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Campaign Beat

Smooth Sailing

Ben Cardin and Elijah Cummings Find Little Competition in Congressional Races

By Natalie Davis | Posted 8/21/2002

To many of those watching the races in Maryland's 3rd and 7th congressional districts, the contests appear to be easy roads to re-election for the incumbents, Ben Cardin (D-3rd) and Elijah Cummings (D-7th). That isn't surprising: Both men are experienced lawmakers in positions of leadership within the House, and both are popular within their districts.

As neither incumbent has much to worry about, both are focusing much attention on other races--primarily the 8th District race, in which Republican Congressperson Constance Morella seems particularly vulnerable to challengers. Former state Sen. Julian Lapides predicts that as long as Cardin and Cummings remain physically healthy until the Nov. 5 general election, they should easily win re-election. "Both are hard-working, good congressmen, and they both do good work for their constituents," says Lapides, who follows Baltimore-area politics closely. "They're accomplished and well-financed and should walk through the campaign with little trouble."

But that doesn't mean the Democratic incumbents face no trouble. Both districts changed considerably following the state's June redistricting. The new 3rd District includes residents of Towson and Annapolis, in addition to Cardin's strongholds in northwestern Baltimore County and parts of Baltimore City, northern Anne Arundel County, and eastern Howard County; likewise, Cummings is spending a lot of time introducing himself in the revamped 7th, which now extends through most of western Howard County (it previously consisted almost entirely of Baltimore City and western Baltimore County).

Cardin faces only one opponent in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary: salesperson John Rea, a frequent congressional candidate from Annapolis who made decent showings running in 1st District primaries in 1996, 1998, and 2000, though he never won the party's nomination. Little information on Rea's campaign is available, and the candidate has an unpublished phone number.

Scott Conwell is one of two Republicans running for the 3rd District House seat. A 38-year-old attorney who worked for many years as an engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense, Conwell is a loyal Republican who fully believes he will emerge victorious Nov. 5. "The 3rd District was drawn for me," he says, noting that he has lived in Baltimore City and in Baltimore, Howard, and Anne Arundel counties.

Conwell believes Cardin is vulnerable. "His stronghold is northwest Baltimore County, and his name recognition is low among everyone but the elderly," he says. Conwell describes Towson as less ethnically diverse and much more conservative than other areas of Cardin's former constituency. By his estimate, 80 percent of the district's voters are considering voting Republican this time around, which Conwell attributes to "anti-Kathleen [Kennedy Townsend] sentiment." He says that the political messages of U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, the likely Republican gubernatorial candidate, are resonating particularly well with voters. Conwell says that Ehrlich's popularity in pre-election polls and primary issues--education, transportation, and homeland security--should give his campaign, and the Republican Party, an edge.

The other GOP challenger is 36-year-old Annapolis landscaper Michael Jackson. The former Navy engineer is running on two primary issues: establishing a plan that would eliminate water bills for residents by transferring costs to businesses and funneling money into long-term treatment programs for drug addicts. Jackson sees himself as the candidate for middle-income working people. He acknowledges that his meager campaign funds can't match those of Cardin. But he is thinking positively: "I've got a shot," he says. "Long shots pay off big."

Though it looks like Cardin, who has served the 3rd District since 1987 (prior to that, he was speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates), is likely to keep his seat, he is not resting on his laurels. He says he is "having a great time" getting to know those who live in the new parts of his district and connecting with those he has served for years. "We talk issues wherever we go," he says. "Health care for all, prescription medications for seniors, protecting the watersheds that filter into the Chesapeake Bay, education, protecting workers' pensions."

Though Cardin has been a vocal opponent of redistricting, he says he is determined to keep it from hindering his campaign--or his ability to represent his constituents. "Baltimore [City] will have a strong voice in Congress," he pledges. To make sure of that, he says he will continue to work in concert with representatives from neighboring districts, such as Cummings' 7th.

Cummings agrees with Cardin's cooperative philosophy; he says that approaching lawmaking and constituent representation from a "regional" point of view benefits the district and the entire state.

Cummings, who won former Rep. Kweisi Mfume's seat in 1996, says he sees redistricting as both a challenge and a blessing. "Approximately 175,000 people in my district are new, and so many people have come up to me, saying, 'We're so glad you're here.' They did not feel their interests had been represented before." To that end, he spreads his message through the old and new parts of his district, often working alongside Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Cummings' campaign focuses on issues such as education, drug policy, and health care--the bottom line, he says, is addressing "the problems of people I am trying to help."

Frequent candidate and activist A. Robert Kaufman is challenging Cummings in the Democratic primary, but he has no illusions about the race: "There's no chance in hell I'll replace Elijah," he says. Kaufman, who heads the CityWide Coalition, a progressive activist group, says he is a "social Democrat," running to give voice to progressive issues often ignored by many of his party colleagues. The issues he's most interested in include the "war on drug addicts," national health-insurance coverage, a federal jobs program, auto-insurance reform, and putting "people ahead of business interests." Kaufman also voices his opinion on U.S. foreign policy: "Nothing will stop terrorism until we stop terrorizing [others], until we start doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. That comes from Comrade Jesus."

Charles McPeek, a Democrat who has run unsuccessfully for Congress in both the 5th and 6th districts, is also challenging Cummings. Change is McPeek's mantra. "People need a change," says the 73-year-old tire-store owner from Laurel. "Our representatives should have known Enron and WorldCom were going on. . . . They're not representing the people--the working people are the forgotten people. The only thing that trickles down is income-tax burden." To that end, McPeek proposes ditching income taxes in favor of a flat sales tax of 20 percent. In addition, he supports decriminalizing prostitution and allowing legalized gambling. Redistricting has made things tough for the veteran campaigner: McPeek says he wasted a lot of time campaigning in areas that have since been excised from the district. "I'm working the entire 7th, now that I know where it is--door-to-door, old-fashioned campaigning. It's going to be hard, but I can do it. . . . No money, no signs, but I'm working every day."

The third Democratic challenger is community activist Charles Smith of Baltimore City, who ran for the 7th District seat in the 2000 Republican primary and lost to Kenneth Kondner.

Only one name appears on this year's Republican ballot for the 7th: Baltimore City resident and community activist Joseph Ward, who says he expects to win every Howard County vote cast for this particular race in the general election. In previous elections, he ran as a Democrat; he switched to the GOP after the 1998 election. Ward is focusing on issues ranging from health care and housing to transportation. And he believes he can use his "friendship" with President Bush--Ward worked on Bush's 2000 presidential campaign--to convince the president to move Washington-based agencies to Maryland. Ward says this would provide federal jobs in the region and pump funds into the local economy. "We could turn blocks of boarded-up buildings into federal office space," he says. "I can convince [Bush] to write the orders to make it happen."

Ward's other primary issues are education and crime. He proposes setting up a law-enforcement effort similar to the Texas Rangers. "If Bob Ehrlich is elected governor, I know I can persuade him to set up the Maryland Rangers," he says. "And that could cut the crime rate in half during the first year."

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