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Fajitas in the Fourth

Rosalind Helderman

With Labor Day over, it's time for the campaign for the contest for the Democratic nomination in Maryland's fourth congressional district to get started in earnest.

The Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate yesterday for the candidates over sizzling fajitas and plates of enchilladas at Gaithersburg's Ay! Jalisco Restaurant. At an American flag draped table on one side of the room sat attorney Donna Edwards, who last September came within three points of knocking off incumbent Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D) and will challenge Wynn again on Feb. 12, as well as George E. Mitchell, a Prince George's real estate agent also running for the seat. Next to both candidates sat...Prince George's County Councilman Will Campos?

Noting Congress is just back in session, Wynn's campaign manager said he was eager to debate but was simply unable to make the midday event and sent Campos, a campaign co-chair, in his place. Lori Sherwood noted Wynn has committed to attend at least two debates in the race, one on Nov. 8 and another Jan. 3.

Still, Edwards' did her best to capitalize on Wynn's absence in front of what appeared to be a largely friendly crowd. She put out a press release claiming he was avoiding the event and said in an interview that she believes her opponent missed a good opportunity to talk to voters' about their concerns face-to-face. "It's unfortunate that we have passed Labor Day and the campaign season is on...but we get a surrogate," she said.

Sherwood dismissed the criticism. "If he had left the Hill, the criticism would havee been that he's not attending to his Congressional role," she said.

On the agenda for the debate: immigration reform, small business development and responsiveness to constituents.

Campos did his best to stand-in for the congressman, using Wynn's support for his own election as Prince Georges' first Latino County Council member as evidence of the congressman's sensitivity to Latino issues. Campos said Wynn has been active in supporting immigrant rights.

But the councilman had to acknowledge he was uncertain of the congressman's position when a chamber member asked about protecting home owners facing foreclosure. And Campos could say little when chamber chairwoman Alma E. Preciado accused Wynn's office of failing to respond to the chamber's attempts to reach out, merely noting he would "relay" to Wynn their concerns.

That let Edwards return to her favorite topic, as she turned to Campos and, with faux generosity, told him she understood how unfair it was to ask him to respond on Wynn's behalf. "I'm the type of candidate who will travel to every corner of her congressional district and take every question," she told the crowd.

Campos also handed Edwards her one moment of spontaneous applause from the crowd, when during a discussion of whether a wall should built along the U.S.-Mexico border, he attempted to lighten the mood with a George Lopez joke. Who would build such a wall?, Campos asked. Latino construction workers! Following polite chuckles from the crowd, Edwards popped in: "We can't joke, because people's lives are in danger. Their job opportunities are in jeopardy. We face serious challenges...I wanted to be here to answer your questions because I want to be a leader in the United States Congress because we face important challenges, " she said, to clapping.

Chamber secretary Kenneth D. Weiss said afterward that he was impressed with Edwards' knowledge of the issues but was concerned she seemed too serious. "Not very personable," he said. He said too that he could forgive Wynn's absence. "If Congress is in session, members of Congress should be there. I believe in that," he said.

Third candidate Mitchell, a Temple Hills real estate agent, continued his quest to be seen as an equal choice to Wynn and Edwards. He noted that he was not initially invited to take part in the event but was quickly added when he reminded chamber officials of his existence. At the event, he handed out literature in Spanish and joined Edwards in critizing Wynn for his failure to appear. However, he drew some clucks from the crowd when he advocated physically closing the border as the first step to immigration reform, including using more fencing and checkpoints.

By Rosalind Helderman  |  September 6, 2007; 5:23 AM ET
Categories:  Rosalind Helderman  
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