Candidates running until they must stop

September 12, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

I got the oddest call the other day. It was a campaign worker for someone running for Congress, and he asked if his candidate could count on my vote in today's primary. I said I hadn't made up my mind yet, and then waited to hear his pitch. But he just said, "OK, thank you" - and hung up without trying to convince me.

Could it be that even the campaigners are tired of the campaign at this point?

I'm beginning to think we only have elections to put a stop - albeit a temporary one - to what otherwise would be endless campaigning.

Maryland is either blessed or cursed this year by the fact that several high-profile seats are up for grabs. Entrenched incumbents like U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran are retiring, opening up seats that they've held for years. Another longtime officeholder, Rep. Ben Cardin, decided to run to replace Sarbanes, putting his 3rd Congressional District seat on the open market.

The vacancies created a veritable rush to run - followed by a rush to distinguish oneself from one's many opponents. It's a rush that continued in a final frenzy yesterday, the last day of campaigning before today's primaries. There was a lot of democracy on display yesterday, or maybe just a lot of futility.

They waved from intersections and highway exits in the morning rain, worked the phones and visited that last refuge of the desperate candidate in search of voters who won't run screaming - or at least very quickly - in the opposite direction: the senior center.

"This is no time to be shy," said Kevin O'Keeffe, one of 18 candidates for the 3rd Congressional District. By yesterday afternoon he had already waved to passing motorists at the I-395 entrance in downtown Baltimore, handed out leaflets at the Rotunda and, yes, visited a senior center in Highlandtown. Plus he was threatening to hit MARC train commuters in Odenton and Baltimore later in the day.

Like other candidates, he's convinced that at even this late date, there are still undecideds out there. As you head to the polls today, expect to find any number of candidates and their campaign workers trying to make a good final impression.

Try to be nice to them - if the couple of candidates' offices I visited yesterday are any indication, some of these staff and volunteers, with clipboards and earnestness, will have pulled an all-nighter or slept at headquarters on the slimmest of chances that they can still win your vote.

"It's hard to remember what day it is, just how many days before the election," said Greg Shaffer, campaign manager for another 3rd Congressional District candidate, Oz Bengur. He estimates staff and volunteers have knocked on 30,000 doors for their guy over the course of the campaign.

Of course, those same doors have been knocked on by multiple candidates. "The people who vote in the primaries - everyone is trying to reach them," said Kevin O'Holleran, who works for yet another 3rd Congressional District candidate, Peter Beilenson.

"I think we've met everyone you can meet," Beilenson said in all seriousness. "Honestly, it's such a massive undertaking. I didn't realize how much of an undertaking."

Beilenson at least started the campaign with some name recognition from his years as Baltimore's very activist health commissioner. (Much like Paula Hollinger benefits from her years as a state senator, Andy Barth from his years as a TV newsman, and even John Sarbanes from his father's long political career.)

Beilenson also is the son of a former congressman, but has found his campaign very different from the ones that his father ran during his political career. "He started as a state assemblyman when I was 2, and the person above him kept leaving, so he would move up," he said. "He was basically always running as the incumbent."

Familiarity does tend to breed victories, according to James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. Even in races where there isn't an incumbent, those who previously have held office tend to have a leg up on true newcomers.

"There's a tendency for officeholders to wait in line for the next opening," he said. Which is why in the Senate race, for example, the former and current congressmen, Kweisi Mfume and Ben Cardin, are the frontrunners, Gimpel said.

For all the promise of this election bringing about a changing of the guard and the introduction of fresh faces to public office, Gimpel isn't expecting a seismic shift. It just doesn't work that way in a state like Maryland, where "established names" matter, he said.

"It's not like Sun City, Arizona," Gimpel said, "where everyone has moved to from somewhere else."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

Go to baltimoresun.com tonight to read Jean Marbella's blog as election results come in.

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