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In Maryland Senate races, civil debate gives way to civil war

By John Wagner
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 10:24 PM

In her bid to win a second term, Maryland Sen. Nancy J. King has traded views with her primary challenger on gay marriage, corporate taxes and other issues one would expect to get a full airing in a county that prides itself on high-minded discourse.

But the dominant image on King's recent campaign mailers is more telling: It's a photo of her opponent, Del. Saqib Ali, sacked out on a couch in the State House. King (D-Montgomery) also has launched a Web site to try to further embarrass Ali, with whom she shares a legislative district. It features a few dozen of his more colorful Facebook postings, including one in which Ali shares a "man crush" on actor Jason Bateman.

The contest may be among the more spirited this year in Maryland. But it's hardly the only one in which civil debate has been replaced by civil war.

In eight primaries that will be settled Tuesday -- including four in Montgomery -- incumbent state senators are being challenged by current or former delegates from their district. And most of these races haven't been pretty.

In another Montgomery contest, the incumbent Democrat is highlighting gifts that her opponent received years ago from an Annapolis lobbyist she dated. A 2007 family vacation to China that caused a challenger to miss some tough votes has become central to a third race.

And in a fourth, the incumbent, Michael G. Lenett, has created a Web site that alleges his challenger, Del. Roger Manno, has "covered up" parts of his past, including his and his wife's ties to Wall Street and a name change in 2002 from "Rajah" to "Roger."

In a statement Tuesday, Manno fired back, accusing Lenett of having "taken Montgomery County politics into the gutter like no other candidate before him."

"What we are witnessing this year is unlike anything anyone here can remember," said Adam Pagnucco, a popular blogger on Montgomery politics. "And if all the challenging delegates lose, it may not happen again."

In the past, delegates have been largely deferential to their Senate counterparts. In fact, the last time a sitting delegate from Montgomery challenged his senator in a primary was 1994, according to Pagnucco's blog, Maryland Politics Watch. That was the year that Chris Van Hollen, now a prominent member of Congress, advanced from the Maryland House to the Maryland Senate.

The attempted upheaval is not confined to the county. There are two Democratic primaries in Prince George's County that fit the same pattern: Del. Joanne C. Benson is trying to unseat longtime Sen. Nathaniel Exum; and Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a two-term House member, is hoping to knock off David C. Harrington, a former County Council member appointed to the Senate in 2008.

A couple of Republicans are trying to pull off the same feat: House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank is gambling his seat on a bid against longtime Sen. Donald F. Munson in Washington County; and Del. James J. King is among those gunning for appointed Sen. Edward R. Reilly in Anne Arundel.

"I think it's the mood of the country," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "There are a number of delegates who are feeling it's their time and that they can ride this anti-incumbent sentiment."

Others, including House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), suggest that may be reading too much into what's happened. Although some races have showcased ideological divides, others seem driven more by personality. They are all being waged largely by door-knocking and direct mail.

"The contests are as individual as the individuals themselves," said Barve, who has had a front-row seat for one such contest, in the district he shares with Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, who is being vigorously challenged by former Del. Cheryl C. Kagan.

That race "is like a disagreement between my sister and my aunt," Barve said.

King vs. Ali

The Montgomery feud that has drawn the most attention is in District 39 between King, a former school board member with the backing of much of the party establishment, and Ali, a first-term House member who has positioned himself as the "true blue Democrat" in the race.

Among the issues on which Ali has sought aggressively to draw distinctions is gay marriage, which he said he supports as "a question of civil rights." In a recent debate, King was more equivocal, saying that full marriage equality is "a very, very difficult issue in our district." If a gay marriage bill emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee, King said she would vote for it -- a position Ali criticized as "Annapolis-speak."

Ali has also sought to portray King, a former Republican, as too cozy with the alcohol and gambling lobbies. She has denied that and has argued that she is as "progressive" as Ali on most issues and that her seat on the Senate budget committee positions her to better help the district.

