Josh Kurtz — Garagiola: ‘People Lose Elections All the Time’

By Josh Kurtz

As John Delaney clobbered Roscoe Bartlett on Election Day, it was hard not to remember that that pleasure was supposed to have gone to Rob Garagiola. Garagiola’s implosion during the Democratic primary earlier this year qualifies as one of the most stunning developments in recent Maryland political history.

But if Garagiola is bitter, he isn’t letting on.

He’s had a calamitous year by any measure — separating from his wife, losing a high-profile race that was teed up for him, and leaving his job at a law firm to strike out on his own.

And then there are the whispers — about his personal life, about his diminished political juice. People are even talking about the length of his hair.

“I figured, let’s do all of life’s changes in a 12-month period,” Garagiola said last week, half-jokingly.

Since April, the best political minds in Maryland have been trying to piece together the reasons why Garagiola lost to Delaney, when he appeared to start out with so many advantages. Some of the answers are obvious, other less so. But no one has bothered to ask Garagiola himself.

He attributes his loss to three things: Delaney’s vast personal wealth — he spent upwards of $2 million of his own money on the primary alone — Delaney’s well-timed endorsement from Bill Clinton, and Garagiola’s own inability to campaign as much as he wanted in the new 6th Congressional District, which stretches from Potomac to Oakland, when he was tied up with legislative business in Annapolis.

“We just couldn’t compete,” he said.

But it was not for lack of trying, in Garagiola‘s opinion. He notes that in the last quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, he was among the top five fundraisers of House Democratic challengers in the nation. In all, he raised more than $800,000 for his failed bid, which ain’t peanuts. And he says he made connections with countless Democratic stalwarts in Western Maryland, who he continues to keep in touch with.

“I can’t say it was a mistake or a this or a that that altered things” in the primary, Garagiola said.

Yet Garagiola had other factors working against him.

One was the ham-handed way in which Democratic leaders in Annapolis drew the 6th District to Garagiola’s specifications. In addition to blatantly targeting Bartlett for defeat, it kept other potentially strong Democrats out of the race, and helped solidify the emerging narrative that Garagiola was captive to Annapolis insiders.

Garagiola perpetuated that further by soliciting campaign contributions from Annapolis lobbyists during the legislative session — which is not illegal for a congressional race, but violates the spirit of the state law that forbids members of the legislature from raising money for their state campaign accounts during the three-month session. He also failed to fully disclose details of his legal and lobbying work in Washington — not a fatal blow, perhaps, but it became part of the conversation on top of everything else.

The astute national political analyst Stuart Rothenberg described a meeting he had with Garagiola two months before the primary this way: “He looked like Tom Cruise doing an exaggerated imitation of himself in the movie ‘Cocktail.’ Calling him cocky doesn’t begin to capture the ego he displayed.”

All that was fodder for Delaney’s well-funded advertising blitz. Then The Washington Post chimed in with an endorsement of Delaney that was especially noteworthy for its denunciation of Garagiola, painting him as a puppet of Mike Miller and the epitome of everything that’s wrong in the State House.

The Post editorial revealed a lot of inconvenient truths — about Garagiola and Annapolis. But it ignored Garagiola’s 10-year record of achievement, in matters as varied as transportation funding, health care, alternative energy, and same-sex marriage. And surely Garagiola isn’t the biggest, or worst practitioner of the inside game.

Garagiola shrugged off the significance of the Post endorsement. He called the attacks on him “gratuitous,” and argued that the newspaper could have made the same statements about Chris Van Hollen during his first congressional race in 2002 (Van Hollen’s principal rival in that Democratic primary, of course, was a fellow state legislator, Mark Shriver — and the comparison falls apart for other reasons as well).

“I don’t know who reads that, to be honest with you,” Garagiola said. “I don’t think the Post had anything to do with the outcome of the election.”

And is Garagiola cocky? Well, sure. It comes with the territory. That cockiness helped him knock off popular state Sen. Jean Roesser (R) when he was just 30 years old. It helped him become Senate majority leader, leapfrogging more senior members. And on the flip side, it’s helped create a certain animus among his colleagues. No one suggests he’d win any popularity contests in Annapolis, and no one there was mourning too heavily when he was knocked to the ground.

Garagiola says that on the night he lost to Delaney by 25 points, he didn’t mourn. “In my mind,” he said, “It was like, ‘ok, it’s on to the next thing.’” He added that he has “no regrets about anything.”

Since then, he’s been restocking his Senate campaign coffers and putting together his new law practice, spending time with his children — ages 14, 12 and 11 — and enjoying his new Jack Russell terrier, Buster (short for Filibuster, naturally).

Asked how his family is doing, Garagiola replied this way: “My ex-wife and I separated at the end of 2011. It was amicable. There were a lot of rumors out there and a lot of things I heard. But it continues to be amicable.”

He went on to say that his kids are “well adjusted and happy. All the parties involved in that continue to be happy.”

Garagiola is just 40 years old. He said he’s “thrilled” that Delaney beat Bartlett. He’s still majority leader of the state Senate, which isn’t a bad consolation prize.

“I’m very happy,” Garagiola said. “The Senate’s a great place to be. I’m privileged to still be able to be involved in public policy.”

But there is some talk in political circles that Garagiola has now hit his political ceiling, that his opportunity for advancement in Annapolis has stalled and that he could even be vulnerable to a Democratic primary challenge in 2014. Some observers will be looking to see if Miller gives promotions to other Montgomery County senators come 2015 while Garagiola stays in place.

But if Garagiola has heard or is disturbed by such talk, he isn‘t letting on.

“People lose elections all the time,” he said.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

You Can’t Spell ‘Meme’ Without M-E

Opening Day

Duncan Moving Closer to Comeback Bid

A Perfect (Political) Storm Hits Prince George’s

Sail Away