At his campaign kick-off, Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin declared that his “ambition is not to be in the political center.”
“My ambition,” said the congressional candidate, “is to be in the moral center.”
It’s a refrain the Jewish Raskin, who is seeking the seat being vacated by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-District 8) as he runs for the Senate, has invoked often. In his kick-off speech for his successful 2006 run against a 32-year incumbent, he vowed to work toward marriage equality. A supporter confronted him afterwards and said Raskin’s stance on gay marriage made it sound like he “wasn’t in the political center.”
“I thought about it for a second and said, ‘I guess my ambition is not to be the political center, it’s to be the moral center,’” Raskin said in a recent interview. “The political center moves; marriage equality is a great example [of that shift].”
Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who currently serves as the state Senate’s majority whip, is in many ways the quintessential progressive. He has championed rights for the LGBT community, women and minorities, is in favor of a single-payer healthcare system and wants to raise the minimum wage.
He believes that “we have an urgent responsibility to halt and reverse the disastrous effects of climate change” at the federal level and views himself as a champion of small businesses against “big business lobbyists.” He’s been lauded by the American Civil Liberties Union and Progressive Neighbors alike.
But in making his views the centerpiece of a run for Capitol Hill, Raskin might be setting himself up for an uphill climb. The federal district he seeks to represent is among the most gerrymandered in the state. It encompasses pieces of metropolitan Montgomery County — home to a significant portion the Washington area’s Jewish population — and large swaths of the more rural, conservative and Republican leaning Carroll and Frederick counties.
Since Van Hollen unseated moderate Republican Connie Morella in 2002, the district has become a firmly Democratic stronghold, with Van Hollen capturing more than 60 percent of the vote in 2014. Most of his victory came from Montgomery County; in Carroll and Frederick counties, Republican challenger Dave Wallace took in the most votes.
Given the geographic and political disparities between the southern and northern portions of the district, how will a Harvard-educated, American University law professor be received outside of liberal Takoma Park?
Quite well, Raskin believes, pointing to the 100-plus bills he’s passed in Annapolis.
On a drive back from visiting Democratic activists in Frederick, he rattled off a list of bipartisan successes, including the Second Chance Act, aimed at shielding certain nonviolent misdemeanor criminal records from public view to help reformed criminals seek an easier path to employment.
“I’m not going to pretend I’m not a liberal,” he said. “The root of that word is liberty and I’m for liberty. I’m a progressive; the root of that word is progress. I even call myself a conservative sometimes, because I want to conserve the air, the water.”
The real challenge in the race isn’t the Democrat versus GOP divide — no Republican candidates have declared as of yet — but the lines being drawn between Montgomery County Democrats. The rare opportunity to compete for a national platform in a Democratic stronghold has mass appeal. Four candidates have officially declared and at least four more are eying a run.
Del. Kumar Barve announced his candidacy in early March; as such, he is the only candidate required to file a quarterly fundraising report. Barve took in $66,200 — of which $10,800 was donated by Barve and his mother — between March 9 and 31. He’s been endorsed by Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), the only Indian-American in Congress.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase announced her candidacy late last week. Gutierrez became the first Latina in the State House when she captured Van Hollen’s old seat in 2002. Will Jawando of Silver Spring threw his hat into the ring just days before. The former White House associate director of the Office of Public Engagement finished fourth out of nine candidates vying for a delegate seat for the 20th Legislative District in the 2014 primary.
Dels. Ariana Kelly of Bethesda and Jeffrey Waldstreicher of Kensington, former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin and Marriott International executive Kathleen Mathews of Chevy Chase are still mulling runs.
With a crowded field growing even more cramped as the campaign season ramps up, Raskin has strategically sought to raise his visibility right out of the gate with a long list of endorsements.
More than 40 elected officials have thrown their support behind him. Predictably, he picked up endorsements from Montgomery County Council members, many of whom live in his district, and nearly all of the Takoma Park City Council. State Attorney General Brian Frosh, former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings and state Sen. Ron Young of Frederick County have come out in favor of Raskin, joining nearly half of Maryland’s 33 Democratic state senators who have done the same
Maryland Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, has lent her voice to the chorus of Raskin supporters.
“He brings his tenacity, his drive, his concern about community and neighbors to the senate,” she said. “It would be very difficult for anyone who has served with him to do anything other than endorse him.”
Raskin gained fame in Montgomery County when in 1997, he successfully defended students from Montgomery Blair High School whose news program covering the gay marriage debate was censored by school officials. The Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which sends law students into public high schools to teach constitutional law and juvenile rights, grew out of that experience and is housed in the Washington College of Law where Raskin teaches.
“It struck me that the schools that should be educating students about constitutional rights were violating [students’] constitutional rights,” he said.
Raskin’s wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, is a deputy secretary at the Treasury Department, and his father, Marcus Raskin, is well-known in Washington as a co-founder of the progressive Institute for Policy Studies think tank and was a member of the special staff of the National Security Council during the Kennedy administration.
Both the senator and his wife have called Takoma Park home for 25 years and are members of Temple Sinai in Washington, where their three children celebrated their b’nai mitzvah.
When not in the classroom or General Assembly, Raskin values his family time, but with his children grown, he has more time to indulge in his hobbies. He is a lifelong chess lover and co-founder of All the Right Moves, an organization that fosters chess clubs in Montgomery County schools. He is a frequent collaborator with Lumina Studio Theatre in Silver Spring, where he has co-written several play adaptations, and is the author of several books, including Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court versus the American People.