In an era of super PACs and endless political ads, state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-20) said his candidacy for Maryland’s 8th congressional district is an example of grassroots-level activism.
On April 26, the 53-year old Raskin won the Democratic primary among a field of nine candidates vying to replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is seeking a Senate seat. Frederick attorney Dan Cox captured the Republican nomination.
Raskin, one of two Jews in the race, topped second-place finisher David Trone by about 7,000 votes. In one of the most intense and expensive primaries of the year, the Democratic candidates spent more than $15 million on their campaigns and took part in 25 debates. A state senator and American University law professor, Raskin credited the more than 6,000 supporters who came to 169 campaign events for his success.
“I just began with a very solid geographic base that most of the candidates did not enjoy,” he said. “We had a galvanized base of Democratic activists behind us. And we were outspent, but we did whatever we could to organize a grassroots base in the face of millions of dollars spent on TV ads.”
The biggest spender by far was Trone, who put more than $12 million of his own money into the race. He was followed by former TV reporter and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews, who spent $3 million. Raskin, in contrast, spent $2 million.
“My two major opponents, who were very able and compelling candidates, did not have the same kind of record of public service and legislative success that I had,” Raskin said. “It was an extraordinary field of candidates, and I hope we have not seen the last of any of these people. They have a tremendous amount to give at the local state and national levels.”
Along the way, Raskin picked up endorsements from elected officials such as Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, state Sen. Susan Lee (D-16) and other state legislators. He said that in the 10 years he has served in Annapolis, he has been a sponsor of 120 bills that have passed, most of which had Republican support.
Raskin pointed to the passage of a bill legalizing the use of medical marijuana as one example where he reached out to a Senate colleague. He and Frederick Republican Sen. David Brinkley, like Raskin a cancer survivor, sponsored the legislation.
“One thing that I’ve learned in Annapolis is that it doesn’t take that many across-the-aisle relationships to change the dynamics of the situation,” he said. “So I don’t have to be friends with hundreds of Republicans [in Congress], but if I can be friends with five or six of them it can change the mood.”
Raskin’s advocacy of marijuana legalization, marriage equality and abolishing the death penalty make him further to the left than most members of Congress. However, he said, he is not concerned about being perceived as out of place and has pledged to work in the “moral center,” rather than the “political center.”
“We should not be putting our fingers up to the wind and follow where we think the political center is going to blow next,” he said. “We should be working on an agenda that serves the values and the interests of the people that we serve.”
More rural and conservative
Raskin hails from Democratic-rich Montgomery County, while his general election Republican opponent Dan Cox, a lawyer from Frederick, is from the more rural and conservative end of District 8.
Cox, 41, said his top priorities are job creation and national security. He supports school vouchers and, in a WJW pre-primary candidates survey, said that if elected, he would “bring immediate pressure to fully fund and promptly build the Purple Line, as well as seriously work for funding for a Metro line extending from Shady Grove north to Frederick with multiple stops to be more user-friendly.” He also called for funding to widen I-270.
Congress, he said, could benefit from someone who is new to the political scene.
“I’m an average District 8 resident. I’m not polarized, and I’m not well off,” he said. “My office will be open to everyone. I ran this race without any PAC money and I’m excited to carry forward the people’s voice.”
District 8 has become increasingly Democratic over the years, consistent with redistricting trends across the state, a trend that worries Cox. He said he hopes to explore the issue at the federal level, but thinks Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) approach of a bipartisan committee to study redistricting in Maryland is a smart approach.
“I think that [gerrymandering] is something that needs to be examined and addressed,” Cox said. “We don’t want to have any voice silenced, and I believe [Republicans] need to have their voices heard.”
Raskin, too, has come out with a plan to reform redistricting. Called the “Potomac Compact,” it would create an independent panel to redraw both the Maryland and Virginia congressional district lines. He hopes to create a similar national commission if elected to Congress.
“The advent of modern computer technology has made the means of gerrymandering that much more precise and devastating,” he said.
Morella sees a corrupt system
The effects of drawing district lines to favor certain election outcomes were felt by former Republican Rep. Connie Morella. After representing District 8 for 16 years, she lost her seat to Van Hollen in 2002, when the district lines were redrawn in the wake of the 2000 census.
Morella said redistricting is her “number one lament” about the political system since leaving office.
“[Politicians] have created the situation for polarization and that’s what gotten people so upset in the nation,” she said.
Morella, a self-described political junkie, has stayed politically active in the last 14 years, and is one of 130 former Congress members, governors and cabinet secretaries to join a movement known as Issue One, which aims to promote campaign finance reform.
“We need people to feel they are empowered in some way so that we can chip away at Citizens United,” she said. “I just feel that if you know somebody or if you’re comfortable with them then you trust them.”
Morella said she genuinely believes that people running for office today are well-intentioned, but that they fell prey to a corrupt system. She also pointed to Trone’s self-funded campaign as an example of how the political playing field has become increasingly uneven.
“If you have a little more leveling and a little more looking, I think you will have a democracy where people do not buy their seats,” she said.
Morella said Congress is less functional than it was once because its members spend less time getting to know each other — something Raskin said won’t be a problem for him. His home is a Metro ride away from the Capitol in Takoma Park.
“You’re not spending all of your Mondays and Fridays on airplanes,” he said. “You have more time to get out and get to know people.”
Raskin said he has gained some insight already into the inner workings of Capitol Hill from his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, who is the deputy secretary of the Treasury.
He also plans to campaign with Van Hollen and retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in the coming months. Raskin said he and Van Hollen have been friends since Raskin’s first run for the state Senate in 2006.
“I know I will rely on him very heavily in terms of getting oriented in the U.S. House,” Raskin said.