Two candidates who don't live there campaign for Maryland's westernmost Congressional district
It’s Tuesday morning rush-hour at the Shady Grove metro station and buses are unloading passengers at the rate of 50 at a time. Amie Hoeber is trying to get as many as she can to accept her campaign brochures, and maybe talk a little bit. "Amie Hoeber running for Congress. Good morning, Amie Hoeber running for Congress," she says over and over.
Suddenly she’s greeted by a return customer. Toni Babcock, of Gaithersburg, has a question about Hoeber’s claim that her long career in the defense industry has made her a champion of the military.
"I met you here the other morning, but were you in the service?"
Hoeber, who spent many years inside the defense department before becoming a consultant and contractor, explained.
"I did not wear a uniform," she said. "I was an appointee. I was deputy under-secretary of the Army. That’s not a uniform job. That’s a civilian appointee’s job."
Was that good enough? Will she vote for Hoeber?
"Well, I think yes," Babcock replied. "I’m looking at the options."
Chalk her up as a definite maybe in Republican Hoeber’s uphill bid to unseat two-term Democrat John Delaney in what is widely seen as Maryland’s most competitive congressional contest.
"I believe this is our best opportunity to pick up a seat in Maryland," said Delegate Joe Cluster, who also serves as executive director of the Maryland GOP. "And we have an exceptional female candidate to do so."
The Western Maryland district was a long-time Republican stronghold until state Democratic leaders redrew boundary lines in 2011 to infuse it with an overload of mostly liberal Montgomery County Democrats.
Delaney, 53, a wealthy businessman who co-founded two successful lending companies, snatched the 2012 party nomination from the favored choice of Democratic leaders, and went on to retire 10-term Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett.
But Delaney barely survived a surprisingly close challenge in 2014 when Republican Larry Hogan rode a wave of Democratic disgruntlement to become Maryland’s governor.
That signal of Delaney’s potential vulnerability helped launch Hoeber, 74, and her husband, Mark Epstein, 73, on a quest for the Sixth District seat that she says has become a kind of mission.
"Because I really think I can make a difference," she said. "Because I think I would be a better representative for this district. And I think I could contribute to the national security of the country."
Thus, at a time in their lives when the couple might be traveling and enjoying outings with family and friends, they are working subway stops and fall festivals, begging for votes.
Epstein, a senior executive with the communications firm Qualcomm, has cut his work hours in half to be able to accompany his wife on the campaign trail.
"It’s a team effort because it’s really important both for her and the country,"’ he explained. "We got into this over a year ago now, trying to ask ourselves 'What next?'’ And how do we help, and how do we give back? And so this is our edge, let’s try to fix Congress and get some of our ideas forwarded."
Hoeber and Delaney are neighbors in the posh Montgomery County community of Potomac. Both live a block or so outside the Sixth District lines—in the Eighth District--and both have the personal wealth to plump up their campaign coffers when necessary.
Delaney spent $2.3 million of his own money to defeat Bartlett in 2012. Hoeber’s doing something similar but Delaney recently cried foul at her tactics.
Most of her campaign is underwritten by a Super PAC financed almost exclusively by her husband. He is on the hook so far for at least $2.5 million. Delaney complained to the Federal Election Commission that Hoeber was violating the prohibition against Super PAC campaign funds coordinating tactics with a candidate. He calls that a clear violation of the Citizens’ United court ruling.
"The one limitation that Citizens United put in place--the one and only limitation--is that a Super PAC can’t coordinate with a campaign," he said. "It’s clear they are coordinated. It’s obvious to everyone."
Hoeber says the complaint is groundless. She and Epstein were political neophytes when they launched the campaign, so they hooked up with the Super Pac to manage the money part.
"We do absolutely no coordination," she insisted. "None whatsoever. Mark has referred to it as he throws money over a transom and we trust they will do good things."
A recent Sunday afternoon rally of the Latino Democratic Club of Montgomery County made a strong case for Delaney’s likely victory. County Councilwoman Nancy Navarro said the typically liberal voters there more than offset the conservative and Republican residents in western reaches of the district.
"There’s definitely a bit more conservative folks and Republicans as well. But I think Delaney has done such an extraordinary job representing that district and the needs of the people up there and so we feel very confident that he will win this election," Navarro said. Delaney, too, is confident.
"I think the choices are fairly clear," he said. "I’ve worked very hard the last four years, focused on the needs of the district and working on bipartisan solutions, not only for specific things to help my district but for the important issues of the day across the country."
By contrast, he called Hoeber a "tea party extremist."
"I think my opponent comes at the race with a bunch of very outdated views about where the world is going and what she’d want to do."
Hoeber has been most critical of President Obama’s cautious foreign policy and Delaney’s support for the president’s positions, including the Iran nuclear deal.
As the congressional race entered its final weeks, both candidates went negative with attacks on each other. Hoeber takes the nasty tone as a sign that Delaney doesn’t really trust polls that put him far ahead of her.
Back at the metro station, Mark Epstein has a different way of counting votes.
"When she hands out her card, and they look at the picture on it and they look at her, and they say ‘is this you? and she says yes, it’s me,'" he said. "This is a real turn-on because they don’t meet congressmen. This is really phenomenal for people…And I normally count that as a vote."
We’ll soon find out if he’s right.