CUMBERLAND, Md. — Two winters ago, John Delaney was just a wealthy financier, with a mansion in Potomac, a quick commute to his Chevy Chase office and a host of fellow millionaires on speed dial.
This month, Delaney stood in a cold room at the snow-covered Allegany County fairgrounds, listening to farmers complain about cow manure.
His journey from chairman of a highly regarded lending company to one of the most junior members of the least powerful cohort on Capitol Hill — House Democrats — has prompted much head-scratching, and a lot of speculation that Delaney is eyeing a statewide race.
He has criticized Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) over the Affordable Care Act. He has positioned himself as a centrist in his district, which leans blue to the east, red to west. Last summer, he drew attention with his announcement that he would invest personal funds in a campaign to raise Maryland’s minimum wage.
And then there was the telephone poll conducted last month that asked about Delaney along with a list of candidates who are running for governor.
Who sponsored the poll is unclear. Delaney would say only that he does “many polls” about lots of subjects. He said he expects to be running for Congress this year, not governor. But in the longer term, “if I think I can make a bigger difference in a different office, I would do that.”
Delaney didn’t just take on a new role when he was elected in 2012. He also took on a steep learning curve in a new seat, a gerrymandered behemoth that stretches from Potomac to the West Virginia border. It includes a good chunk of wealthy, liberal-leaning Montgomery County. It also includes Garrett County, a swath of heavily Republican, largely rural territory with a per-capita income half that of Montgomery.
So in addition to taking on weighty national concerns such as whether the United States should bomb Syria, he’s learned that the big NewPage paper mill in Western Maryland can’t run on natural gas because it’s too expensive to get the gas there. He’s learned that some Marylanders must drive to Martinsburg, W.Va., to find the nearest veterans hospital and that television viewers in Garrett County can get broadcasts only from Pennsylvania stations.
Delaney also has discovered that Maryland farmers are unhappy about state rules requiring them to put fences around streams so their animals don’t pollute water that eventually feeds the Chesapeake Bay.
As one farmer put it to Delaney in Cumberland, if anyone sees one of your cows wandering into a stream, “they’ll call someone, and — pardon the language — all H is going to break loose.”
“What I’ve had to learn a lot about, which I didn’t appreciate, is how disconnected Western Maryland feels from the rest of Maryland — that they feel like their voice isn’t heard,” Delaney said.
Delaney has tried to carve a middle path, taking pains to tell all kinds of audiences that he sees both sides of policy arguments. He was one of just two Maryland House members to support the recently approved farm bill, and he has said that the controversial practice of obtaining natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” should be allowed “in a safe and responsible way.”
“I don’t say bad things about my Republican colleagues, ever,” Delaney told a group of local officials gathered in a Frostburg meeting room. “People ask, ‘How do you work with the other side?’ Well, I start by not saying bad things about them.”
Delaney takes pride in the fact that he has drawn a bipartisan list of sponsors to his biggest legislative project — a bill to create a national infrastructure fund that would be financed by private companies that repatriate cash they’ve been keeping overseas.
He has criticized both parties on health-care reform and has been particularly outspoken about Maryland’s problem-plagued state insurance exchange, even though Annapolis is dominated by his fellow Democrats. (Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who has been in charge of implementing the law, is running for governor.)
Delaney has called on the state to allow its residents to use the federal exchange. But the O’Malley administration has responded largely by “ignoring” his suggestion, Delaney says, and he thinks he knows why.
“The problem is, agreeing to do that would be admitting that you spent $100 million or $150 million to build something and you failed,” Delaney said. “And I think politically the administration doesn’t want to do that. You know, that’s fine if it doesn’t affect people, but I think this is going to affect a bunch of people, and I find that really troublesome.”
It’s not surprising that Delaney has been willing to buck some top Maryland Democrats since he got to Congress, given how he won the job in the first place.
After the 2010 Census, Democratic leaders in Annapolis redrew the 6th District with two goals — to make longtime GOP Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett vulnerable in 2012, and to give Robert J. Garagiola, then the majority leader in the state Senate, a tailor-made seat in Congress.
But Delaney disrupted that plan. He pumped in some of his own money, raised more from outside donors than Garagiola did, and trumpeted an endorsement from former president Bill Clinton. Delaney won the primary and the general election with ease.
Some party power brokers warned early that Delaney had his sights set beyond Congress.
He must first win a second term, likely against former Secret Service agent and 2012 Senate candidate Daniel Bongino (R). The Democratic tilt of the district and Delaney’s wealth make him the clear favorite.
If Delaney does find he needs help on the campaign trail, he can always call on his old friend Clinton. (He’s also close to Hillary Rodham Clinton; he raised more than $800,000 for her 2008 presidential campaign and is eager to see her run again in 2016.)
Delaney has another good friend in politics who lives just across the Potomac River — Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).
Warner, who made a fortune in the telecommunications industry before serving as Virginia’s governor, has complained that the slow pace and dysfunction of Capitol Hill are difficult for someone accustomed to being an executive.
But Delaney said he doesn’t share Warner’s frustration.
“I’ve really enjoyed it, truly, to the surprise of many of my friends,” Delaney said. “It’s incredibly interesting . . . to learn about so many issues that you never really had to go deep on. That’s been great.”