Friday, January 18, 2008

A Million Dollar $mile

"Is there someone named Kevin here?" bellows the well dressed man. The candidate, a political novice, then does a veteran political move and works the room as he walks over. George Mitchell's web site says he has a million dollar smile. He did not disappoint. It can light up any room; even the cramped White Oak Starbucks where we met. In a six person race where everyone else has run for office before he is working to gaining ground on the leaders in the 4th Congressional District -- Donna Edwards and the incumbent Al Wynn. Behind in money and endorsements, the man who "has never had a bad day in his life" sat down for a wide ranging interview on the issues facing this bi-county district.

"We are where we thought we would be. People want to hear our positive message," says the former captain of the Morgan State Wrestling team, class of 1976. I have learned to respect wrestlers. A good wrestler can be flat on their back ready to be pinned and still have two or three moves to pin you. So when he tells me that he is going to win this race I take notice. But as a long time activist and a pretty good vote counter I have my doubts.

Born in Florence, South Carolina. Raised by a single mother first in the projects in Baltimore and later in the northwest side of Charm City. He was a junior high class mate of current Mayor Shelia Dixon at Pimilco JHS and a graduate of Mergenthaler High School. Four years at Morgan State, where as a promoter of bands including "Grand Jury", he crossed paths with the DJs at the campus radio station, including one Kweisi Mfume. A four year tour in the Army and it was time for this Business graduate to make some money. "My mom wanted me to get involved in politics immediately after school but my first loves were restaurants and entertainment." Starting out with his own restaurants in Petersburg, VA called "Farmer's Market" and later "Mitchell's", where then Baltimorean TV personality Oprah Winfrey was a regular customer, to a stint with a large food service company to being a franchisee in Golden Corral and then back to opening his own restaurant in Waldorf called "Prime Buffett" in the late 1980 and early 1990s. He moved to Prince Georges County and turned to real estate working as an agent in Temple Hills since the mid 1990's.

Why take on Wynn?
"Al Wynn has not done anything in the last 15 1/2 years. We have a school system (in Prince Georges) that has a 44% drop out rate. In Fort Washington, we have a 70% foreclosure rate in the past three years. We have the highest teen theft in Prince Georges and a lack of minority black businesses in the county. We need after school activities for the kids. The kids are our future," Mitchell says.

That leads to the obvious question why not run for School Board or County Council? "That's what (Al) Wynn says that 'these are County Executive issues'," he dismisses.

So why run now?
"What would Wynn's legacy if he was gone? He gave us a crab feast and a jobs fair in which less than 10% got jobs. Wynn has done a very poor job of overseeing local issues. I can do a better job of bringing people together. I am in a place in my life (his youngest son is a student at Boston College) where I can give back," says the father of three, stepfather of two, and grandfather to six. His late mother, Earles Rose Mitchell, was a both a labor leader in AFSCME and was active in her Baltimore neighborhood. I get the impression that this race is as much to fulfill her vision for her only son as it is his. George Earl Mitchell embraces that mantle now. And it willing to forgo long odds to make this their dream.

But when I point out there are other ways to contribute rather than take on an incumbent Congressman, probably the safest office in the US, like a 'restler he has been ready for my move. "It starts at the top. I can bring people together." He tells me that he looked at this race in 2006 but decided to not run. At this point almost on que -- but it wasn't -- a patron, Kevin Johnson, comes up seeking out the candidate and asking for more information. The picture is to the right.

"That happens all the time," he observes. But as a long time activist I know getting 'the feel' for how the campaign is going by the candidate themselves is a poor indicator -- few say "no" to a candidate directly. But for an eternal optimist that's par for the course. I could never pin him by pointing out that the race is a hopeless cause for a newcomer without a political base, a cadre of activists, and loads of money. "We are the Seabiscuit in this race," he responds. (Didn't he know that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic Presidential candidate, used that line in Iowa a few weeks ago? She wasn't even the first. Maybe he does; maybe not. But he is willing to charge ahead as any good wrestler would.)

A Look At The Issues
Blogger's Note: At this point my notes are not as clear -- so much for being a journalist. But here are some of the key points without direct quotes. It makes his positions look thin but he said more than this but this is what I have.

On Mitchell's website he cites four issues: Education, More Quality Jobs, Better Healthcare and Affordable Housing. His outline is very general. Who would disagree with any of those. So without specifics one is left wondering how does he accomplish those goals. It was something I failed to ask during our conversation.

I asked some questions that are not on his website. How do you balance the budget? He answer was to getting out of Iraq and making the tax system more fair. When I pressed him on the latter he came back with a flat tax. Since he is a real estate agent I asked about the home mortgage deduction, the largest single tax break on the books. He was willing to consider including that provision in a flat tax but he was willing to work on a consensus with others in Congress to make up the details.

On abortion he is pro-life with the exception of death, incest and rape.

Equal Rights for Gay Marriage he is not in favor but "the world is changing," he mentions. Mitchell would be willing to have a referendum on the issue to let the people decide.

How Are You Going to Get the Votes to Win?
"Three hundred and fifty thousand people did not vote (in the last primary who could)", he says. Mitchell sees himself getting 56,000 votes as part of a larger anti-Wynn vote. (Blogger note: He did have this up on his web site how he calculated the 56,000 votes and gave figures for Wynn and Edwards but now that information is down.)

Again it is back to his key point: Wynn "is the highest ranking black politician in the (Congressional) District. And only one other district has a worst record than Prince Georges is Baltimore," he charges.

So why not support Edwards?
"Who died and made her Queen?," he states. When I pointed out that is exactly what Rosalind Rose wrote on the Maryland Moment blog posted earlier this year (look at the second comment) I had to ask was that his wife, Rosalind Mitchell, masquerading as a neutral supporter? (Rose is his mother's maiden name.) He claims no.

Again the wrestler in him makes his move (in this case pitch). "She (Edwards) is a lot like Wynn... her base is not as big (as she thinks it is)," he claims.

Where is your money coming from?
I reviewed his two 2007 FEC filings. He has just over $55,000 cash on hand. Most of his money are from family members. His family names are Rose, English and Mitchell. His wife's maiden name was St. Amont. So I have him with 78% of his money coming from family (see graph below). Not exactly a groundswell of grassroots support for man proclaiming to be the "People's Congressman". He tells me that he has now raised over $100,000 an increase of 33% from his last filing. And earlier this week he was reported to say he has people pledged to raise $200,000 for his race.

I think it is easy for activists to say someone does not have a chance to win and therefore should get out of the race. I disagree. But it is also hard as an activist and vote counter to see where he is going to get his magical 56,000 votes with only $55,000 in the bank even if Mitchell get his $200k. Seems a bit too much like the $300,000 that Herman Taylor claimed he could get back in November. If it was as easy as one dollar for every vote than the political landscape would be completely different.

So what is George Mitchell like?
He would not be a detailed legislator such as Ben Cardin or Paul Sarbanes. He does not have the depth of working in a legislature as they have done. I like candidates for legislatures who know their way around a legislature. Seems basic.

While Mitchell would not be the guy going over a bill line-by-line, there is still a place for someone like him. It would be in the networking and working with others who do the detail work. He is a hard guy not to like. He really does like to bring people together.

He believes he is the true alternative to Wynn, not Edwards. I hear it in his voice. A Doubting Thomas does not make a long shot race against a well funded challenger AND an incumbent Congressman. George Mitchell believes he will win and I have learned to respect wrestlers.

Blogger note: Next up Jason Jennings.