Thursday, September 09, 2010

Why Incumbents Lose, Part Four

Get ready for some fun. Here’s a great category of losing incumbents:

Incumbents with Enemies

Ever wonder why so many politicians are so bland? It’s because they’re being smart. Politicians with big mouths get lots of enemies, and at least a couple knives are bound to hit the mark.

Republican District 39 Delegates Barrie Ciliberti and Mathew Mossburg, Defeated by Democrats Charles Barkley, Paul Carlson and Joan Stern in 1998

District 39 was created in Montgomery County in 1994. Originally, the district went all the way to the northern county line. Its first delegation was 100% Republican. That would not last.

Spy: The Dems ran a GREAT campaign (in spite of Joan). Of the three GOP candidates, none campaigned seriously, one was probably nuts and Mossburg had serious baggage (for example, he missed more votes than the entire Montgomery County Delegation combined).

Spy: The Central Committee formed a committee called the Democratic Upper Montgomery Project (DUMP) to “dump” Republicans in Districts 15 and 39. The committee was chaired by former Washington Redskin and discouraged gubernatorial aspirant Ray Schoenke, who gleefully took on the Republicans in letters to the editors, op-eds and strategic mailings. The Republicans returned fire at Schoenke, allowing Barkley, Carlson and Stern to run a positive, upbeat campaign and win the election.

Delegate Dana Dembrow (D-20), Defeated in 2002

Dana Dembrow was first elected in 1986 and soon began battling the rest of his delegation, including Senator Ida Ruben and Delegates Sheila Hixson and Peter Franchot. Franchot is a man who knows something about feuds. If he was locked in solitary confinement, he would likely start a feud with his mattress. But Dembrow’s biggest enemy was Ruben, and she would engineer his takedown in 2002. Strangely enough, Dembrow would rematerialize briefly as a Carroll County Commissioner candidate in 2006, but he did not make it to the election.

Spy: This one has all the elements of great literature, perhaps a Greek tragedy. The rivalry between District 20 Senator Ida Ruben and Delegate Dana Dembrow paralleled the rivalry between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick (except it’s not clear who was the captain and who was the whale). The two of them hated each other with a passion and drove each other to distraction during 16 years of joint service to the district until Dembrow finally made a crucial error. One sad night in April 2002, likely under the influence of alcohol, he got into a conflagration with his wife Suzette. The exact circumstances of the conflagration remain unclear. Suzette Dembrow ultimately refused to testify, Dana Dembrow was acquitted of the charge of assault, and the Dembrows reconciled and lived happily together until Suzette’s tragic death from a stroke (unrelated to the allegation of domestic abuse) four years later...

Nonetheless, Suzette made a panicked phone call to 911, the transcript of which was released to the public by Ruben’s campaign. Dembrow couldn’t shake the image of a wife-beater in the county’s most liberal district and ended up losing his seat to lackluster challenger Gareth Murray, who was elected on a slate with Ruben allies Sheila Hixson and Peter Franchot. Murray failed to hold onto the seat four years later, when Ruben herself was knocked out by Jamie Raskin. Much of the organizational energy behind Raskin’s campaign came from the many Dembrow supporters who blamed Ruben for Dembrow's defeat. The case could be made that the Ruben-Dembrow blood feud ended both of their political careers.

Delegate Joan Stern (D-39), Defeated in 2006

Stern was part of the District 39 Democratic Delegate challenger team that took out an all-Republican Delegate delegation in 1998. But after two terms, her colleagues became fed up with her and kicked her off their slate. She had the misfortune of drawing a talented challenger, the now-famous Saqib Ali, who got onto the Apple Ballot and smoked her by 1,238 votes.

Spy: Joan alienated and annoyed too many people. She was somewhat eccentric and not liked by her colleagues.

Spy: When her district mates dumped her from the team after serving with her for several years, the stage was set for the upset. When the teachers followed up with an apple ballot endorsement of her opponent, her fate was probably sealed.

Spy: Joan was not well-liked in her district or in Annapolis. First impressions matter, and her reputation never recovered from her first piece of legislation, a bill to require Maryland restaurants to allow customers to dine with their dogs (Joan was single and very fond of her dog). Joan was also unfairly criticized for taking on the obesity issue before it was widely perceived as a public health epidemic. She campaigned hard for a third term, but Saqib campaigned harder.

Senator Ida Ruben (D-20), Defeated by Jamie Raskin in 2006

Why does District 20 have all the great rivalries, blowups and feuds? Is it the raging tradition of hyper-activism in Takoma Park and inside-the-Beltway Silver Spring? Is it the unending conflict among competing species of communists, socialists, anarchists and other “ists?” Is it the volatile personalities that are drawn to such a boiling soup of liberalism? Maybe it is all of the above.

Ida Ruben is a woman of big personality, big grudges and lots and lots of enemies. In the wake of her decapitation of rogue Delegate Dana Dembrow, the Dembrow refugees formed an unholy alliance with super-liberals who had never liked Ruben. Their rival of choice: civil liberties professor and lawyer Jamie Raskin. Raskin was a great candidate with legions of volunteers and a superstar organization led by David Moon, but Ruben lost this race with mistake after mistake. First, she went after students at Blair High School for writing a school newspaper endorsement of Raskin. (Never mind that the students were not old enough to vote.) Next, she targeted a Takoma Park ice cream shop that named a flavor “Askin’ 4 Raskin.” When the ice cream was given out for free on the Fourth of July, she wanted it to be recorded as a campaign contribution. Finally, she released a flyer alleging that “Jamie Raskin helped put George W. Bush into office,” prompting MPW founder David Lublin to denounce it as “utterly ridiculous drivel.” District 20 voters felt the same and Raskin won by 33 points.

None of the above says much about the challengers. We’ll pick out a few great ones in Part Five.