With the polls opening Tuesday, Maryland Republicans are hoping to break Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the state Senate by flipping five seats — an effort Republican leaders have dubbed the “drive for five.”
They’re looking at two districts in Baltimore County, one in Frederick County and one on the lower Eastern Shore, where incumbent Senator Jim Mathias is locked in a tough race with first term Delegate Mary Beth Carozza.
Mathias, one of only two Democrats in the Eastern Shore’s state House delegation, is a guy who relies on retail politics and his lengthy time in public service, on the Ocean City Board of Zoning Appeals, the city council, five terms as mayor, one in the House of Delegates and six years in the Senate.
When he knocks on doors in Montego Bay, his old neighborhood, he runs into people who have known him for years and who guarantee they’ll vote for him.
And in one case, Vera DeBuchannon, a recent transplant from Montgomery County who is hunkered down in the garden by her driveway. Mathias sits down next to her on the cement and begins offering advice on “some places where you might find some enjoyment,” like the “Ocean City center for the Arts on 94th Street.”
She says she’s a retired government worker and Mathias launches into the story of how he got an honorary AARP card when he became mayor at the age of 45. Now he has a real one.
When DeBuchannon says she ignored friends who advised her to move to Delaware where the taxes are lower because she likes the services in Maryland, Mathias kisses her hand.
“I work hard to push down on the taxes,” he says. “But to make certain that you have the services here and the infrastructure needs when you’re going back and forth.”
But his opponent, Mary Beth Carozza, isn’t buying that.
“He was part of that whole O’Malley administration, he supported those eight years of bloated budgets,” she says. “He supported those increased regulations and those increased taxes.”
Carozza moved with her family from Baltimore to Ocean City when she was in fifth grade and grew up working in the family restaurant, Beefy’s, the first fast food drive through in the resort.
She graduated from Catholic University in Washington and worked for a Republican congressman as well as for George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
She was Deputy Chief of Staff to Gov. Bob Ehrlich, Maryland’s first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew, and when he lost his re-election bid, she went back to work for a Republican congressman in Washington.
She won her race for the House of Delegates four years ago and began plotting the run for the Senate two years later. Winning this race, she says, would make her a stronger voice for the Eastern Shore.
Carozza moved with her family from Baltimore to Ocean City when she was in the fifth grade. She worked in Republican offices in Washington and as former Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s deputy chief of staff.
She won her House of Delegates seat four years ago and began plotting the run for the Senate two years later. If she wins this race, she says, hers is one more vote in the Senate supporting Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes.
“What that really does it puts Maryland for the first time on a path of true, two party leadership, a true two-party system,” she says.
Of the senators targeted in the Republican “drive for five,” Mathias could be the most endangered, says Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“You’re in a region where Gov. Hogan won, won quite comfortably, you didn’t win your re-election by a clear margin and now a popular governor has targeted you for defeat,” he says. “That’s not a situation you want to be in.”
But Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College, says don’t count him out. Mathias is about as conservative a Democrat as there is and a well-known commodity on the lower shore.
“Voters really know him, I think, and respect him,” she says.
“And if anyone can survive this election cycle, I think he is the person most likely to do so. Any Democrat, that is.”
But Carozza says he isn’t a strong enough voice for the Shore. She points, for example, to his response to the opioid crisis.
“The incumbent Jim Mathias sponsored a bill that would allow for taxpayer-funded heroin injected sites in our communities,” she says.
That bill, which died in committee, would have allowed community-based organizations, such as hospitals and clinics, to apply to local health departments to open centers where drug users could obtain sterile needles and syringes and have their drugs tested for impurities. Staff would be able to respond immediately to overdoses and refer drug users to treatment centers.
Several studies have shown that such sites significantly reduce overdose deaths.
While Mathias relies on his years in public life and familiarity with the people, Carozza stresses her connection to Governor Hogan. But in one neighborhood in Ocean Pines she runs into voters who think the governor’s too liberal for them.
Bob McDonnell, a retired Baltimore County cop, says he’s “not a huge Hogan fan,” then pauses for a moment and decides he’s “better than the alternative,” Democrat Ben Jealous.
But you will vote for him, Carozza asks. Oh, sure, he replies.
Remember, she says, Hogan couldn’t do much faced with that veto-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, but in his second term, “having more reinforcements he’ll be able to do more.”