WASHINGTON – Colin Harby was sitting in a bar in Alexandria, Va., when he decided to run for Congress in July.
“I was at this Irish pub and I saw a bunch of [President] Clinton’s guys resigning, so I thought I might just put my name in the hat,” said Harby.
He went right then and paid the $100 fee to run as a Republican against Maryland 3rd District Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, who has held the seat since 1986.
“All of the sudden, I was getting phone calls. `Mr. Harby, you’re unopposed in the primaries. What is your platform?'” he said of his primary campaign. “And I said, `I don’t know.'”
That attitude is typical of Harby’s underdog campaign.
He claims to have raised $1 from “a guy in New Jersey” while Cardin had pulled in more than $400,000 by the primary and still had $251,158 on hand.
Harby, a political rookie, is taking on a career politician who won his first political race at the age of 23, a former Speaker of Maryland’s House who twice toyed with runs for governor.
While Cardin keeps a campaign office year-round, Harby’s campaign is managed by his son and run out of Harby’s house and the son’s law office.
But the apparent long odds don’t faze Harby.
“I think I have a 100 percent chance of beating Cardin,” said Harby, 72, a retired mechanical engineer from the Sweetheart Cup Corp.
He may be the only one.
“The bottom line is that Harby’s chances are slim to none,” said Del Ali, the senior vice president of Mason-Dixon Political Media Research. “The incumbent will win. That is the bottom line.”
Even state Republicans acknowledge that Harby is a long-shot, at best.
Dave Koziatek, a Maryland Republican Party spokesman, said Harby “is in a very tough district and it is going to be difficult.” Dave Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore City Republican Central Committee, agreed that “it would be quite a surprise” if Harby won.
Part of Harby’s problem is the overwhelming Democratic registration of the 3rd District, which snakes around eastern Baltimore and reaches into Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.
There are 202,906 Democrats to 70,517 Republicans in the district that includes the Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry rowhouses, Catholic and Jewish city neighborhoods and the suburban enclave of Columbia, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
Cardin insists he is taking Harby’s challenge seriously. But that doesn’t make Harby a serious challenger, observers say.
Cardin has never had a tough race, said Blair Lee IV, a Maryland political commentator. He noted that Cardin retreated from a run for governor this year, even though many Democrats were urging him to challenge Gov. Parris Glendening.
“Ben has never had to sweat and he thought that he could not beat Glendening so he backed off,” Lee said.
Cardin, instead, decided to run for his safe seat in Congress, where he has built a reputation as a nice guy in touch with his constituency.
“Cardin’s support crosses party lines,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Peter Krauser. That makes Cardin “an extremely difficult candidate to beat because of his broad support,” he said.
Cardin is running on a platform of protecting Social Security, expanding Medicare coverage and pushing the president’s plan to hire 100,000 new teachers and improve school facilities.
“We need to preserve Social Security for the next century,” he said. “And we need a better quality of education.”
His plan for Social Security would let people contribute instead to mutual funds that could only be tapped for retirement. He says Medicare needs to be expanded to cover Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 to “offer Medicare coverage to the most vulnerable group in our population.”
Cardin wants doctors to have more say in medical decisions now dictated by health maintenance organizations. In March, he proposed legislation that would “allow doctors and patients to make health care decisions based on medical needs rather than financial considerations.”
Cardin’s voting record has won him high ratings from groups like the Consumer Federation of America, which gave him a score of 100, and the Concord Coalition, which gave him an 84.
He did not fare so well in ratings by conservative groups. The Christian Coalition gave Cardin a 7 for his 1996 voting record, while the National Federation of Independent Business, dropped his score from 30 in 1996 to 14 this year.
“He voted against small businesses 70 percent of the time [in 1996] and unfortunately he’s even worse this election cycle,” said Kelley Rogers, national field director for NFIB.
Harby, by contrast, describes himself as a staunch Republican who is running on a decidedly more conservative platform. He wants to do away with welfare and abolish the Internal Revenue Service, for example.
“I don’t want them anymore,” he said of the IRS, adding that he would like to establish a flat tax and privatize Social Security.
His ideas for education include a vision of a completely computerized classroom for the 21st century. Harby — who attended Central Michigan College but never graduated because “World War II interfered” — thinks the federal government should take the lead in pioneering such a classroom.
“I am an honest man. I want to do something for the people and I think I can,” said Harby of his campaign.
But first he has to get by Cardin — first in his class at law school, elected to the legislature at 23, a man who has always been a winner, according to his older brother.
“Whatever he was involved in, everyone followed him,” said Howard Cardin.
Lee noted that “incumbents have huge advantages,” and that for Cardin to lose his seat, “He would have to do something really wrong.”
But Elie Lizmi, who has known Harby for 23 years, said he is not surprised by his friend’s fight.
“He always talked politics when we had a cup of coffee,” said Lizmi, who still has breakfast or goes fishing with Harby three or four times a week. “He said when he was retired that he would run for congressman and he did it.”
And he is doing it, at his own pace. Harby often campaigns to audiences of one or two people. On a recent Friday, he went to campaign at a school board meeting that never took place.
“Oh well,” he said, as he waited outside Riverside Elementary School. “At least I can go home and watch the [baseball] game.”