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Can a Democrat Win in the First District?

Joel McCord
Congressman Andy Harris works the phones three weeks before Election Day

Credit Joel McCord
Democrat Jesse Colvin speaks to supporters at a house party in Salisbury.

Andy Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland’s Congressional delegation, usually wins by wide margins in the reddest district in the state. But this year, Democrats seem to think they have a candidate who can beat him.

That’s Jesse Colvin, a political novice with an impressive resume that includes a master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, a stint teaching English to Syrians who wanted to study in the U.S. and four tours of Afghanistan as an Army ranger.

He tells audiences he learned two things in the military, teamwork and leadership.

“Those are two qualities that are sorely lacking in Congress today and frankly on both sides of the aisle some days,” he told a recent house party in Salisbury. “ Those are definitely two qualities lacking in our current representative.”

Colvin hammers Harris for what he claims is his lack of concern about the opioid epidemic, his record on Chesapeake Bay issues and his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“We have 54,000 people in our district who rely on the ACA,” he says. “And I’m running against somebody who has voted to repeal it over 70 times. He’s had eight years to come up with a back-up plan. There’s zero back up plan.”

That sort of talk is music to the ears of Democrats, but is it enough to win in a district drawn to pack in as many Republicans as possible?

Dr. Adam Hoffman, chair of the political science department at Salisbury University, says it’s possible, but it would be “a huge uphill battle.”

Colvin would have to overcome Harris’ incumbency, his money and the GOP registration advantage in a staunchly conservative district that takes in the entire Eastern Shore and wraps around the top of Chesapeake Bay, stretching to Frederick County.

To be sure, there are those in his own party who are unhappy with Harris. There’s Robert Dickey, a Republican who says he’s changing his registration.

Dickey was the chair of the Salisbury-Ocean City-Wicomico County Airport Commission when federal budget cuts threatened the loss of the air traffic control towers. He says they asked Harris to speak to the commission about the problem.

“Well, he ended up not coming and going to some gun thing at the Adams Restaurant in Freeland,” Dickey says. “No show. Didn’t show up. Didn’t call to say he wasn’t coming just didn’t show up and went to something about guns at a restaurant.”

Harris, he says, “hasn’t done a whole helluva lot for the Eastern Shore that I can tell; nothing at all.

Harris scoffs at that idea.

“You go through this district,” he says. “People know I take care of the district”

He attributes the criticism to the “silly season” of elections when people will say just about anything.

On a recent Saturday morning he was at the Queen Anne’s County Republican headquarters, dialing for voters and mostly getting answering machines.

He was in the midst of a crowd of supporters like Mike Arntz, a Harris staffer who was recently elected to the Queen Anne’s Republican Central Committee.

Arntz says re-electing Harris is important because this would be his fifth term.

“Now he has the tenure to be able to get into some powerful positions within  the Congress, which is important,” Arntz says. “If you go back to a freshman Congressman, you’re going to lose all that.”

And Rick Bowers, vice chair of the central committee, says its not just Harris’s seniority, but his support of President Trump.

“Our president’s done a lot of great things but it’s been with the help of Congress,” Bowers says. “So, we keep Andy Harris in, we have a cooperative Congress with the administration and I think we can make some progress.

Late Wednesday, Alfred Mendelsohn, the Baltimore County Republican chair, released a letter he had sent to the House Office of Congressional Ethics, calling for an investigation of Colvin for alleged violations.

He charged that Colvin wrongfully claimed a tax deduction on a Washington, D.C., rental property his wife owns and failed to report income from it.

Mendelsohn charged Colvin is “unfit to hold any elected office, let alone as a Member of Congress.”

Sam Schneider, Colvin’s spokesman, told the Washington Post the complaint was a big “nothing burger” and a “baseless ploy by a career politician trying to distract from the real issues at hand.”

This post has been updated to correct the number of terms Harris has served in Congress.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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