King, who was appointed to the Senate in 2007 after serving a term in the House, suggested Ali should have stayed there and tried to build a record.

Policy disagreements between the two have been overshadowed recently by a series of King mailers showing Ali asleep on a couch in the House lounge and the anti-Ali Web site that King set up. King said the photo of Ali sleeping was intended to highlight votes he has missed.

"This is the nastiest race I've ever been in," King said. "I've never had to resort to this stuff before, but you have to defend yourself."

Ali said the quirky Facebook posts show "I'm a regular person" and questioned why a state senator bothered to comb through them. "She knows she can't compete on her message, so all she can do is try to completely tear me down," he said.

Lenett vs. Manno

The contest between Lenett and Manno in District 19 has turned increasingly bitter in recent days as well. Manno has been highly critical of the leadership style of Lenett, whom he accuses of being unable to work effectively with his three delegates. Among other things, Manno said, that has undercut their ability to speak with one voice about the effects of the Intercounty Connector, a road project with a major impact on the district.

"About a year ago, there was an intervention from community leaders and elected and former elected leaders," Manno said. "We all knew there was a problem. . . . Even the simple things in Annapolis, like meeting as a delegation, we haven't been able to do."

Lenett bristled at that charge, accusing Manno, a former Capitol Hill staffer, of "absolutely lying." More broadly, Lenett questioned Manno's rationale for running, arguing that they have few policy differences and that Manno steered few bills through the House.

"I'm not down there to join a social club. I'm down there to get things done," Lenett added, pointing to legislation he has pushed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay and to restrict cell phone usage while driving.

A mailer sent by Lenett over Labor Day sparked a new round of recriminations. The mailer -- and a companion Web site -- accuse Manno of a litany of "cover ups," including failing to disclose his wife's work on Wall Street on ethics forms and the 2002 name change from "Rajah" to "Roger."

Manno said he has amended his ethics forms and accused Lenett of bringing up the name change to scare voters with "racial and ethnic undertones."

Forehand vs. Kagan

The race between Forehand and Kagan in District 17 has largely been a referendum on Forehand's longevity. She is in her 16th year in the Senate, having previously served 16 years in the House.

"Jennie has served us honorably for 32 years . . . but I think in tough times we need a different kind of senator," Kagan said in a recent debate, in which she argued she would be a more aggressive advocate for the district.

In the same debate, Forehand invoked the name of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), who was well-known for steering federal dollars to his small state. "My seniority in the Senate really does me an awful lot," said Forehand, whose supporters include all three current delegates in her district.

There have been squabbles over some policy issues. Kagan, for example, has criticized Forehand for casting a deciding vote in a 2007 special session to authorize a tax on computer services. Forehand has emphasized her work during the 2008 session to repeal the tax.

More recently, the two clashed over a Forehand mailer that depicts Kagan accepting oversized gift boxes from lobbyists, a reference to Kagan dating a lobbyist during part of her tenure as a delegate from 1995 to 2003.

Kagan said she considers the mailer "sleazy and personal" but has tried to use the attack to her advantage. On her Web site, Kagan says she "and her then-boyfriend chose to disclose every movie and every meal" on ethics forms and that she even "voted against her beau's #1 client's top legislative priority!"

Kramer vs. Montgomery

Of the Montgomery Senate primaries, the greatest ideological divide has emerged in District 14 between Sen. Rona E. Kramer and Del. Karen S. Montgomery.

Kramer has emphasized her economic development credentials and her opposition to the so-called "millionaires' tax." Much of the Democratic establishment is in her corner.

Del. Montgomery has touted her advocacy of "combined reporting," a tax collection method that makes it more difficult for large corporations to avoid paying taxes in Maryland. Her backers include several progressive groups and labor unions.

Kramer is also highlighting Montgomery's decision to skip the 2007 special session for a previously planned family vacation in China. Kramer said the decision reflected a difference in "work ethic" between the two.

Montgomery said she considered it "an unfortunate lowering of the political discourse we so often have had in Montgomery County."

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