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Maryland House seat long held by GOP put in play

HAGERSTOWN — If U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett feels a threat to his re-election, he doesn’t show it. Addressing a breakfast crowd at a Republican primary debate in Hagerstown, the 85-year-old conservative from Frederick County calmly ticks off the same objectives — lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government — that he’s espoused since he first claimed Maryland’s 6th District for the GOP in 1992.

Yet some listeners say they’re hungry for a fresh message to counter the district’s strongest Democratic offensive in 20 years. Redistricting added a big chunk of Democrat-heavy Montgomery County to what had been a Republican stronghold. The change made the seat competitive and led Bartlett to consider retiring rather than face bulked-up Democratic opposition. As a result, registered Republicans and re-energized Democrats both have large fields of candidates from which to choose their parties’ nominees Tuesday.

It’s a quandary for Republican voters accustomed to easy victories by a congressman who now seems stale to some.

“I would like to hear what other people have to say,” said Judy Sasmore, a retired Montgomery County public school teacher from Keedysville. “I haven’t been dissatisfied with Roscoe Bartlett, but he is on the older edge of things.”

Duane Arch, a bank branch manager from Hagerstown, said he’s looking for a Republican alternative.

“Society changes. Technology changes. If you’re in there for too long, you want to do more along old ideas,” he said.

But Bartlett’s confidence is growing. The millionaire physiologist-turned-farmer outstripped his nearest Republican opponent, state Sen. David Brinkley, more than tenfold in first-quarter campaign fundraising. Bartlett says his polls indicates that the reconfigured district — which also includes the counties of Allegany, Garrett and Washington and part of Frederick County — still leans conservative.

“The more we looked at the district, the less we thought that it was going to be that difficult,” Bartlett said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has added Bartlett to a program that aims to protect endangered House members, and Bartlett says many of his longtime backers urged him to run.

“I had a lot of people call me and say, ‘Roscoe, if you have any chance of winning that seat, you’re our only hope. If you don’t run, we’re going to lose that seat.”

Brinkley jumped into the race trumpeting endorsements by fellow Republican state legislators. He says Bartlett’s been ineffective in advancing conservative ideals.

“The whole mission here is, look, lead, follow or get out of the way,” Brinkley said.

But Brinkley has been overshadowed in publicity by Republican candidate Kathy Afzali, a state delegate who made much of an episode in which a Bartlett staff member, without the congressman’s knowledge, forwarded to a House committee a lighthearted proposal to give tax breaks to Americans with mustaches. Afzali said the confusion showed that Bartlett, who has a mustache, has lost touch with even his own staff.

The other Republican candidates are information technology expert Robert Coblentz of Washington County, Montgomery County attorney Robin Ficker, Baltimore County businessman Joseph Krysztoforski and Brandon Rippeon, a businessman from Montgomery County.

The Democratic primary race has been dominated by a clash between state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola and Montgomery County businessman John Delaney, founder of two publicly traded financial corporations, commercial lender CapitalSource Inc. and BancAlliance, which helps community and regional banks pool their lending resources.

Garagiola has the support of the state’s controlling Democratic establishment, including organized labor and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-highest-ranking House Democrat. And the district’s boundaries appear to have been tailored for Garagiola, a Montgomery County resident and leading proponent of the state’s new law allowing same-sex marriage.

But Delaney has gained momentum with endorsements by former President Bill Clinton, Democratic state Comptroller Peter Franchot and U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. He constantly touts his experience in creating thousands of private-sector jobs, an appealing message in rural western Maryland and to Democratic voter Bruce Duncan, a retired Montgomery County government worker from Hagerstown.

“I think the economy as a whole needs a jumpstart,” Duncan said.

Delaney, pouring more than $1 million of his own money into the race, has outraised and outspent Garagiola nearly 3-to-1 since January. In an exchange of attacks, his campaign has painted Garagiola as an opportunistic political climber in bed with the Washington lobbyists for whom Garagiola once worked and who now support the state senator’s candidacy.

Garagiola didn’t list more than $200,000 in lobbyist earnings on ethics disclosure forms he filed as a state legislative candidate and lawmaker from 2001 to 2003. He said he wasn’t trying to hide the information, but thought he had to report outside income only from businesses he owned. The state ethics chief said that’s one possible interpretation of the form’s instructions, which have since been clarified.

Garagiola also had to explain his opposition to a proposed increase in the state gasoline sales tax after he spearheaded a similar measure last year. He says it wasn’t a reversal because this year’s proposal would have added 18 to 24 cents a gallon, much more than the 10-cent increase he favored in 2011.

“There needs to be some sensitivity to pocketbook issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, Garagiola’s campaign portrays Delaney as a “loan shark” whose company, CapitalSource, preyed on working families in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County by initiating foreclosure filings during the recession. Delaney says none of the homes was foreclosed on by him or CapitalSource.

He proudly points to a Bank Enterprise Award, bestowed on CapitalSource by the Obama administration for investments that “made a tangible difference in the communities they serve.”

Another Garagiola attack, involving an Internal Revenue Service audit of CapitalSource’s tax returns during the three years it operated as a Real Estate Investment Trust, is an exaggeration of a fairly standard IRS practice, Delaney says.

“I wouldn’t have created as many jobs and I wouldn’t have made as many loans to small businesses” had CapitalSource not done the REIT conversion, Delaney said.

The bitter exchanges annoy some Democratic voters.

“I’ve been particularly put off by the backbiting between Delaney and Garagiola,” said Barbara Neiman, a tractor-trailer driver from Hagerstown.

She said she was leaning toward Milad Pooran, an Iranian-born Veterans Administration physician from Frederick County who is courting the sizeable number of foreign-born Americans in the redrawn district. Pooran has been endorsed by Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and physician who ran for president in 2004.

The other Democratic candidates are Washington County attorney Charles Bailey and Ron Little, an antitrust lawyer from Montgomery County.

Delany’s aggressive campaign has been a surprise, said Montgomery County Council Member Valerie Ervin, who waited until last week to endorse him.

“For a lot of people, the conventional wisdom was that Sen. Garagiola was the heir apparent, or the heir to the seat. Nobody really thought that there could be a challenger that had any chance of winning in the primary,” she said. With Delaney’s endorsements by Clinton and other prominent Democrats, “maybe the conventional wisdom has turned,” she said.

As the Democratic nominee, Delaney would be a tougher opponent than Garagiola for Bartlett, said Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County Commissioners and local co-chairman of Bartlett’s campaign. He said Delaney has no voting record and “a ton of private money” with which to reach the moderate and independent voters both parties covet. On the other hand, Young said, Garagiola’s 10-year record of liberal votes would give Republicans plenty to criticize.

“I think the congressman could beat either one, but I think he’s the easier of the two,” Young said.