Democrats take aim on House seat

October 22, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Democrats plan to target a first-time GOP candidate's stances on social issues, arguing that she is out of step with the district's moderate voters, in an effort to pick up one of the district's two House of Delegates seats.

The strategy includes highlighting a child sex abuse trial in which Donna Stifler testified as a character witness on behalf of the accused.

Stifler, a 41-year-old teacher and former pharmaceutical saleswoman, defeated a fixture in Harford County politics in the primary with a message of making Maryland "safer, smarter and simpler," and advocating tougher penalties for child sex offenders and funding increases for education.

Democrats view her stances on abortion as extreme. Though the party did not field a candidate in 2002 and has not been successful in the district since 1994, strategists believe they see an opportunity for Craig DeRan, an attorney from Forest Hill.

DeRan, also a first-time candidate, whose literature does not include his party affiliation, faced no opposition in the primary and has $61,000 to spend, far more than any other candidate in the race. With two-term Republican incumbent Del. Barry Glassman considered a heavy favorite, DeRan said he is focusing on drawing distinctions between himself and Stifler. The delegation for District 35A sends two members to Annapolis. Stifler, Glassman and DeRan are competing for those two seats.

"I'm a Harford County moderate Democrat," DeRan said in an interview. "People respect that position more than the absolute-everything position. I'm saying, `Let's be practical.' "

Part of that strategy is likely to involve direct-mail literature, pointing out Stifler's testimony during the trial of a 66-year-old neighbor, a former teacher accused of fondling a student in 2003. Party officials say it shows a dichotomy between her campaign message and her personal actions.

The man was acquitted in 2004 of a third-degree sex offense during a trial at which more than 40 parents and fellow teachers, including Stifler, testified on his behalf, according to court records.

He was convicted of second-degree assault in August after entering an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.

Stifler said the criticism of her testimony is baseless.

"He didn't get convicted, so he's not a child sex offender," she said. "Two juries and the appeal process found in his favor. The sad thing is that they're going to politicize this."

Michael G. Comeau, chairman of the Democratic Central Committee, said Stifler was using "situational ethics."

"In her campaign, the world is black and white," Comeau said. "She's running a campaign of `lock them up and throw away the key,' and then she voluntarily testifies in court for someone charged with that offense."

DeRan plans to send a slew of direct mail to voters, outlining his stances on education, land preservation and energy. He advocates collective bargaining for lower electric rates, strengthening agriculture as a business and getting more state money for school construction. As a Democrat, he said, he can better work with the majorities in the General Assembly.

But he wants to distinguish himself from Stifler, whom he considers his ideological opposite. He said she isn't talking about what matters to the district's voters.

Stifler also will mail literature and letters to voters, whom she said she connected with during the primary. She and Glassman have formed a formal ticket and speak often on the phone.

Most of her time on the campaign trail is spent discussing education, she said. Voters have been asking for her stances on issues such as abortion, prompting the information on her Web site, she said. There, she tells voters that she is opposed to abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research.

"Say what you want about social issues, I've got the voters' ear, and there's nothing more important to me than that," she said.

DeRan faces an uphill battle. The district's voters include 49 percent registered Republicans and 38 percent Democrats, and many moderate Democratic voters have been favoring GOP candidates in recent years. Without a second Democratic candidate, many voters are likely to check off one of the Republicans, pumping up their totals even more.

Avery Ward, a political science professor at Harford Community College, said DeRan's best hope is for Democratic voters to vote only for him. Ward researched the district while running the campaign of Del. Joanne S. Parrott, who lost to Stifler.

"Craig needs a strong turnout of Democrats, and he needs them to vote just for him," Ward said. "The history of the district and the registration numbers would favor the Republicans, but his fundraising efforts look good."

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