When the forces of conservatism shake the earth, Dan Rupli, Frederick's lonesome liberal, rises from his desk and goes forth from his law office to do battle.
"I'm like a 27-year cicada -- every quarter-century, I come out and do something wild," he said, getting the timing wrong, but not the sentiment. "I'm an angry man. I don't like the status quo and never did."
Unsuccessful congressional candidate, consumer advocate and inexhaustible defender of the little guy, Rupli, 61, has emerged this time to shoulder a task of near-mythic difficulty. As coordinator for the John F. Kerry presidential campaign in Maryland's 6th Congressional District, he aims to push this God-and-country region several percentage points to the Democrats' favor.
Rupli's office sits near the center -- geographically, anyway -- of the sprawling district. In 2000, Al Gore lost the 6th to George W. Bush by 20 points. But those who know Rupli say that if anyone can change those numbers, he can.
"He's like a stick of dynamite, with determination and drive that's unbelievable," said Mary Tarr, who manages Kerry's Senate office and serves during her off hours as his Maryland volunteer coordinator. Though Rupli's turf covers the swath of land across the top of the state, "he's all over," Tarr said.
Rupli's underdog days began in 1969, when he joined the Justice Department's civil rights division, an office not particularly well-favored during President Richard M. Nixon's administration. Rupli would scoop up a pile of abandoned case files alleging racial discrimination, organize them by address, head south and interview plaintiffs, hoping he could gather enough information to reopen them.
In 1972, Rupli and several other lawyers left the administration.
"We'd become fed up with nonenforcement," he said. He moved with his first wife, Brenda, to bucolic Burkittsville, determined to start a quiet country law practice. Then the electric bill started going up, yet there weren't many lights on, and not much money coming in, either.
A crusade was born: against regional electric companies, fighting the fuel rate adjustment, an energy crunch surcharge that in some cases added hundreds of dollars to customers' utility bills, especially for poorly insulated homes in Appalachia
Ultimately, Rupli helped win a rate rollback, and his activism led to a run in the 1976 Democratic congressional primary. He narrowly lost.
A favorite photo from the time shows Rupli in a freak May snowstorm in Allegany County, shaking the hand of a weary-looking factory man, snow piled from the shoulders of his suit to his earlobes.
He ran again in 1978 but "they saw me coming," and he failed again.
For the Kerry campaign, Rupli guides a group of volunteers -- Vietnam veterans, young mothers, minority activists, miners and college students -- whose quest to unseat Bush is about the only thing they have in common.
"Campaigns are not much higher than prison riots when it comes to organization," said Rupli, who will be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. "But we sit between two battleground states" -- West Virginia and Pennsylvania -- "and we're going to use whatever resources we can draw out of this district to focus on them, too."
Those resources are precious: John Wiseman, a professor at Frostburg State University, is organizing student concerts and bingo games to benefit the campaign's efforts to influence voters just over the Maryland border in Pennsylvania and in the West Virginia Panhandle.
Although it's a difficult challenge, trying to sway the 6th District to the Democrats, Rupli has high hopes. "Sometimes I feel a little lonely, like kind of an antique," he said. "But maybe my ideas are getting so old they'll look new."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.