In Md.'s 6th District, a different kind of candidate

Pooran offers an alternative to careerist politicians

March 20, 2012|Thomas F. Schaller

Democrats living in Maryland's Sixth Congressional District have a rare opportunity in their upcoming primary. There's a different kind of candidate running for the seat held by longtime Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett. His name is Milad Pooran.

Dr. Pooran is a 35-year-old Iranian-American physician and veteran of the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps — not the profile of a typical congressional aspirant. He's a long shot to win the nomination; even if he does, and despite the fact the district was gerrymandered last year to make it more favorable for the Democrats, a victory in November is no sure thing.

This much is certain: His election would send a strong signal to both Annapolis and Washington. To understand why, first consider the two Democratic candidates who have attracted most of the attention in the race.

After working on Capitol Hill and then for a top Washington lobbying firm, Rob Garagiola won a state Senate seat in 2002, at age 30. Mr. Garagiola is tall and handsome, and his campaign website features a nice picture of his wife and three children. His voting record is pretty consistent with the agenda of his political patron, Senate President Mike Miller. Other than brief service in the Army Reserve, he's a climber who has spent his entire post-college life in politics — and nobody would mistake him for a foe of big business.

John Delaney, meanwhile, personifies big business. With a reported estimated worth between $51 million and $278 million, he made his fortune through predatory lending to desperate small businesses. (Title of Forbes magazine's profile of him? "Loan Shark.") And get this: Mr. Delaney doesn't even live in the district. If you're buying a seat in Congress, sir — and Mr. Delaney is tapping into his personal fortune to do so — at least have the courtesy to buy your own district.

Congress is bursting at the seams with people like Messrs. Garagiola and Delaney. Against that backdrop, Dr. Pooran would stand out.

He presently commutes from his home in Jefferson, Frederick County, to Martinsburg, W.Va., where he helps wounded servicemen as a critical care specialist. Previously, Dr. Pooran worked on the H1N1 influenza problem at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, where he met his wife, Amy, a pediatric nurse at Children's National Medical Center. (Disclosure: I've met Dr. Pooran just once, but his political adviser, Walter Ludwig, is a strictly social, nonbusiness friend.)

By phone Monday, Dr. Pooran told me he's running because he views Congress as a "continuation of the public service" he's been performing in "the military or public heath" since age 22. "I've seen over the years how having a vote and steering policy is a very powerful thing," he said.

As for policy, Dr. Pooran's best campaign quip encapsulates his view of service, tax fairness, war-marking and devotion to a country to which his parents emigrated to escape the post-revolutionary Iranian regime and provide him a better life. "If we can ask the bottom 10 percent to pay for our country's national security in red blood, then we can ask the top 1 percent to pay for it in green," he likes to say. That message should resonate well in the military service-heavy Sixth District.

Maryland Democrats' six-member House delegation includes a businessman who made his fortune collecting on bad debts (Dutch Ruppersberger); the nephew of the state's longest-serving U.S. senator (John Sarbanes); a former Capitol Hill staffer and state senator (Chris Van Hollen); and two veterans with nearly a half-century of House service between them (Elijah Cummings and Steny Hoyer). These five congressmen do good — sometimes great — stuff for the state and nation. But Maryland Democrats on Capitol Hill aren't short on political careerism or business connections.

The outlier of the bunch, and its only woman, is Rep. Donna Edwards, who spent her pre-Congress life working for white-hat, nonprofit organizations. "In a lot of ways, Donna has been my role model," Dr. Pooran told me. "We've run this race in the same spirit she did hers."

I don't endorse candidates, but I do endorse this idea: If you want to change the outputs from Congress and the federal government, first change the inputs. Here's hoping Sixth District Democrats keep that in mind on April 3.

Thomas F. Schaller's column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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