Mark M. Spradley's first foray into elective politics, a 1998 run for the state Senate, ended in a 4-to-1 thumping by now-Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
"It was a great experience," said Spradley, now running again - this time as a Republican for state comptroller. He said it helped him refine many of the messages he's delivering today.
The little-known Spradley is one of four Republicans seeking the party's nomination for an office that has been the exclusive preserve of the state's Democratic Party since Phillips Lee Goldsborough left office in 1900.
Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is content to keep it that way, having publicly supported the Democratic incumbent, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, for re-election.
Ehrlich's support for Schaefer may have deterred better-known Republicans from seeking the office, but Spradley, Montgomery County school board member Stephen N. Abrams, former University of Baltimore business school dean Anne M. McCarthy and perennial candidate Gene Zarwell are seeking the party's nod in the Sept. 12 primary.
With Schaefer's renomination by the Democrats uncertain, the Republican race for comptroller could take on a significance it hasn't had in years.
Unlike Abrams, who has presented himself as an "insurance policy" for the GOP in case Schaefer loses the Democratic primary, Spradley said he fully expects to face the incumbent comptroller - and win.
"Who would be a better person than me?" said the 52-year-old investment specialist. "It's the David and Goliath story."
Spradley, a Rockville resident, is already off to a faster start than most of his Republican competitors. He has a sophisticated Web site and was the first in the race to run a television ad - an upbeat, issue-free spot on some local cable channels.
A veteran of the financial services industry, Spradley is presenting himself as a consensus-builder and fiscal watchdog rather than an ideological candidate.
Spradley said he grew up in GOP-dominated areas of Long Island, N.Y., and central Pennsylvania and was impressed at an early age by such liberal to moderate Republican leaders as New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay.
Now, after 20 years of living in Maryland, Spradley identifies himself as a strong supporter of President Bush and doesn't believe Bush's low poll numbers in Maryland will have an effect on down-ballot races such as comptroller.
Spradley describes himself as "fiscally conservative and socially inclusive." He declined to explain his views on specific social issues, saying they are outside the scope of the comptroller's job, but he indicated his views are heavily influenced by his ethnicity.
"I'm an African-American. There's never one day I look in the mirror and feel differently about that," he said.
Spradley said he started his financial services career at Legg Mason and is now one of three co-owners of Mazao Capital LLC - a company that specializes in private equity investments outside the framework of the established stock markets.
By law, Maryland's comptroller serves on the board of trustees of the state pension system, and by custom either serves as chairman or vice chairman of that body. Schaefer serves as chairman, with Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp as vice chairwoman.
Spradley, who said that if elected he would seek the chairmanship, has definite ideas he would like to explore regarding investments of state pension funds. He said he'd like to look into the idea of lowering the percentage of the state's investments in stocks and bonds and to study whether to put more money into private equity.
Within the class of private equity investments, Spradley said he'd like to explore investing pension fund money in efforts to increase homeownership in Maryland. He said he favors the strategic use of state pension money to further social goals - but only "if it's an appropriate investment."
Spradley said he would present a contrast with Schaefer, whose comments at Board of Public Works meetings have outraged some Democratic constituencies.
"It's more important to bring people together to solve problems than it is to be divisive," Spradley said. "I don't think it requires public outbursts or confrontational behavior that diminishes the prestige of the office."
While Spradley admires Ehrlich's handling of the state's finances and faults the Democratic-dominated General Assembly's record, he said he intended to remain an independent player regardless of who is elected governor.
"It's a constitutional office. Your first commitment has to be to the people of Maryland," he said.
While Spradley might not be well-known to Maryland voters, he has won admirers in prominent Republican circles.
Clayton K. Yeutter, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture and Republican national chairman, said he has known Spradley for many years and is an admirer.