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Fraser Smith: Images of upheaval for Democrats

On the eve of an election that would prove disastrous for Democrats, one of the party’s highest-ranking leaders found himself within spitting distance of a furious constituent.

All the emotions that colored the 2010 campaign — anger, fear, disgust with incumbents — bubbled to the surface.

Steny Hoyer had just headed down Main Street in Laurel on a walking tour of small shops. One of the shopkeepers recognized him.

“Very concerned about the state of our economy,” she said.

“Me too,” said Hoyer, Maryland’s 5th Congressional District representative, who is also majority leader of the House of Representatives.

“What are you going to do about the deficit which has been created by the Congress in the last four years?” she asked.

“Well, the deficit has been created over the last eight years,” he said, trying gently to get the history right.

She wasn’t buying it.

“You’ve been in Congress how long?

“Thirty years,” Hoyer said. The voter seemed to think that was the problem.

Hoyer tried to continue with his review of the history.

“In 2001 we had a $5.6 billion surplus. I’m sure you know that.”

“We have to deal with right now,” she said. The deficit, she insisted, had been created over the last four years.

Hoyer said the nation’s fiscal house is in disorder because the nation is waging two wars and its leadership, under George W. Bush, approved two tax cuts. The former president also advanced a prescription drug program. Neither the tax cuts nor the drug program were affordable without tax revenue which has been reduced by the recession, he said.

“If you think this has happened in the last four years, you are buying a message that is inaccurate,” he said, sensing that the history lesson hadn’t taken.

Hoyer went on to say the nation and its leadership — the president and the Congress — have to be much more disciplined going forward.

Too late, the voter seemed to say. She was sending money to Hoyer’s opponent, Charles Lollar.

Lollar cut into Hoyer’s usual margin of victory last week, but the incumbent still won easily — unlike some 60 of his colleagues, many of whom he had campaigned for.

As a result of the losses, the veteran Maryland representative finds himself in an awkward struggle to maintain his leadership position. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has chosen to stay and fight in the new Congress as minority leader — the position Hoyer coveted if she stepped down.

The voter in Laurel didn’t get exactly what she wanted, but she and many other unhappy voters made their mark.

Thundering footsteps

You could see it — the deluge of fear and anger — early in the primary campaign.

Black Baltimore ministers urged Comptroller Peter Franchot not to be fixated on the unemployment rate. That number, they said, actually understates the level of distress.

People can’t pay their bills, they told him. They have jobs, but their income doesn’t match their expenses. Everything goes up — except their pay.

Franchot, a veteran Democrat as astute and aware as any political figure, knew there was little he could offer. His party, by late spring and early summer, had fallen in behind the anti-deficit, anti-government spending throng.

There would be no second stimulus, he told a lunch crowd of retirees at Charlestown. He and other Democratic incumbents heard the thundering footsteps — and they tried to respond.

But it was way too late.

Pork didn’t help

First District Rep. Frank Kratovil, almost certain to be swept away in the tea party tide, tried to establish himself as a thinking, pragmatic Democrat.

His opponent, state Sen. Andy Harris, said Kratovil would just go back to Washington and vote to keep Speaker Pelosi, the GOP’s political piñata, in power. Harris won.

Kratovil had gotten a $500,000 CT scanner for a new emergency center just over the Bay Bridge in Queen Anne’s County. Yes, he said, the earmarking process needs to be reformed, but in the meantime he could deliver something his constituents needed.

There was a time in our nation’s history when that would have been seen as a freshman congressman’s coup, proof that their man in Washington was smart and effective.

This year, not so much.