By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins
It is four o’clock in the afternoon, 94 degrees and oppressively muggy in Fort Washington. Lesli Thomas, Kayla Culler and Larry Jones are still going door-to-door in Maryland’s 26th district, trying to encourage residents to vote for their candidate for state senate, Democrat Brian Woolfolk, in the June 24 primary.
Woolfolk, who has never served in the state legislature, is running against two opponents with significant legislative experience representing the district which runs along the Potomac River in southern Prince George’s County.
CORRECTED 6/18/14 10:15 a.m. He is challenging incumbent Sen. C. Anthony Muse, who has served two terms in the Senate and one term in the House of Delegates before that, and Del. Veronica Turner, who is challenging her own state senator with significant union backing.
Jerry Mathis, a Fort Washington realtor, also filed in the race, but has not mounted a campaign.
A staffer on Capitol Hill for over 20 years, Woolfolk maintains that his experiences will be an asset in the Maryland legislature, helping him to craft and pass legislation. This is a message he has been working diligently to get out to constituents.
Working door to door
“You have to connect with the voters, build name recognition,” Woolfolk says. “I have been making the rounds, doing home owners meetings, community meetings. Knowing I was running against two incumbents I knew I couldn’t rest on laurels of endorsements or union support. I had to build an insurgent, grassroots campaign.”
Though both Muse and Turner have also run their campaigns in much the same grassroots style as Woolfolk — canvassing door to door, sending out flyers, showing up at the polls day after day during early voting — they can point to their records in a way Woolfolk cannot.
“Experience matters,” Muse says. “This year we have such high turnover on the state level on down, so experience will matter, and seniority will matter if it can be translated into the kind of agenda that I have proven I can put forth. I’ve had 40 bills passed into law. I have a good relationship with the House, with the Senate, and those 40 bills show I can get things passed into law.”
Turner’s campaign website also highlights her experience; listing the subcommittees and committees she has served on, and providing an overview of some of the bills she has introduced and helped pass.
“We need someone the constituents can trust and someone they can count on whose door is always open,” Turner says. “I have been that type of official for 12 years. People know me here, and they know when they call on me I’m there for them.”
Records and experience
For both candidates, these years of experience have also produced tangible results for their campaigns. With $107,993, Muse’s campaign has raised more money than Woolfolk ($64,924) and Turner ($34,686) combined. When speaking to constituents Muse can speak to his history in the Senate, and what he has done for them in that time.
“Last year I was able to bring back more money to the 26th district than any other district in the state,” Muse points out. “I want to make sure we continue to put that funding in the right place.”
It is this kind of record that led to his endorsement by the Gazette newspapers.
Despite having the lowest amount of funding, Turner has received a bevy of endorsements, including Equality Maryland, League of Conservation Voters, Maryland AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union and Progressive Maryland. Muse counts CASA and the Maryland State Education Association, the teachers union, among his notable endorsements, while Woolfolk was endorsed by NOW (the National Organization for Women) and the Washington Post.
Turner says that though the low-budget campaign was a difficult one, her years of experience helped her.
“Because I have campaigned for 12 years my leadership and my knowledge really gave me the strength to do what needs to be done,” Turner says. “I have gone door to door and I have phone banked, I raised money, I put up my signs, I did my mail outs, I let people know who I was and what I stood for. I put a team together that has the same goals as I have and we work for the district.”
Some unhappy with Muse’s record
While their experience has generally worked in Turner and Muse’s favor, at times, it has worked against them. The Post recently endorsed Woolfolk over Muse, citing Muse’s record on issues such as voting against the Dream Act for immigrant tuition and same-sex marriage. Even with some constituents, Muse’s name-recognition has proven to be a disadvantage.
“I don’t know who of the other two I’m voting for,” freely admits Fort Washington resident Phylis Summers. “But I’m not voting for Muse. He bankrupted two churches.”
CORRECTED 6/18/2014, 10: 20 a.m. Muse, founder and pastor of Ark of Safety Christian Church, has lead churches which have filed for bankruptcy or had debt problems.
This type of criticism can be especially potent in a race where the central debate isn’t one of ideology, but rather effectiveness. All three candidates have similar priorities: education, economic development, and transportation improvements – specifically the development of Route 210, the Indian Head Highway.
The question for voters in District 26 will not necessarily be which candidate cares most about the issues they do, but rather which candidate will be most effective in passing legislation dealing with those issues. In examining this question voters will have a choice between two candidates whose voting history they know, and one they don’t. Which candidate that ends up favoring depends a lot on what voters see when they look over those histories.
“I’m running on my record,” Woolfolk says. “But I’m also running on theirs.”