When Life Upstages Politics
Md. Senator Saves His Challenger From Choking

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

For a year, Jim Rosapepe has loomed as Maryland Sen. John Giannetti's biggest political threat, taking public jabs at him and raising an imposing sum for what could become one of the year's most bitter and negative legislative campaigns.

So wouldn't fate have it that Giannetti was sitting in the bar of an Italian restaurant in Annapolis when the former delegate stumbled in from the dining room, doubled over, eyes bulging and gesticulating as though he were trying to cough -- choking.

Annapolis has always been a place where political friends and foes brush shoulders after dark. But no one can remember a scene as unlikely as the one that unfolded Monday night at Maria's Sicilian Ristorante and Cafe.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Giannetti wrapped up his legislative work and headed to the waterfront to meet his wife. He had ordered spaghetti to go from the restaurant, a popular spot for the local pols, and slipped onto a barstool to wait for his dish.

About that moment, Giannetti said, he heard a commotion coming from the dining room and saw an older man stumble into the bar.

"He was hunched over and kind of wheezing," Giannetti, 41, said. "I had no idea who it was."

It was Rosapepe, 54, a fellow Democrat who has been ramping up what is expected to be a bruising campaign to challenge Giannetti, a first-term senator from Prince George's County. Rosapepe had been dining on seafood fra diavolo with Timothy Maloney, a former delegate, and Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montgomery).

Maloney said his friend suddenly rose from his seat and was clearly in distress. Rosapepe says his windpipe wasn't totally blocked, but he knew he needed help.

As he sought out someone from the restaurant staff, Rosapepe said, he ran headlong into Giannetti, who leapt into action.

"I knew I had to do something, so I went over and I grabbed him," Giannetti said. "In one motion, I pushed up with my fist, and out it popped."

A hunk of fish the size of a golf ball landed on the floor.

The whole encounter lasted a moment. But in Annapolis yesterday, they were calling it the Heimlich maneuver heard round the globe. Many, including Giannetti, believe it will have a lasting effect on the tone of the campaign.

Rosapepe, a member of the state university system's board of regents, has taken Giannetti to task for inviting students to tailgate parties where alcohol was served. And Giannetti was the subject of blistering personal attacks on a Web site that turned up last year without any sign of who had posted it.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), who has worried about the tone of the race, called the episode "truly amazing."

"Maybe this means we'll see a more uplifting campaign as a result," Miller said. "I mean, I would think you'd be very hard-pressed to say anything bad about a man who saved your life."

Rosapepe seemed to fumble over this notion when asked about it last night. Giannetti had helped him, he agreed, and he was "very grateful." But he did not think it would change the tenor of the campaign.

"I don't think this was about politics," he said.

Even Rosapepe's backers believe it may be the most memorable moment of a campaign that has barely begun. Maloney said he has told the story to several friends, and not one of them believed it at first. When Rosapepe returned to the table, Maloney said, everyone sat in stunned silence.

"My first reaction was that God is good," Maloney said. "And He has a sense of humor."

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company