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 But it's hardly the only one in which civil debate has been replaced by civil war.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."

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