The woman pushing her friend’s wheelchair at a Maryland early voting station recognized Anthony G. Brown immediately.
“You should’ve been my governor,” she said, pointing her finger and leaning in close to shake his hand.
“Well, I’m going to be your congressman,” the Democratic House candidate replied.
Brown, a former two-term lieutenant governor, is getting a second chance in politics after losing the 2014 gubernatorial race to Republican Larry Hogan, then a little-known businessman in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1.
Having survived a bitter six-way primary, Brown is the overwhelming favorite to win the 4th Congressional District seat being vacated by outgoing U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D), who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate.
The 4th District is one of the safest in the nation for Democrats, according to political analysts, who say Brown does not face a significant threat from Republican nominee George McDermott, a perennial candidate bent on reforming the local judicial system, or the Green Party’s Kamesha Clark, a self-described millennial social entrepreneur who wants to create a federal agency called the Department of Sustainable Living.
If elected Nov. 8, Brown vows to emphasize constituent services, reestablish himself as a player in Maryland politics and bolster a state party that he and others see as in need of a reboot. Democrats, he says, need to demonstrate that their priority is easing the economic burdens on working families.
“The party has to give folks a reason to vote,” said Brown, whose focus on social issues during the 2014 campaign made him and other Democrats seem out of touch. “We need to say more clearly what we are for, because they know what we are against.”
The 54-year-old lawyer and Army veteran rose quickly through the ranks during eight years in the Maryland General Assembly before becoming deputy to Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2006.
But he finished two terms as lieutenant governor with few visible accomplishments and one glaring failure: the botched launch of the online health exchange for participants in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
After losing to Hogan, Brown returned to his old law firm job in Prince George’s County, politically invisible for a few months until longtime Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) decided to retire, setting off a chain reaction that included Edwards giving up her House seat.
As he threw his hat into the ring, Brown sought advice from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a longtime lawmaker from Baltimore, on how to remake his image.
“Tell your story,” Brown recalled Cummings saying. “Share with the voters who you are. That’s what people want to know.’ ”
The handlers who had surrounded Brown during the governor’s race disappeared. He drove alone to events across the district, which includes swaths of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties; rarely turned down an invitation; and invested $400,000 of his own money to stay competitive with primary opponents whose donor bases were stronger. Instead of attack ads and touting his Ivy League pedigree, he ran television commercials about his role as a father and appeared alongside his wife, Karmen Brown.
“I think he went back to who he was,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who endorsed Brown’s rival, former county state’s attorney Glenn F. Ivey, in the primary. “You learn a lot more from losing than winning. He ran a great race, and he was hungry.”
Brown, who defeated Ivey by seven percentage points, said, “There is no such thing as a consolation prize in life. You get what is intended for you.”
His story, in some ways, parallels that of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, who has represented the neighboring 5th Congressional District since 1981.
Hoyer’s political career came to a surprise halt in 1978 after he gave up a state Senate seat to run for lieutenant governor and lost. A few years later, when Rep. Gladys Spellman fell gravely ill, he won a crowded special election for her seat.
“It turned out very well,” Hoyer said in an interview. Brown, he added, “is going to have a great career, and I think he can hold this seat for as long as he wants it.”
Hoyer said Brown’s Army background means he could play “a unique and important role” if assigned to the House Armed Services Committee, which does not currently include lawmakers from Maryland, even though the state houses several military bases.
In what will likely remain a Republican-dominated chamber, Brown said, he doesn’t expect to win cushy assignments or write blockbuster legislation. He plans to make a strength out of what critics called Edwards’s greatest weakness, constituent services, and has promised to improve responsiveness, hire dedicated staffers and keep offices open in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel.
“We are keeping him to his word,” said Torrey Jacobsen, an Anne Arundel Democrat. “We may be the small part of his district, but we are a very vocal part of his district.”
Serving the 4th, which lies a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, will mean bringing federal dollars and projects — possibly including the long-planned FBI headquarters — to Maryland, Brown said.
He touted Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s plan for infrastructure investments, saying it would benefit the Washington suburbs by providing improvements and federal contracting opportunities for local businesses.
“It might not be transformational change and progress,” Brown said, “but there ought to be incremental things that we can get done.”
The Democrats should take nothing for granted, Brown added — a lesson he learned well in 2014. That is why he plans to greet voters at early voting sites in his district every day until the election.
On Thursday, at the polling place in Fort Washington, Brown listened to a woman describe how a tree on county land was teetering over her newly replaced roof.
After referring her to local officials, Brown quipped that if he were already elected, he would be happy to help.
“I know you can’t wait until Jan. 3, but if you could, you can then call my office” he said with a smile.
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