Thursday, September 07, 2006

On Raskin v. Ruben in District 20

This year's state senate primary in District 20 between Sen. Ida Ruben and Prof. Jamie Raskin has easily been the most ugly contest in Montgomery County.

In many ways, Raskin has the tougher battle. Even for a challenger who has mobilized so many people to support his campaign, it is difficult to convince voters to dump a long-time incumbent in what ultimately remains a relatively low-profile contest. Moreover, Raskin has to give voters a reason to dump Ruben without coming across like a relatively young man beating up on an old woman who won political office when the number of women in public office was much lower than today. As an incumbent, Ruben is also able to command greater financial support.

The portions of Jamie Raskin's campaign that have captured the media's attention mystify me. He attacked Ruben for supporting a Senate resolution supporting our troops in Iraq which received near unanimous approval from the Senate. Raskin described the resolution as a "valentine" to George Bush. This characterization seems a bit over-the-top to say the least and one wonders why he is focusing public attention on foreign policy in a race for the General Assembly. Perhaps it is meant as red meat for activists fed up with the Bush Administration but I didn't particularly care for it.

Surprisingly for a sharp, well-educated attorney, some of Raskin's problems are presentational. When Ruben and Raskin appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi show, Ruben was careful to speak in a moderate tone and only sounded a bit snippy once or twice. Raskin spoke quickly and aggressively and came across at times as beating up on a reasonable-sounding opponent. If Raskin had spoken more slowly and with a tone that connoted regret rather than anger over Ruben's very harsh attacks on him, he might have come across as the winner to me. Raskin wasn't aided by the panelist who attacked Ruben relentlessly but was so sympathetic to Raskin that one gained sympathy for Ruben.

Nonetheless, Raskin's campaign has gained major boosts that help explain why he remains one of the candidates most likely to defeat an incumbent. First, Ruben has been extremely harsh and negative, which unintentionally reinforces Raskin's message that she is unliked and ineffective. Ruben's claims that Raskin is not really pro-choice or a real Democrat are both nasty and false as shown by Montgomery NOW's endorsement of Raskin. NOW simply is not in the habit of endorsing pro-life men over pro-choice women. Rep. Van Hollen, who is extremely popular in Montgomery County, publicly rebuked Ruben for her flyer. Rumor has it that Rep. Al Wynn, who supports Ruben, did the same privately.

Second, people who know Jamie Raskin really like Jamie Raskin. Over the course of this year's primary campaign, I've met many people in a variety of settings who live in District 20. They all think Jamie's terrific. One mutual colleague spent much of a dinner I attended singing his praises to me. So many politicians present a pleasing public face but are not well-liked by people who know them well. Raskin may have presented a public image that I have not always liked in this campaign. However, it is heartening to see so many people who know him who genuinely like him and are fully behind his senate bid.

I cannot say the same for Ruben. I keep running into people who say she isn't speaking to them or describe her as a difficult person. I wouldn't mind difficult at all if it just meant that Ruben was a tough pol who got the job done but she has been rated one of the least effective members of the Montgomery delegation--something that has been the focus of Raskin's more effective attacks on Ruben.

Raskin's final advantage going into the primary is the impressive campaign organization which he has built. They have knocked on doors and telephoned voters all over the district in an effort to rally support for Raskin. The hard work of politics still matters a lot in state legislative races in Maryland. Raskin's ability to rally campaign workers to his cause is probably why he has a real shot at defeating Ruben.

Ruben will nevertheless be tough to defeat. People in District 20 know her and have elected her to public office for decades. Over the years, Ruben has undoubtedly done a lot of favors over the years. The electorate also will skew heavily in Ruben's favor as older, white women will make up a disproportionate share of primary voters. It is now taboo to discuss the hair and clothes of female politicians but Ruben's beehive and political longevity have made her a bit of a local icon.

Still, Ruben has alienated enough people over the years that I wonder how many will feel even nostalgia if she goes down to defeat next Tuesday.