The mood was bright and optimistic when a dozen or so Republican women posed for a recent campaign gathering in Severna Park with Mark Plaster. They were eager to help the GOP candidate give Democrat John Sarbanes the only serious challenge he’s faced since first winning Maryland’s Third District congressional seat 10 years ago.
Plaster has an impressive resume. He’s a doctor, a lawyer, and a publisher of medical magazines who at age 50 volunteered for a stint in Iraq with the Navy Reserve Medical Corps. He figures his front-line military service contrasts nicely with Sarbanes’ lack of military service.
Plus, the incumbent has a spotty record on veteran’s issues that he says has been tarnished by votes against spending levels he considered too low.
"That’s why all of our signs say ‘Veteran for Congress.'" Plaster told his supporters. "I want people to know that if you care about veterans there’s only one man in this race you should be voting for: The guy who put his life on the line for veterans."
Sarbanes makes his own case for support, and even innovation, on veterans’ issues. But Plaster faces a much bigger obstacle than an incumbent Congressman.
The Third District, designed by Maryland’s Democratic leaders at the state and congressional levels, is part of a map contorted to thwart Republican efforts.
The district has been called "the praying mantis, the pin wheel, the blood smatters from a crime scene," said Walter Olson, co-chairman of the redistricting reform commission appointed last year by Republican Governor Larry Hogan to address many years of complaints about the partisan bias in the way Maryland draws election maps.
A federal judge described it as "a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."
Olson said only North Carolina provided any competition for the worst single district in the country.
It has taken some map-drawing artistry to achieve that result. A two to one majority of Democrats to Republicans has produced a Maryland delegation in the House of Representatives in which the lone Republican, Andy Harris of the First District on the Eastern Shore, is outnumbered 7 to 1.
It was produced partly as a result of reshuffling voters in other districts, the bizarre-looking Third District includes parts of four counties and a chunk of Baltimore city. It ranges from Towson to Annapolis and Columbia and includes such distinctly different communities as mostly Jewish Pikesville, working class Parkville, the exclusive waterfront vistas of Gibson Island--and what Plaster “lovingly” calls the hipsters of Federal Hill.
Plaster says that the logistics pose a particular challenge to a political newcomer trying to get his message out.
"The people in each one of these areas are very, very different," he said. "That’s part of the reason geographically why we bought a bus right off the bat so that we could campaign like you would if you were running a statewide race."
Plaster’s colorful campaign bus may help some with name recognition, but it contributes to the cost of a campaign into which the candidate has already poured $100,000 of his own money.
Sarbanes acknowledged during an interview at a recent party in Columbia that his district is oddly-shaped. But he said his central Maryland constituency along the Baltimore-Washington corridor works well for a congressman who commutes to the Capitol from Towson.
"About 80 percent of my district I can access within 10 or 15 minutes of the commute I drive every day," he said. "So, in some ways, I may be more present in my district on a daily basis than just about any other member of Congress, and that allows me to stay really connected."
Both candidates support redistricting reform.
Plaster backs Governor Hogan’s proposal to assign the job of drawing congressional districts to a non-partisan committee that would respect city and county boundaries as much as possible. Sarbanes favors a federal approach that would work the same way but eliminate the huge advantage Republicans now enjoy across the nation. They control governorships and legislatures in 23 states compared to only seven states led exclusively by Democrats.
Neither proposal has any immediate chance of success. Certainly not in time for this year’s election. And there’s little hint—despite some sympathetic lower court rulings--that the Supreme Court will intervene in an arena where it has historically feared to tread.
Olson says the court’s reluctance to get involved in a partisan dispute argues for a political solution.
"We really have to do what’s right," he said, "not only because the courts may not ever get around to stepping in but also because by doing what’s right we have a far better chance to plan out a rational system instead of respond to litigation and court orders."
Prospects for a compromise approach in Maryland will likely be boosted if Governor Hogan wins a second term and thus presides over the next round of map drawing.
Plaster said Hogan’s 2014 upset of Democratic Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown is what inspired him to run for Congress.
“I looked at him and I said here’s a man who cares deeply about the state but he’s never been elected to office, “Plaster recalled. “He stayed with meat and potatoes kind of issues that people really care about; lower taxes, making Maryland a better place to live. And he won!”
Plaster also noted Hogan won by 24,000 votes in the Third District, despite a two to one Democratic majority. Even so, Sarbanes has a huge advantage in terms of name recognition, not least because his father, Paul Sarbanes, held that House seat for three terms before he advanced to the Senate for 30 years.
As has been his practice, Sarbanes is running a low-octane race, often dropping by community events such as the party in Columbia to help promote a new version of public campaign financing. Plaster ridiculed that proposal at his Severna Park gathering.
"If you think politics is expensive now, wait until the government is paying for it," he warned.
But Sarbanes feels strongly enough about the issue that it has become a central part of his message. He said it was an easy choice.
"Do you want special interests bankrolling campaigns? In which case, that’s who legislators wind up working for or leaning towards," he asked. "Or do you want the public to step up and say, ‘You know what? We are going to own our own system again.'"
Whether that’s the system Sarbanes envisions, or Plaster’s, we’ll learn after November 8.