Esther Siegel, who lives in Takoma Park, drove 60 miles into northern Frederick County this past weekend to put her question to the Democratic candidates for the 8th District congressional nomination.
More specifically, it was to the six candidates — out of a field of nine — who have never held elective office: David Anderson, Dan Bolling, Will Jawando, Kathleen Matthews, Joel Rubin and David Trone. Why, Siegel wanted to know, did these hopefuls think Congress was an entry-level position for people without legislative experience?
“If you’ve decided that you want to be an elected public servant at this stage of your lives, why are you not running for County Council . . . or even state senator?” she asked.
The candidates had plenty to say.
Anderson, a nonprofit executive who pursues state and federal funding for college scholarships and internships, said first-time officeholders comprise about half of Congress.
“There’s nothing unusual about someone running for a House seat who had not served,” he told an afternoon forum Saturday at Thurmont Regional Library. “Quite frankly, many people think we have enough career politicians and millionaires on Capitol Hill.”
A study of the 114th Congress by the Congressional Research Service found that 223 of 435 members are either former state or territorial legislators. There is also a sprinkling of ex-mayors, lieutenant governors and at least one governor. On the Senate side, just eight of 100 members are new to office.
Bolling, a former biotech executive, said structural fixes to Congress are needed. He favors removing parties from the legislative process.
Jawando, a former aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said Hill experience is more useful than prior legislative service because staff members do a lot of the work. (The Congressional Research Service study said 81 former aides are serving in the House.)
“My goal is impact, and I think I have a nice set of skills,” Jawando said.
Matthews, a former news anchor and Marriott executive, said there’s “no cookie-cutter résumé” that qualifies a person for Congress: “We need broad experience. We need problem solvers. We need people who bring really diverse background.”
She cited three women she admires who had no elective experience before running for the House or Senate: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and former senator and now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Clinton was an activist first lady who participated in her husband’s two presidential campaigns.)
Rubin, former deputy assistant secretary of state for House affairs, said his fights with Republicans as the State Department’s liaison give him the right experience to do well on Capitol Hill. Moreover, he said, he’s married to a Republican congressional aide, Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin, a senior adviser to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Every day I engage in diverse thinking and dialogue,” Rubin said. “Trust me. When I tell you there is Republican oversight, I know what I mean.”
Trone, the self-funding wine retailer, strongly criticized professional politicians.
“We can’t let that half-percent that have chosen politics as their entire life rule America,” he said. “If all you’ve ever done is politics and all you care about is the next election and you’re beholden to the special interests who are pulling America apart, that’s not the America I want my kids to be growing up in.”
By this point, Del. Kumar P. Barve, who has spent a quarter-century in the Maryland House of Delegates, had heard enough. Speaking for the other two office-holding candidates, Del. Ana Sol-Gutierrez and State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin, he reminded Trone that Maryland lawmakers have day jobs that are completely separate from politics. Barve works as chief financial officer for a Rockville environmental firm and said he could be earning a lot more if he weren’t in public office.
“Listen, to denigrate me or someone else as being a career politician is to be ignorant of the kind of sacrifices I undertake,” Barve said. “I do it because I love public service and because I see the value in having one foot in each world.
“I’m in the private sector, as I have been my entire adult life, and I’m a state legislator. And I’m damn proud of it.”
Siegel, who declined to say whom she supports in the Democratic primary, wasn’t especially happy with the answers from those who haven’t held office.
She said the 8th District incumbent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen — who is giving up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate — was familiar to voters before he ran for Congress because of his four years in the House of Delegates and eight years in the state Senate.
“We really know him. There’s a relationship,” she said.