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Youth And Experience To Square Off In 2nd Congressional District Race

Brittany Oliver, Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland's 2nd district.
Brittany Oliver
Brittany Oliver, Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland's 2nd district.

Over dinner at the Green Turtle in Hunt Valley, about 20 members of the North Baltimore County Democratic Club got a chance to size up the guest speaker, Brittany Oliver, who is challenging Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger in next June’s Democratic primary for his 2nd Congressional District seat.

“When they’ve been in office for almost 20 years politicians become very complacent,” Oliver said. “We cannot afford to do the bare minimum anymore.”

That is a clear shot at Ruppersberger, who has been in Congress since 2003

Oliver is battling the power of incumbency as she attempts to follow in the footsteps of other young progressives who have defeated incumbents.

Oliver describes herself as a progressive and a recovering activist. Her major issues include Medicare for all, helping children and families and environmental justice.

Oliver said, “All of these issues are keeping people up at night and people like me are going to do something about it.”

People like her, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Cori Bush in Saint Louis, both young progressives of color who defeated incumbents in a Democratic primary, she said.

Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chestertown, said the reason we know Ocasio-Cortez’s and Bush’s names is that they are the exception rather than the rule.

“It’s not impossible of course for this to happen, but generally speaking incumbents have such big advantages that it’s really hard for folks to pull that off,” Deckman said.

Ruppersberger has more than $1.2 million in his campaign coffers. He’s held elected office since 1986, serving on the Baltimore County Council and as county executive before being elected to Congress.

Oliver is 33. This is her first run for office. To overcome Ruppersberger’s advantages she says she is campaigning and raising money full time and looking for volunteers to help with a grass roots campaign.

“More and more people are stepping up,” Oliver said. “That’s a good thing. It’s positive to move in a direction where young people such as myself are starting to step up.”

Even if Oliver doesn’t win, Chryl Laird, a political science professor at the University of Maryland College Park, said she would be well positioned for future races. Laird said Oliver also can force Ruppersberger to respond to more progressive issues.

Laird said, “I think she is, for the African American community, somebody who is embodying, taking on issues of concern to many people who are in those constituencies.”

In her stump speech, Oliver points out the 2nd congressional district, which includes portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford Counties, and a piece of Baltimore City has changed since Ruppersberger first was elected. 2019 census figures show the district is 51% white. In 2000, it was 67%.

To have a shot at beating Ruppersberger, Laird said Oliver needs to reach out to moderate and liberal white voters, and not take Black support for granted.

“You do need to make sure that the community that you think is going to be one of your biggest supporters and probably one of your core groups of supports, feels and knows that you are doing the work to reach them and to address their concerns,” Laird said.

Oliver founded an advocacy group called Not Without Black Women. She was a campaign volunteer for Stacey Abrams’ and Kamala Harris. Oliver said she campaigned for a $15 minimum wage. She’s been involved with the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and Amnesty International.

Back at the Democratic club meeting, Parkville resident Carla Johnson said she has voted for Ruppersberger in the past, but she’s glad he’s being challenged. Johnson said everyone should be “primaried.”

“We need new ideas and I think we all need to be open to hear the new ideas,” Johnson said.

Ruppersberger declined to be interviewed, but through a spokeswoman said he welcomes anyone who enters the race and looks forward to debating the issues.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2