Some may think Paul Rappaport a glutton for punishment.
In 1994, the former Howard County police chief was the running mate of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey. They lost to Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by just under 5,000 votes. Then in 1998, Rappaport took on Maryland political fixture Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. It wasn't even close.
Nonetheless, next week Rappaport will announce his most ambitious political target to date: Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). Sarbanes has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1976 and a legislator for almost four decades. Though not a high-profile legislator, he has managed to win all his senatorial reelection bids by comfortable margins and, in the process, has become well-respected on Capitol Hill and has developed considerable fund-raising prowess.
So it is no surprise then that Rappaport, 65, plans to wage something of a populist campaign. The lifetime law enforcement officer hopes his familiarity with police departments and courthouses from Garrett to Worcester counties will form the building blocks of a grass-roots revolt against the Sarbanes machine.
"There are hundreds of people around Maryland that I know on a first-name basis," he said. "There's not a place in the state that I haven't worked as a state trooper."
Rappaport even has a campaign slogan readied: "A Senate seat is a terrible thing to waste."
There was once a time when three GOP congressmen--Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest--were salivating over the Sarbanes seat. Then came the 1998 elections. Democrats, led by Glendening, garnered tremendous support in Baltimore City and its suburbs, Montgomery County and Prince George's County--the state's rapidly growing population centers, essential to any statewide office seeker.
"One minute after the 1998 elections ended, those members of Congress decided they would not run," said one prominent Republican.
About two months ago, nary a strong contender in sight, GOP officials approached Rappaport. He was incredulous at first but, slowly, the officials explained Sarbanes's potential weaknesses. "As they were explaining this, I started to see some light at the tunnel," Rappaport said. "I said if you can get the grass-roots support together and the money I'll do it."
He plans to formally announce his candidacy Wednesday at two strategically selected locations: Towson and Gaithersburg, well-to-do suburbs of the state's two urban areas, where Rappaport faces uphill battles. The next day he'll make similar speeches in Annapolis and Easton, much friendlier turf.
According to state GOP officials, the party has managed to repair some of the organizational defects that hurt Republicans in 1998. Party offices across the state now have up-to-date computers and communications systems. There is even a Web page.
"We've gone from ground zero to state of the art. That's going to help any candidate who runs," said Richard Bennett, state GOP chairman.
At the moment, Rappaport is vague when it comes to his positions on issues, saying he is still in the midst of formulating them. In the past, he set forth fairly conservative platforms that some GOP insiders fear will hurt him in the District and Baltimore suburbs. But Rappaport said the central theme of his campaign will be his life's experience: four decades in law enforcement.
Brooklyn, N.Y.-born, he has lived since age 10 in Howard County. He recalls a sense of awe meeting state troopers at his father's bar and grill in Jessup. Ten days after graduating from Elkridge High School, he joined the state police, working the radio waves as a dispatcher.
Eventually, further education beckoned. Over 11 years, while working on the force days, he attended night school, first the University of Baltimore undergraduate pre-law program, then law school at the same campus. He had spent so many years at the school by graduation, that the faculty saw fit to add him to their own: he taught police management to undergrads.
Meanwhile he continued his rise through the state police ranks, eventually heading the intelligence unit, which gathered information on narcotics syndicates, mafioso and other assorted organized crime threats. In 1979, he accepted an invitation to be chief of Howard County police, where he remained until 1987.
Since stepping down, he and his wife, Howard County Circuit Court Clerk Margaret Rappaport, have managed a self-storage business in Jessup. He also has a solo law practice in Ellicott City.
It was his wife who facilitated his entrance into electoral politics. She knew the court clerk in Anne Arundel County, who knew Sauerbrey. The candidate first asked Rappaport to draft her public safety platform. Then she asked him to be her running mate.
"We ran a pretty successful campaign without a lot of resources," he said.
He earned a reputation as a good soldier in GOP circles, so in 1998 he was asked to fight what was a guaranteed losing battle: challenging Curran.
"Curran is up there with Goldstein and Schaefer," he said, referring to long-serving former comptroller Louis Goldstein and current comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who has been Baltimore mayor and governor. "I knew I would lose, but they needed to fill out the ticket."
With the GOP primary still five months away, the Republican field has yet to coalesce. A number of perennial candidates have announced and others are still considering it. Although Rappaport is by no means a frontrunner, he is at the moment the best-known name in the race. He also has the backing of Gilchrest, Ehrlich and Bartlett.
GOP officials are worried however about the presidential race's potential effects on Rappaport. Vice President Gore has an active political organization in Maryland, which could get out the Democratic vote in higher-than-normal numbers. But Rappaport said that the events of the 1994 election, when Sarbanes beat veteran legislator Bill Brock, show that Sarbanes does have weaknesses.
Brock had served almost two decades in Congress. His only problem was he had represented another state, Tennessee. Sarbanes capitalized on the "carpetbagger" sentiment but Brock, who entered the race somewhat late, nonetheless gave him the closest reelection race of his career (though the margin of victory was still substantial).
"Look, Brock only had two months to run. I'll have eight-and-a-half," Rappaport said.
The state party has raised $500,000 in the last month, and Rappaport will begin his fund-raising events later this month. Still, Rappaport and most other GOP members acknowledge the odds remain firmly against him.
"We're still in the process of rebuilding the party of a very disastrous 1998. We recognize that any GOP candidate is going to start as an underdog," said GOP Chairman Bennett.