr. O'Keeffe knows the game. He has heard the skeptics from the beginning - and he still hears them.

"When I started, people said, `Oh, come on, so-and-so's running and so-and-so's running.' I just keep knocking on doors," he says.

On Pratt Street, he comes back around to the front of the house with a pen and one of his green and white campaign brochures in hand. "Sorry I missed you," he writes.

Of course. once the note is complete, the woman of the house opens the door. A bit startled, she smiles when the candidate asks if she would like an emery board, a popular campaign favor that carries the candidate's name and the name of the office he's seeking.

"Remember," says the candidate, "O'Keeffe is OK." At other points, he says he's "the other O," a reference to Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is running for governor. His name, he points out, has two "f"s - anything to give yourself a little more identity.

For the privilege of being in a race with opponents who have lofty pedigrees, he has taken a $75,000 second mortgage on his house in Baltimore's Otterbein neighborhood. He quit his job as governmental lobbyist for Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens. He's raised more than $200,000, a more than respectable number.

He goes to the candidate forums - at Democratic clubs, black churches, environmental groups and others. He's as frustrated as his opponents when he gets only the customary two-minute opening statement, with one minute for closing remarks - enough time to give his phone number.

Still he insists, "I love this."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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