August 25, 2010

Veterans Benson and Exum battle for 24th District Senate seat

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com
Sixth in a series of articles on contested Senate races

Del. Joanne Benson and Sen. Nathaniel Exum have together spent a total of 55 years in Annapolis serving District 24 in Prince George’s County.

Now, the two Democratic veterans are going head-to-head to be the next senator for a district that straddles the Washington Beltway from Seat Pleasant to Glenarden.

Exum, 70, has been representing the central Prince George’s County district in the House of Delegates and Senate since 1975. He said his long record of service sets him far apart from Benson.

“I have been with the people,” Exum said. “I will continue to be with the people. I hope the people will re-elect me based on my service. I do not have to say what I am going to do; I have done it.”

Benson, 69, who has served in the House for 20 years, has also done quite a lot in those two decades. She said that she has always had the desire to run for Senate, but the timing wasn’t right. For years, Benson had been putting two nephews through school, and taking care of her mother. She said she knew that the Senate would take more time than the House of Delegates, so she wanted to be sure she could fully devote herself to the office before getting involved in a Senate run.

Since 2006, both nephews graduated from college. Benson’s mother passed away earlier this year, but urged her to go for the Senate seat, she said.

“I decided, ‘Joanne, it’s time for you to step up to the plate,’” Benson said.

Exum said he had heard rumors that Benson might challenge him for his seat, but did not know for certain until she filed her papers. Every election is challenging, he said, and he has been getting the message out about his record.

Differences on hospital

There are differences in the legislative records of the two Democrats.

They have opposing views on the next step for the Prince George’s Hospital Center. Exum wants to transform it into a federal health center, and Benson says she wants to maintain local control.

Benson also said she is the type of legislator who works more behind the scenes to build alliances and influence colleagues. Exum, on the other hand, said that passing legislation is the way to show how effective one is as a legislator.

Benson offers other perspectives from her pre-legislative career as an educator, as well as her views as a woman. More than half of Prince George’s County residents are women, Benson said, yet there are no female senators from the county in Annapolis. Women have different problem solving instincts than men, and Benson said she is interested in attacking the state’s problems from the Senate.

“We need a strong, no-nonsense, no-foolishness person who can get things done,” she said.

Benson said she has been working hard to get her name and message out, meeting many constituents. In addition to campaigning, Benson has still been working with her Route 202 Coalition, a group of citizens and community activists who discuss what is going on in the area and band together to make changes. She has been endorsed by unions for the firefighters and sheriffs, the Service Employees International Union, the Democratic Women’s PAC of Maryland,

the League of Conservation Voters, and Progressive Maryland.

Top priority for progressives

Rion Dennis, PM’s acting executive director, said the Benson-Exum contest is one of its top priorities.

“Del. Benson has just been a champion of working families,” Dennis said. “She’s always had an open door.”

With Exum, “we’ve had many a disagreement,” and “a number of people have had issues with him,” Dennis said, particularly over ethics. Dennis said Progressive Maryland was particularly upset with his initial support of closing the Prince George’s County Hospital, the county’s only trauma center.

“Closing that hospital has been really a huge deal breaker for a lot of people,” Dennis said. “Exum definitely showed a lack of leadership.”

Exum said that his campaigning so far “feels great.” People in the District 24 are familiar with both him and Benson, he said, and he said he wants to continue his public service.

“I stand up for the people,” Exum said. “I don’t leave the people floundering. I bring service.”