Until Election Day 2000, John R. McKinnis had little interest in a political career. He was happy with his information technology business in Beltsville, building a client list that now includes Hilton Corp. and Embassy Suites.
Then he stepped into a voting booth and saw his main choices for the 4th Congressional District seat. The Democrats, represented by incumbent Albert R. Wynn, had drifted too far to the left, in his estimation. Republican John Kimble was back after an unsuccessful 1996 run, perhaps best remembered for his offering to pose nude in Playgirl magazine. In 2000, Kimble had recruited Wynn's ex-wife to do a radio ad.
"There was nobody I could vote for," McKinnis said.
He entered the 2004 Republican primary without the party's backing and emerged from a field of six with the nomination. At 30, McKinnis would be not only the youngest member of the Maryland delegation if elected, but possibly also the second youngest member of Congress.
With his roots in information technology, he speaks the language of that world when he talks about public policy. "In IT, we're problem solvers," said McKinnis, whose boyish looks make him appear even younger. "We work with upper management to have the least impact on the end-users. . . . I think that's what the goal of a representative should be: the go-between for the constituents."
McKinnis faces a considerable challenge selling himself to the end-users of the heavily Democratic 4th District, which stretches from Clarksburg in Montgomery County to Fort Washington in Prince George's. Wynn, seeking his seventh term, is an electoral powerhouse who drew 87 percent of the vote against Kimble in 2000. According to federal records, Wynn's campaign has $402,848 on hand, compared with $20,000 for McKinnis.
But McKinnis said he is what the 4th has been looking for: a credible candidate to take on Wynn.
"I've noticed a major shortfall in this district," said McKinnis, who moved to Maryland 10 years ago. "It's always bothered me that there seems to be a stigma attached to the 4th. . . . There's a void. When you look at the region, where's the weakest link?"
The husband of an elementary school teacher, McKinnis said his focus is on education. Like Wynn, he supports full funding of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He also said he has a plan, used by schools in his home state of Michigan, to improve parental involvement in schools.
It is on the issue of slot machines where McKinnis has his deepest differences with Wynn, who has spent two years lobbying for a casino resort in Prince George's.
"We need leadership that will address things like our educational system and manpower on the police force, not the status quo," he said. "And my God, bringing a casino in is not the answer."
Wynn said gambling "affects the African American community, my constituency; therefore, I'm going to get involved." He said a casino would provide the jobs and economic development that a racetrack with slot machines could not.
McKinnis also described Wynn as a "dictator" who meddles in local affairs that would be better handled by state delegates or County Council members.
Wynn said his involvement in local matters is about getting things done in the community. None of his constituents complains about his hand in local issues, he said.
"That's primarily an argument for wannabe politicians," Wynn said.
McKinnis grew up in Flint, Mich., and his parents were divorced when he was young. He said he attended eight schools before the fourth grade. His mother worked two or three jobs. "It wasn't until my sophomore year in high school before things slowed down," he said.
McKinnis said that although he never aspired to politics as a child, he knows it from growing up in a staunchly Democratic union household. Tagging along with his family members, McKinnis said, he attended political rallies. He recalls throwing his fist in the air and yelling "I'd vote for him" during a visit in 1988 from Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic standard-bearer. McKinnis was 14.
Six years ago, however, McKinnis was drawn to the GOP. "I think this party is listening more to those in the center," he said. Democratic traces remain, though. People are surprised, he said, when he tells them he supports an increase in the minimum wage.
He attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, where he met his wife, Faith. The two moved to Maryland 10 years ago. McKinnis went on to attend the University of Maryland, where he got his degree in 2003, after eight years of study.
He and his sister were the first generation of their family to get a college degree.
"I can't forget who I am," McKinnis said. His family, he added, is "not going to let me get too far to the left or the right. They keep me balanced."
Roderick McKinnis, an uncle who came from Michigan to work at the polls for the primary, predicted that his nephew's hard work will pay off.
"This has been an uphill race from the beginning," he said. "But I've got confidence in John. . . . I don't think there's ever an incumbent that can't be toppled."
A profile of Albert R. Wynn is available at www.washingtonpost.com/metro.