By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009; B01
After a bitterly fought election, a post-election week of excruciating uncertainty and a nail-biter of a victory, Maryland's newest Democratic congressman, Frank M. Kratovil Jr., has had little time to rest on his laurels. There have been orientation meetings and policy discussions, not to mention preparations for Tuesday, when he'll be sworn in.
But there will be little respite in the next two years, experts say, if Kratovil intends to keep his new job as the representative of Maryland's 1st Congressional District. Because of his narrow victory margin -- 2,852 votes, less than 1 percent of the total -- his opponent has already begun preparations for a rematch in 2010.
Kratovil, though, says his mind is not on 2010 but on the job ahead.
"I'm not focused on that right now," he said, rattling off items from his packed schedule since November.
For the past few weeks, he has shuttled between his home on the Eastern Shore and Capitol Hill. He has closed up shop at his old office as state's attorney in Queen Anne's County. He has interviewed and hired much of his new congressional staff.
He has also traveled throughout the 1st District, meeting with people he will represent. So far, he has talked to the leaders of nine of the 12 counties in the district, which encompasses the entire Eastern Shore and portions of several counties on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, including Anne Arundel.
In recent days, Kratovil and his staff have focused mostly on lobbying for him to be assigned to three key House committees: Agriculture (because of the rural nature of the 1st District), Transportation (because of the Bay Bridge and coming expansion as a result of military base relocations) and Armed Services (because of the two major bases in the area, Fort Meade and the Aberdeen Proving Ground). Committee assignments, which are determined by party leadership, will play a large role in what Kratovil has to show for his efforts at the end of his two-year term.
Some lifestyle choices have also been made, Kratovil said. He will not be renting a place in the District, choosing instead to commute from his Eastern Shore home in Stevensville.
"Part of it is about family, trying to maintain a normal existence, but another part is to have a balanced perspective," he said. "I want to be in contact with the people in my district, to bring their point of view to Congress."
As for his former opponent, state Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County), a repeat run in 2010 is an option he is keeping on the table. He has kept much of his fundraising apparatus up and running and has tentatively planned a March fundraiser for a 2010 congressional race.
"The success Democrats had in 2008 will not be repeated in 2010," Harris said. "This year's race was determined almost entirely by outside forces. . . . And in 2010, Kratovil will have to run on a record, not just promises anymore."
But for now, Harris will be pursuing state-level office. His state Senate seat will also be on the ballot in 2010, and he has scheduled a fundraiser for that race for Wednesday -- a $100-per-ticket event at Columbus Gardens in Baltimore.
Michael J.G. Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College, had closely followed the contest between Harris, a fierce conservative, and Kratovil, the first Democrat in years to have had a serious chance of victory -- trying to divine what a victory by either man would mean for the district.
But it's still unclear what Kratovil's narrow victory truly means, Cain said.
"There were so many factors in this race: the change in the economy, the surprise endorsements, external funding from the Democratic Party," he said. "It was in some ways the perfect storm for Kratovil. Going forward, he's going to have to be very careful with his votes. He'll have to be in full campaign mode and listening to his constituents very carefully."
Kratovil has branded himself as a moderate Democrat and has vowed to reflect the conservative nature of his district. In a recent interview, he said that might mean stances on issues that are contrary to those of his party.
"Like illegal immigration," Kratovil said. "As a prosecutor, I think it's just fundamental that we can't solve the problem if we can't distinguish between those who follow the law and those who don't."
He also said he is not convinced that more troops in Afghanistan, as President-elect Barack Obama has suggested, would be the right move.
"If issues like that lead me away from my party's platform, then so be it," he said.
On health care, Kratovil said he will work for consensus on a plan for universal coverage that does not hurt employers.
And he pledged not to become swept up in the power game of Washington.
"As congressmen, the bottom line is we are not here that long," he said. "Most people can't name all the presidents, not to mention the congressmen. You don't want to ever get so carried away with yourself that you lose your outlook on the world."