Kratovil fights 1st District's conservative tide

Freshman Democrat considered underdog in new challenge by Harris

March 15, 2010|By Paul West | paul.west@baltsun.com

CHESTER — Frank Kratovil Jr. made history as the first Democrat elected to Congress from Maryland's easternmost district since the 1980s. Now, he's struggling against a reverse tide, one that sweeps out congressmen from the president's party in the middle of a new administration.

The freshman lawmaker is probably best known for being hanged in effigy by a disgruntled Eastern Shore constituent. The incident underscored the tough challenge Kratovil faces every day.

He is caught between his conservative district and Democratic leaders who'd like to have his support for their ambitious national agenda. Heading into the final showdown over health care legislation, local voters say they'll be watching closely.

Mike O'Connor, a federal employee from Grasonville, wants Kratovil to go "for the people, not for the Democratic Party" on health care overhaul. "If he were to vote against it, he would probably get my vote for re-election," says the 38-year-old Republican.

Dan Burnside, 35, also of Grasonville, crossed party lines to vote for Kratovil and hopes the congressman doesn't "lose himself" just because "some lady," referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "tries to force your hand."

Another Republican voter, John Maddy of Bay City in Queen Anne's County, observes that if Kratovil "really wants a political career, he's going to have to ride the party line. But we're hoping that he'll hold true to what he says he'll do. So far, he's been pretty good."

Despite that sort of praise, Kratovil is an underdog in his first re-election try. Independent analysts regard Republican challenger Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County as the early favorite. So, too, do some of Harris' colleagues in the state Senate, who have half-jokingly taken to calling him "Congressman."

In 2008, Kratovil beat Harris by fewer than 3,000 votes in the 1st District, which takes in the entire Eastern Shore and largely Republican parts of suburban Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties. Presidential nominee Barack Obama's supporters may well have made the difference in the election.

This fall, Obama's name won't be on the ballot, and Kratovil, the most vulnerable congressional incumbent in the state, may find himself part of a negative national trend for Democrats. A prolonged economic downturn has created a brutal re-election environment for the party in power, with Democratic control of both the House and Senate at risk.

Typically, congressmen face the greatest chance of defeat after their initial terms, and 2010 appears to be no exception. Of the 15 most vulnerable House Democrats in the U.S., according to the latest nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, all but one are first-termers like Kratovil.

Kratovil, in an interview, acknowledges there are "some factors that are out of your control." But, he insists, "I have never been one to believe that you are not in control of your own destiny."

He has been working several fronts in an effort to save his job. He joined the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition and carved out the most independent voting record of any Maryland Democrat in Congress last year.

Kratovil helped deliver $70 million in earmarks to his district, more than triple what his Republican predecessor did the year before, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group. And he's raising a pile of cash to fight his Republican opponent.

"I said I was going to be independent, and I think that's what I've done," he says. A recent survey by National Journal, a respected Washington publication, gave him a score of 46 liberal and 54 conservative, putting him much closer than other members of Maryland's congressional delegation to the center.

Yes, he's heard the cynical joke on the House floor, that there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead skunks. And he agrees that politicians who fail to fully satisfy either end of the political equation can get hurt.

"But if you are going to change D.C.," he says, "you need more people that are going to be moderate and reasonable and pragmatic and looking for solutions and not being totally ideologically driven."

Trying to be reasonable, though, can cause problems in a hyperpartisan atmosphere. The 41-year-old congressman, who looks young enough to be a Boy Scout and sometimes sounds like one, got pounded after telling a reporter recently that he wanted to look at the latest version of health care legislation before making up his mind.

The national Republican Party, which has had Kratovil in its sights since before he took office, flooded both shores of the Chesapeake Bay with ominous, automated phone calls. They were designed to link him to a health care plan even less popular in his district than the country as a whole. They also reinforced another Republican attack theme: that he is a puppet of Obama and Speaker Pelosi.

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