Politics

25 debates, 9 Democrats and 1 expensive race to replace Chris Van Hollen

Some takeaways from the talkathons in Maryland's 8th District

Candidates for Maryland's 8th District include Kathleen Matthews, left, and clockwise from left David Trone, Kumar Barve, Will Jawando and Jamie Raskin. (CQ Roll Call File Photo and Candidate campaign websites)

The nine Maryland Democrats whose April 26 primary will decide who beats the Republican in Chris Van Hollen's  district have debated a stupefying 25 times . And even the two talk-a-thons I attended in recent weeks left no doubt that:  

Businessman David Trone , who’s poured more of his own money into this race than any congressional candidate in history, relieving his heirs of a total of $12.4 million, seems to have united his rivals in opprobrium.  

“He’s not what you’d call a rule-follower," one of them told me, referring to the early spring bouquets of Trone yard signs that sprouted all over public right-of-ways before the novice knew that was a no-no. Back in February, Trone also had to fire  three employees -- a supervisor and two staffers accused of trying to infiltrate the campaigns of his top rivals, former TV anchor Kathleen Matthews and State Sen. Jamie Raskin.  

[Related: New Candidate Already Spending Big in Maryland's 8th District] ‘Wine magnate’ is an unexpected career choice for someone whose first, quite moving TV ad talked about how his family had lost everything as a result of his father’s alcoholism. Trone is running, his ads suggest, to look out for life's underdogs. But despite his success, he still seems to see himself that way, and comes off as oversensitive sometimes, as when he complained at the most recent forum, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville on Sunday,  that his money was being held against him:  

“Yup, I’m guilty as charged. So I started a business with nothing, created a successful business. I used to think that was a good thing in America, a really good thing,'' he said, sounding very Republican. "You sometimes hear that’s bad, or you’re a bad person because you created 5,000 jobs.”  

The heavily Democratic, heavily gerrymandered district, which includes Montgomery County and parts of Frederick and Carroll , is home to so many D.C. civil servants that it's kind of the dorm of the federal political class.  

And maybe it's only here that another of the perceived front-runners, former WJLA TV anchor and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews,  could be running on her public service as ... a journalist. In a quick interview before Saturday’s debate at a Silver Spring Muslim community center, IMAAM , I told her she was bold to highlight her years in a line of work that many see as even more odious than "member of Congress."  

“Right,’’ she said, “but for me, local television news is all about advocacy.’’ She’s pushed back hard against Trone’s dismissal of her as a “media celebrity,” and said, “I considered myself a scrappy reporter who jumped in a crew car.” She'd always thought about serving in an administration at some point, but had never really considered running for office herself until the Van Hollen seat opened up, she said, surprising her husband, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a lot more than their children.  

Her pitch is perfectly encapsulated by a recent mailer for her, put out by the pro-choice EMILY's List, that shows photos of Republicans Donald Trump , Mitch McConnell , Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan . "Do these men speak for you?" it asks. After nearly a year on the trail, she's not the only one who thinks it looks like “It’s going to be a tight race between Jamie Raskin and me." And probably Trone, though she doesn't say that.  

"People are looking for someone who will be most like Chris Van Hollen, '' who is leaving the seat to run for the Senate, she said. And she's also hoping there's such a thing as pantsuits with coattails: "I'm a Hillary person; a lot of the others haven’t taken a side.”  

[Related: Kathleen Matthews Endorses Chris Van Hollen's Senate Bid.] Her competitor Joel Rubin, a former State Department Middle East expert and co-founder of J Street , the diplomacy-based AIPAC alternative, definitely has the most reliable laugh line of the field: “My wife and I are fortunate to have her mother living with us as well,” he says in introducing himself, and every room he's in loves it.  

Rubin has worked at state during both a Republican and Democratic administration, and of his bipartisan potential, he notes that he’s married to a top Republican Hill staffer, Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin , senior policy adviser to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “And every day I go home and we engage,’’ he said at a recent forum in Rockville. “Too much information,’’ answered the moderator.  

Whatever happens in this race, former Hill aide and Obama administration official  Will Jawando surely has a huge political future ahead of him, and not only because his bio as the biracial son of an African immigrant father and a mom from Kansas rings a vague bell.  

To a question about underfunding for the Metro at the debate on Saturday, he talked about the rarely considered costs of neglecting transportation and infrastructure – for example, to the best friend of his who died at age 12 of gun violence, a boy whose “mom had to take a two-and-a-half hour commute from East Silver Spring to Bethesda to clean homes" meant she couldn’t be at a PTA meeting.  

Engineer and longtime State Delegate Ana Sol-Gutiérrez regularly argues with the clock, the buzzer, the bell and the moderator that her time couldn’t possibly be up yet. When candidates had a chance to ask one another questions at Sunday's debate at the Jewish community center, she chose to hurl a fireball at the only other Democratic woman in the race, telling Matthews that she'd heard she used to be pro-life. (Not true, answered Matthews.) And at the Muslim center, she complimented her hosts by saying, “I’m envious because Latinos can’t come together” in a similar way. “We’re always squabbling.”  

State Del. Kumar Barve , who has served in Annapolis for 25 years, much of that time as majority leader, is an accountant with a business background and a day job as CFO of an environmental services company. He bemoans those rivals who are millionaires “or have friends who are millionaires. I’m basically a middle-class guy with middle-class friends who can write me a check for $50 or $100.”  

Jamie Raskin who is considered one of the front-runners in the race, though there hasn't been any outside polling, is one of those millionaires, it turns out, along with Matthews and Trone. Like Barve, he’s an accomplished Maryland legislator and was floor leader on the successful push to abolish the state’s death penalty. He's also an American University law professor.  

He’s running, in essence, as the purest progressive in the field, and says that years ago, when he was advised to cool it in pushing for marriage equality, his feeling was always, “It’s not my ambition to be in the political center; it’s my ambition to be in the moral center.”  

“We’re surging,’’ he told me, in between bites of potato chips right before Saturday's debate. “I’ve been endorsed by the nurses, the teachers, the Sierra Club, and I’ve been picking up good vibes wherever I go.”  

Other candidates include nonprofit executive and former college professor David Anderson , who told voters at a Rockville forum, “I wrote my dissertation about feminist theory,” and Dan Bolling , who promises he’d make every day he served in Congress ‘Take a constituent to work’ day – and so would be completely transparent and accountable.  

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