Potomac Primary: The Wynn-Edwards Showdown in Maryland
Ask Donna Edwards a question, and the candidate for Congress tells a personal story about how she struggled without health insurance, helped her son get help overcoming learning disabilities or nearly lost her house to foreclosure.
"Whenever there's a complex issue, Miss Edwards has two tactics," complains her target in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Al Wynn, the eight-term congressman who represents Prince George's and Montgomery counties. "She shows her pain -- 'I've been foreclosed on, too' -- and then she says, 'Let's find a way to attack Al Wynn.' "
To which Edwards replies, "I don't think it's so bad to have politicians who understand people's lives."
And on they go, sniping into the night. In Maryland's 4th Congressional District, the rematch between Rep. Wynn, whose scowling, impatient demeanor says he thinks he has better things to do than persuade voters to keep him in office, and challenger Edwards, who came within 3 percentage points of ousting Wynn two years ago, is a big draw.
Whatever the reason -- the Iraq war, the economy, the TV writers' strike -- it's standing room only at an Edwards-Wynn debate at Prince George's Community College in Largo. But the gales of laughter pouring out of the auditorium have nothing to do with the two main contenders. It's the other candidates, four more Democrats and three Republicans, who have the audience laughing both at and with them.
Ask the two top contenders about illegal immigration, and you know their answers before they open their mouths. Secure the borders, create a path to legal status, the usual stuff.
Now listen to the also-rans, the guys who ponied up $100 to get on the ballot because they have something to say.
"Lock all the governors and senators in a room, and don't let them out till they reach a fair solution," says George McDermott, a Prince George's businessman who lists his education as "the school of hard knocks."
"If we had 8 million Canadians coming in, nobody would say a word," says Upper Marlboro real estate broker George Mitchell. "So let's tell it like it is: It's racism, and we need to stop it."
"I'm one-eighth Cherokee," says candidate Peter James, a Republican from Germantown who invented a robot lawnmower. "As far as I'm concerned, you're all illegals."
In this era of personalized politics, in which everyone with access to a computer can post his own manifesto, voters have returned to the coarseness and cacophony of our revolutionary roots, a time of roiling partisan battles and rambunctious rhetoric.
At the presidential level, candidates stick inside a very narrow rhetorical range. Some of them speak in a more confessional style than, say, Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson ever did. For the most part, though, they either speak in an insider patter that is incomprehensible to most civilians, or they hide behind oversimplified blather that treats voters like morons.
Presidential candidates who dare to break the mold are often greeted as folk heroes. A Ross Perot once wowed a chunk of the nation with dense economics lectures. A Barack Obama packs arenas by employing a few simple, heartfelt poetic devices.
But in a congressional race, while the major candidates seem stuck on lobbyists' money and out-of-state donations, the lesser challengers -- the ones who spend more time talking about issues than raising dollars -- are free to reflect their passions. The crowd eats it up.
When Michael Babula, an economist from Montgomery Village running as a Democrat, challenges the others to march with him in New York's gay pride parade, Wynn gingerly raises his hand, whereupon Edwards glances over and then quickly flicks her fingers in the air, too. When it's his turn to speak, Mitchell hastens to explain why he raised his hand: "I just want to clarify: I'm not gay. I'm a full-blooded American."
By the time McDermott flipped against the audience, chastising them for interrupting the candidates -- well, mainly Edwards -- with applause and cheers, blaming them for the way in which Congress is "going to hell" and demanding that everyone "stop all this bickering and bull----," the audience is almost giddy.
The also-rans are so entertaining that you almost forget to notice that Edwards and Wynn are still at it. To them, he's an out-of-touch junketeer who's in the pockets of big donors, and her campaign is "negative, nasty, and mean-spirited," as Wynn said in a chat on washingtonpost.com yesterday.
At one point in the forum, Jason Jennings, a financial planner from Silver Spring running for the Democratic nomination, announces he's "going to be honest with you, though I know people don't like honesty, because you keep electing people who lie to you."
The crowd acts all offended, showering the candidate with boos. But look around the room: Everybody's smiling. They're having a ball.
Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
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