In his decade in Annapolis, Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) has accumulated power, rising to become state Senate Majority Leader, and important friends, many of whom are backing him in a hard-fought Democratic primary for Congress.
Garagiola also has built a deep legislative record. And just as financier John Delaney — Garagiola’s chief opponent — has a business resume that has been an asset and a hindrance to his campaign, Garagiola’s work in the state capitol cuts both ways.
Though he was the early favorite to win Tuesday’s primary for the chance to take on Maryland’s senior Republican in the 6th District, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Garagiola now faces a real fight. Delaney’s campaign released a pair of internal polls Thursday showing Delaney with a double-digit lead. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) also jumped into the fray, endorsing Garagiola.
Garagiola is proud of his record. “I’m sure someone can find one vote and say ‘well would you vote for this again,’ or ‘would you vote for that again,’” he said Thursday. “But you know, on balance, I’ve really rolled up my sleeves on a lot of issues.”
Delaney, meanwhile, has sought to paint Garagiola has an “Annapolis insider” in the thrall of special interests. Garagiola’s ability to survive Tuesday’s balloting may depend on which version of the story voters choose to believe.
These are the things most friends and foes of Garagiola agree on: He is ambitious, hard working and a savvy politician.
Garagiola, 39, was born in Michigan. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and law degree from George Washington University before going to work on Capitol Hill. Garagiola then worked as a lobbyist — a fact which he rarely discusses but his opponents have seized upon — before being elected to the Maryland Senate. He is married with three children and lives in Germantown.
Garagiola pulled himself up into politics. He defeated an incumbent Republican a decade ago nearly on his own. He carries a rare pedigree for a Democrat: A polished D.C. lawyer, but with an airborne badge for jumping out of airplanes as an Army reservist.
Just as he had with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) saw potential and put Garagiola on a fast track when he arrived in Annapolis in 2003. Miller placed Garagiola on the Senate’s judiciary committee, and then switched him at the candidate’s request to finance. There, Garagiola excelled at writing laws and navigating compromises on complex regulatory issues involving health-care and energy policy.
The position also put Garagiola in regular contact with some of the state’s most well-lobbied and moneyed interests. Meanwhile, Miller pushed him up the ranks of party leadership.
“He’s talented, he’s driven,” said Miller, who helped redraw the district that has allowed Garagiola to run. “You know, I’m a historian, I love this state, I want the very best and brightest from Maryland in Congress.”
In the state senate, Garagiola has authored 198 bills, co-sponsored more than 1,000, and voted well in excess of 20,000 times.
Jen Brock-Cancellieri, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said her group backed Garagiola in part because he’s a known quantity: “When hard choices have to be made, way over a majority of the time he not only casts the right vote but he is a leader.”
Garagiola’s record shows him to be a predictably left-to-liberal vote on large fiscal and social policies. He pushed successfully for clean-energy, environmental and gay-rights legislation.
O’Malley praised Garagiola for his consistent stance on “tough” issues: His support of the governor’s 2007 tax increases; his backing for a gas-tax hike, and Garagiola’s decision to author the same-sex marriage legislation last year that passed the Senate and set up momentum for it to clear the General Assembly last month.
“Some people want their name to go first on a bill because they like the credit that comes with that, but he put in a lot of the leg work,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Montgomery), one of the state’s eight openly gay lawmakers.
Over the years, Garagiola has also been loyal to his political patron, siding at times with Miller at the expense of fellow Montgomery politicians, such as in voting repeatedly for pro-gambling legislation.
It’s on hundreds of lesser-known bills where Garagiola is harder to pigeonhole.
On those bills, supporters say Garagiola has deftly tacked back and forth between pro-business and pro-labor stances. In one instance, he built a coalition on a 2004 solar-energy grant program backed by environmentalists and signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
But some of Garagiola’s most liberal colleagues say he has a tendency to side with business interests on matters when no one is looking, and in other cases, to simply go along with the winning side. A series of votes this week illustrated that point.
In one instance, a bill similar to one Garagiola authored last year came up for a vote on the Senate floor. The measure would have made it easier for Washington Gas to add a $2 surcharge on customers’ bills for infrastructure improvements. Garagiola’s fellow Montgomery County Democrats blasted the bill as an end-run on state regulations designed to limit fees and the power wielded by monopolies.
In a series of three votes, Garagiola, who has received about $7,000 in contributions from the company, initially voted against the bill. Then, he switched his vote to advance the measure. During the final vote, Garagiola stared at the chamber’s electronic voting board, his lips moving as he visibly counted the developing tally. After it had become clear it would fail, he too voted red.
Asked about the vote, Garagiola said he opposed it because he was also backing O’Malley’s residential surcharge for offshore wind power. “It was about not nickel and diming people,” Garagiola said.
In another case, the Senate advanced a bill introduced by Garagiola that would repeal restrictions for three years on Ocean Downs Race Course and Rosecroft Raceway, allowing them to use up to $1.2 million in purse funds for operating expenses. The bill was sought by owners of the race tracks, which have given $12,500 to Garagiola’s congressional campaign.
Garagiola said the tracks could very well close down without the assistance.
Delaney campaign manager Justin Schall said such efforts are evidence of Garagiola putting “special interests before the people of Maryland.”
The Delaney campaign has also attempted to draw attention to Garagiola’s record on other measures, including his opposition to a bill intended to limit predatory credit-card lending practices.
Garagiola, who like other members of the Senate finance committee has accepted donations from banking interests, was a vocal opponent of the 2009 bill. It died in the Senate after passing the House almost unanimously. Garagiola wrote in a blog post that he was “for protecting consumers,” but called the bill “overly broad” with potential unintended consequences. After the vote, Montgomery lawmakers singled out Garagiola by name, saying he was wrong for helping to kill the bill.
On the ethics front, Garagiola’s pre-Senate tenure at the lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig has been a point of controversy because he did not disclose — first as a candidate in 2001 and then as a state Senator in 2002 and 2003 — his income from the firm on state financial disclosure forms.
Miller defended Garagiola on his 10-year legislative record in Annapolis.
“It’s not unlike any congressman on Capitol Hill: There are shifting interests,” Miller said. “You have your core values that you’re not going to betray, but where there’s doubt and it’s 60-40 either way, you can be swayed by the debate, you can be swayed by the last person who talks to you as you’re walking up the steps.”
Staff Writer Greg Masters contributed to this report.