Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Political recovery

In Maryland’s First District race,
a drift across the road’s center line

My older daughter called this evening.

“You OK, dad?” she asked.

“Fine,” I replied, walking along Baltimore’s Pratt Street, traffic droning past. “I’m just leaving work.”

“I was worried. You haven’t blogged lately. It’s not like you.”

“Well, I’ve been busy. Hanging out with photographers with Mom all weekend. Went to Washington for a little photo safari.”

Well, I was also a little hung over, electorally speaking. I knew what I wanted to write, but had to wait for closure – and it came earlier in the day when Andy Harris conceded to Frank Kratovil.

If you don’t live in Maryland, the names might not mean much to you – but their battle for Maryland’s First District congressional seat was a microcosm of the war between Republicans and Democrats to control the steering wheel of America.

The thing was, the Republicans were engaged in their own battle for the wheel of their party. It was Harris who bumped off Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in their party’s primary because the nine-term incumbent wasn’t conservative enough, and in the close and costly race for the open seat the Democrats added one more warm body to their growing majority on Capitol Hill.

But it wasn’t like the First District changed in complexion from red to blue. It just charged in hue to a slightly deeper purple. Kratovil, a county prosecutor on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, is very much a centrist – as was Gilchrest, a former high school history teacher from the same largely rural area. He endorsed the Democrat.

Gilchrest’s 18 years in office were respite from the bizarre tumult of his district, where some Republican predecessors had proclivities toward suicide and sexual relations with a male teen prostitute.

It wasn’t always crazy. Rogers C.B. Morton represented the district from 1962 to 1971, when President Richard Nixon named him as Secretary of the Interior. (Morton’s only sin, it seems in looking so far back, was his support for Nixon.)
William O. Mills won the seat in a special election to succeed Morton, but killed himself with a shotgun two years later in the wake of a report that his campaign had received an unreported $25,000 from the ill-fated Nixon’s re-election finance committee.

A colleague of mine at The Baltimore Sun reached Mills by telephone late on May 23, 1973, and had what he described as a rather routine conversation with him about the campaign fund gift. A few hours later, Mills went out to his barn and shot himself in the chest.

The next special election brought outspoken conservative leader Robert E. Bauman to Washington. Catholic, married and the father of four, Bauman violated an old axiom of politics: Never get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.

For Bauman, it was the boy rule – a 16-year-old who tried to blackmail the congressman as the story of their sexual relationship became embarrassingly public.

The 1980 mess was sorry enough for Democrat Roy Dyson to win the seat from Bauman, but his tenure in Washington ended a decade later – weakened by ties to defense contractors and the bizarre suicide of top aide Tom Pappas, who had leaped from a high-rise New York hotel in 1988. (A newspaper staffer, in pursuit of details after the leap, reported tracking down a hotel guest who told of watching a TV broadcast of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” when Pappas flew past the window.

Dyson barely beat Republican Gilchrest that year, but was defeated by the history teacher in 1990 – and was the last Democrat to win the seat until this election.

There were lots of factors figuring in the latest result, including the district’s gerrymandered geography – a horseshoe around the bay that clustered Republicans while making neighboring districts safer for the Democrats who largely control Maryland politics. Harris, an anesthesiologist and father of five, represented portions of two urban counties on the western shore in the state legislature.

There were lots of familiar issues – but their stands were deemed furthest apart on the Iraq war and the environment. Kratovil was backed by conservationists and anti-war activists, among others, and while Harris had initially been considered the frontrunner his candidacy was clearly hindered by the unpopularity of the lame-duck President Bush.

I’ve only met one of the district candidates. Last fall, Kratovil knocked on my door in a Pasadena neighborhood that has grown Republican all around me over the past decade. “I’m running for Congress,” he said, handing over some literature with a photo showing him, his wife and four children, and noticeably including the buzzword “family.”

Kratovil was the only congressional candidate to knock on my door in the 28 years I’ve lived here. I asked his views on a couple of my bellwether issues: gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. I gave no hint of my opinion, and Kratovil skirted giving his – though I had an idea that he and I had differences on both matters. We probably wouldn’t agree much on religion and its relation to politics, either.

But this day, I rejoiced, sort of. Where there’s a Democrat, there’s hope – with Harris, there would have been none, I feared.

Maybe, if Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress make some progress in turning around this troubled nation, Kratovil will even keep the job two years from now.

The center of the political road – well, maybe a little to the left of the yellow line – isn’t the worst place to be.

A visit to the White House

All right, we’re not talking about the Obamas. We’re talking about a photo safari on Sunday, with about four miles of walking and an obligatory picture of our group standing next to the White House fence.

We all held in front of our mouths a set of comical smiling lips affixed to plastic straws.

Then I suggested we all pretend to be Republicans, and we had another photo with the smiles turned upside-down.

It was a great day to be in Washington. The sun was shining bright. And the people around us on the sidewalk were laughing.

New blogging schedule

The election ‘s over folks, and I’m back to work two days a week, so this unpaid blogging gig is not gonna happen daily. But please check back a couple of times a week. I’ve still got a lot to say, and you might find some of it fairly entertaining.

1 comment:

Stacy Spaulding said...

Thank you for the district 1 backgrounder. For people like me who are new to the city, but want to call it home, the history lesson is very useful in explaining the last week's events.