WASHINGTON -It’s 45 degrees on a frigid Friday morning and the breeze at the intersection of Route 40 and Rolling Road is swift.
The chill is numbing. The glare off the passing cars is blinding. But Ken Kondner is smiling and waving.
The Republican nominee for the 7th District congressional seat has been standing since dawn at the Catonsville intersection with his hands frozen around a “Kondner for Congress” sign hoisted high in the air. But Kondner says he is feeling a pleasant warmth.
“The people have mostly been warm and friendly. They smile back as they turn the corner and they’ll remember who I am,” he said. “It may not seem like it but when I go knocking on doors they say, `I remember you. I saw you waving your sign.'”
Kondner, now in his fifth consecutive run for Congress, knows where to wave his sign. He knows whose hand to shake. He knows which doors to knock on.
He also knows he probably won’t win.
He has already lost once to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, in the 1996 special election to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who left to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Kondner, 56, lost three times to Mfume before that in the heavily Democratic district.
His mission in this election is the same as those before: to try.
“Ken is not operating under the illusion of winning, but he is providing the voters with an alternative,” said David Blumberg, chair of the Baltimore City Republican Central Committee.
“Kweisi Mfume was a very popular congressman and Cummings and others in western Baltimore have inherited that base of support,” he said.
Cummings, 47, a lawyer from Baltimore, served for 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates before running for Congress in 1996. He emerged from a field of 27 Democrats running to succeed Mfume, but faced no party opposition in this year’s primary.
“In a very short time, he has won the admiration and respect of the entire Congress and we are very proud of the work he has done,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chair Peter Krauser. “He’s done a superb job in representing his constituents.”
In Congress, Cummings’ voting record has received perfect ratings from the League of Conservation Voters, the Consumer Federation of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union, by comparison, gave him scores ranging from zero to the low 20s.
Cummings serves on the Government Reform and Oversight, Civil Service, National Security, International Affairs, Criminal Justice, Transportation and Infrastructure committees.
Anne Perkins, who was chair of the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee in Annapolis when Cummings served as vice-chair, remembered him as an “excellent legislator.”
“He cared from the heart about the people from his district and worked to address the problems people had,” said Perkins, a former Democratic delegate from Baltimore.
She said Cummings was good at finding new ways to combat problems, pointing to the Maryland Bootcamp Aftercare Program he founded to help young ex-offenders readjust to society.
“He developed a program that would help them succeed and help ease them back into the community, since most were forced to go back to the environments that got them into trouble to begin with,” Perkins said.
But Kondner does not think Cummings is representing the district well.
“I want there to be a two-party system here. I want both sides to be represented. The voters need options,” he said.
“I honestly don’t believe Cummings represents the community. He knows that the district is so overwhelmingly lopsided in his favor that he doesn’t have to work hard to meet the needs of the minority,” Kondner said.
“Though, in fairness, he’s only been in one term,” he said.
Kondner, a dental technician and active member of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, has never held public office. But he is determined.
He rises at 6 a.m. and gets to sleep around midnight every night, after a day spent dropping off literature around the district, discussing issues with people on the street, mailing information to absentee voters and returning campaign phone calls.
“Ken is a very good candidate, the hardest-working candidate I know,” said Baltimore County Republican Central Committee Chairman Chris West. “He hasn’t raised a lot of money but he has made up for it in sweat equity.”
Kondner’s grassroots campaigns all focus on building a two-party system in a district that includes almost all of Baltimore City’s black neighborhoods and extends into the heavily black suburbs running west into Catonsville and Randallstown.
West said Kondner is a good candidate, but the demographics of the district work against him.
“He’s a resident of Baltimore County and he’s done quite well there. He’s won the Baltimore County precincts in the past elections,” said West. “Unfortunately for Ken, there are a lot of Baltimore City precincts.”
The city, which accounts for 70 percent of the registered voters in the district, has a strong black Democratic base. Voter registration in the district overall is 83 percent Democratic.
Kondner said he is working to mobilize the voters who are unhappy with their representation.
“I’ll get a lot of crossover votes because a lot of Democrats are unhappy and a lot of Republicans are unhappy. Overall, people are looking for change,” he said.
“I would truly like to be a public servant,” Kondner said. “I’m tired of elected officials not answering the questions directly and not being honest with the people. I want to be one of the few honest politicians.”
If he is elected, Kondner said he would work to strengthen the military, stiffen the penalties for drug trafficking and make sure the next generation can rely on Social Security.
“We have to preserve and protect Social Security so that the young people get what they deserve when they get older,” he said. “So many are convinced nothing will be there for them when they need it. I want to make sure there will be something for them.”
Kondner, who is pro-life, said he disagreed with Cummings’ vote not to override a presidential veto on the ban of partial- birth abortions.
Although he said he has raised less than $5,000 to Cummings $384,340, Kondner he refuses to think that lack of money automatically puts him out of the running.
“It would probably be true if I hadn’t started campaigning so early. I’ve been campaigning forever. The next day after I lost an election I started campaigning for the next one,” he said.
And if, by chance, he loses again?
“I will probably run one more time and then that will be the last time,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of nice people who have been very helpful and concerned about the issues and their government.
“In the eight years I’ve been doing this, I’ve found out that it’s not easy. It’s a huge sacrifice. I’ve had to put my business on hold,” Kondner said.
“I considered not running because of the toll it would take on me. But will I do it again? Probably. Just one more time.”