Frustration fuels first-time candidates

Ben Jealous. Flickr.

This year’s first-time candidates for public office in Maryland have this in common: frustration.
Whether it’s an anti-Trumper, a disgruntled Democrat or a party-averse candidate, political newcomers in the state say they have decided to run because they are frustrated with some aspect of the American political system. That dissatisfaction, experts say, is part of a national trend of first-time candidates running nationally for Congress and state offices in the hope of pushing what they see as a more grassroots agenda.

Dozens of first-time candidates are running in Maryland for seats ranging from state delegate to U.S. senator. The field will be winnowed down in primary elections on June 26.

The first-timer surge is, in large part, a response to the election of President Donald Trump, said Stella Rouse, a political science professor at the University of Maryland. The #MeToo movement and the March for Our Lives against gun violence have fueled civic activism among those who were previously uninvolved.

“The Trump era has ushered in a reinvigorated motivation to be involved and to realize that change is going to happen at a grassroots level,” she said.

Art Brodsky, a retired journalist and speechwriter for Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, agreed that the wave of newcomers was related to Trump and the movements that have come in response. Brodsky said he was unsure how this would play out in Maryland, but said change is what voters are looking for.

Neal Simon. File Photo.

“To the extent that you present yourself as a change and that you’re taken seriously, then you’ve got a chance at winning,” he said.

But in Maryland, the Trump effect has its limits. Rouse said Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s high approval ratings and support for bipartisan causes such as banning bump stocks will make him a formidable opponent in November, even for more established Democrats in the race such as Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Rouse said first-time candidates in Maryland also face the challenge of earning the support of an electorate that is well-educated, Democratic and likely to place a premium on experience. There is one factor, however, that can help level the playing field for first-timers, she said.

“Name identification plays a huge role for a lot of the voters who don’t know you,” she said.

That is less of an issue for Ben Jealous than for some candidates. The former leader of the NAACP is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, with the hope of unseating Hogan in November. Jealous, in addition to being a well-known civil rights leader, has the backing of national figures such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Jealous, 45, said he thinks these endorsements will boost his profile enough to turn out Democratic voters who stayed home in 2014 — a race where about 44 percent of Marylanders voted, according to the Baltimore Sun.

“Hogan is a Republican who won by 63,000 votes, so he’s entirely beatable,” he said.

Jealous said his campaign focuses on criminal justice reform and education funding, causes he has been passionate about for several years. But Trump’s 2016 victory ultimately made him decide to run.

“The danger of having Larry Hogan in office shot up exponentially by having a tyrannical president,” he said.
Rouse said some first-time candidates are taking advantage of the fact that there is a battle between the more establishment wing and progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Brodsky agreed, and said low voter turnout both in the Maryland gubernatorial race in 2014 and nationally in the 2016 presidential race doomed Anthony Brown and Hillary Clinton, respectively — candidates who he said did not excite enough voters.

“Personality had a chance to take over, and a lot of people stayed home,” he said of the two races.

Outsiders, he said, are looking for races where they can find their start. One of those outsiders is Alec Ross, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, who was an adviser to Clinton when she was secretary of state. Ross, 46, said he decided to run for governor in April 2017 because the party needed a “reboot,” with “new faces and new ideas.”
Democrats, he said, have had less success nationally at the ballot box because they have failed to grasp the concept that America has transitioned from an “industrial economy” to a “knowledge-based” one.

Alec Ross. Flickr.

“There’s a reason why [President] Donald Trump won, there’s a reason why Larry Hogan won and the Democratic Party has failed to meet the challenges of today’s world,” he said.

Ross, a West Virginia native, pointed to his home state as a place Democrats have performed poorly in presidential years recently. He noted that even unsuccessful presidential candidates like Michael Dukakis once were able to win the state.
Ross said experience is important, but he wants to see fewer Democratic “career politicians” who have been in office for more than 20 years to help guide the party in the right direction. When asked whether Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, had been too much of a career politician, he declined to criticize his former boss.

A lack of experience also isn’t deterring Potomac businessman Neal Simon from running as an independent U.S. Senate candidate.

Simon, 50, was a latecomer, announcing his candidacy in February, a few weeks before the filing deadline. He said his desire to challenge two-term incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), came out of a frustration of “hyper-partisanship on Capitol Hill.”
“The partisanship and ineffectiveness has gotten worse and worse, and unless we do something different, we’re going to spiral downward,” he said.

Simon did not criticize any of Cardin’s votes, but said by virtue of being a Democrat, he is beholden to the party and special interest groups for financial support.

While they see their task as virtuous in trying to be political game-changers, these candidates must also bear the costs of raising and spending money, along with being away from their family.

One of the hardest sacrifices Ross remembers making was having to choose between attending a candidate forum in Baltimore or his son’s Little League Baseball game.

“My youngest son was pitching in Little League, and I was sitting on stage with the other candidates for governor,” he said.

“And I swear to God, it was so crushing.”

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