ROCKVILLE – Don Mooers has worked or traveled in 77 countries, nearly died of malaria, and been made a West African chief. Now he’s running for Congress.
For Mooers, 36, of Kensington, running for public office is a logical transition from his environmental policy and international development work with the Peace Corps and the State Department.
“When you come from my background, almost your whole life is sort of leading in this direction – whether you like it or not,” he said.
The oldest of four children who grew up in Kensington and Potomac, Mooers comes from a politically involved family. His parents met working for the late Edmund S. Muskie, a former governor of Maine, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
“My parents raised us to believe in public service, raised us to believe in civil rights,” Mooers said.
He beat out nine other Democratic candidates March 5 with 35 percent of the vote. His challenge in November is to unseat fifth-term Republican Rep. Constance Morella, 65, of Bethesda.
He is launching a grassroots campaign to include racial, ideological and economic diversity. He has been meeting with senior citizens, representatives of the Latino community and advocates for affordable housing.
“We as a country are moving toward greater tolerance and greater celebration of our differences,” Mooers said.
He said his key issues include fair treatment of federal workers as Congress grapples with the budget deficit. He also wants to protect Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the environment and to fight unequal taxation.
The current Congress wants to give “tax breaks to a well-off community that doesn’t want to be taxed,” he said.
Mooers also wants to attract more small businesses, which he called the key to Montgomery County’s economic future.
A graduate of Winston Churchill High School and Duke University, where he studied political science, Mooers went to law school at George Washington University.
But during his first week at GW, Mooers said he met a couple who had just returned from two years of Peace Corps work.
By the following July, Mooers was in Sierra Leone in West Africa, riding a motorcycle and working with more than 1,500 cassava, potato and rice farmers as an agricultural extension agent.
During his two years in Sierra Leone, Mooers said crop production skyrocketed. He also helped build three schools and started a work training program to help leprosy patients.
In a country where many children die before age 5 of “stupid, treatable diseases,” Mooers said he spent much of his time mixing up solutions of water, sugar and salt to treat children dehydrated from diarrhea.
“I was able to save a number of kids … and a number of kids died in my arms because they got to me too late,” Mooers said.
He said the hard work cost him physically and personally.
“Until one has experienced malaria, one really hasn’t experienced a near death,” he said. “You pop this medicine – this curative dose – and your temperature goes up to about 103 or 104 and then you just pray.”
At the end of his time there, Mooers said the people of Sierra Leone made him a chief. “Section Chief Kondayba Koray,” he said with emphasis.
In 1984, Mooers came back to George Washington, where he continued with his work in community activism, received a law degree and was presented with the school’s top leadership award.
He received a Fulbright scholarship and went to Mauritius – a small country in the Indian Ocean – to study their dispute resolution processes.
After working on the staff of Democratic Rep. Joe Brennan of Maine, where he was in charge of international trade and veterans issues, he went to work for the State Department.
Among other things, Mooers was responsible for programs to stimulate economic growth in the countries of the former Soviet Union. He also helped establish a worldwide volunteer environmental corps.
“It’s been a wonderful adventure,” Mooers said.
In December, Mooers resigned from his job as a senior advisor at the State Department. He and his wife, Magda – pregnant with their second son – drove to Annapolis so he could register to run for Congress.
Richard Parsons, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, called Mooers a strong candidate. Because of the federal cutbacks and recent government shutdowns, which many people attribute to the Republican-controlled Congress, Parsons said the Democrats have the best chance ever to unseat Morella.
“I think [Mooers has] a good background and, more important, I think this year the politics are more in his favor,” Parsons said.
Morella, who the American Conservative Union named the most liberal House Republican of 1995, has distinguished herself from the Republican leadership by championing women’s and social issues. But Mooers said Morella has had to become more conservative in order to please the conservative GOP majority.
Bill Miller, Morella’s chief of staff, said his boss has been attacked from both sides of the political spectrum. “If our Republican challenger is saying Connie’s too liberal and our Democratic challenger is saying Connie is too conservative, then she must be doing something right,” he said.
Republicans are confident Morella will be reelected, said Christopher West, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
Morella has had overwhelming support in Montgomery County, winning the 1992 and 1994 general elections with 73 percent and 70 percent of the votes, respectively.
She is also trouncing Mooers in fund raising. On Feb. 14, she had $415,142 in the bank, compared to Mooers’ $10,079, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
But Mooers said he doesn’t plan on losing. He said he will rely on contributions from people across Montgomery County and is confident he will raise enough funds to run a winning campaign. “I’m confident that if people are confronted with the choice, they will choose me,” he said. “Fifty percent plus one will do it.” -30-