WASHINGTON – Almost a month before the election, it was apparent that the 8th District challenger was tired. As he answered questions during an interview, Democrat Terry Lierman leaned back in a chair and tried to fight off a yawn.
Maybe it’s the 17-hour days, with most mornings starting early at Metro stations meeting and greeting district voters and passing out literature. Or maybe it is just like Lierman said — he’s relaxed during an interview.
He knows he has taken on an overwhelming challenge, but believes it is not an insurmountable one. Despite his yawning, Lierman feels strongly about his decision to run for the 8th District seat currently held by Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda.
“Someone has to step forward and say enough is enough,” said Lierman, who said it is time for a change.
That charge, that it is time for a change, is one of the themes of Lierman’s campaign, along with a partisan appeal to the Democratic majority in the district to return the seat to a true Democrat. A Lierman flier passed out at a Metro station reads: “We are only 6 votes away!” from regaining Democratic control in the House of Representatives.
That would not seem to be a tough sell in a democratic-dominated district. But, for seven terms, Morella has won the support of both Democrats and Republicans in the 8th District to consistently turn back challenges from Democratic nominees.
“Morella remains a very strong favorite,” said Sandra Basu, a reporter at Congressional Quarterly, which recently rated the 8th District a “favored Republican” seat.
That was a notch down from its previous ranking of “safe Republican,” but Basu said Morella’s reign is not likely threatened. While Lierman probably has a shot at winning, she said, it is a long shot at best.
He is not the first Democrat to face long odds against the Republican incumbent who is a staple in Democrat-dominated Montgomery County.
Morella has lived four decades in the county, where she raised nine children — including six nieces and nephews after her sister died — and worked as an English professor at Montgomery College for 15 years.
She was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1979 and moved up to Congress in 1986, when she beat a well-funded Democrat for an open seat in the House of Representatives. Morella has managed to hang on to her seat since then by embracing issues that appeal to the public, but also some that come with difficult decisions.
This year, she championed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, winning a five-year reauthorization and more than $3 billion in funding. That money is to be spent to train healthcare professionals on how to collect evidence in rape cases and to help families who are trying to stay away from an abusive environment, among other programs.
Morella not only has large county support, but the support of numerous organizations, including the American Federation of Government Employees and American Nurses Association, which have endorsed her candidacy.
Like Morella, Lierman comes to the race with demonstrated credentials in the community. A lobbyist by trade, he has lived in this area for more than 20 years and regularly turns out volunteers who helped pass out literature at Metro stops several times a week.
Lierman also has the support of some heavyweights inside and outside the Washington area. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream have contributed money to his campaign and Abe Pollin, owner of MCI Center and the Washington Wizards, is chairman of Terry Lierman for Congress.
Lierman’s web site touts endorsements from Democrats across the state and the country, including Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, and Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did a TV ad endorsing Lierman’s ideals and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has hit the campaign trail with him.
His list of endorsements also includes President Clinton and — in a sign of Morella’s strong hold on the district — four of the previous Democratic nominees who have run against her and lost.
“I’m proud of the company I keep,” Lierman said of his endorsements.
Outside funding and support isn’t unusual for Maryland candidates, said Blair Lee IV, a Maryland political writer. Nearly 75 percent of the money raised by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, has come from sources outside the state as well, Lee said.
Lierman’s deputy campaign manager, Lora Bodmer said the broad scope of his fund raising is a reflection of how he is known nationally as well as locally — a characteristic that would help as a member in the House.
But even with all of the support, Lierman still has spent more than $700,000 on his campaign this year, according to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Lierman has still had to fork out a good chunk of that money himself, in the form of loans and payments to his campaign.
Morella, in contrast, has spent just under $300,000 this year, leaving more than $800,000 in the bank for the final days of the campaign, according to her Sept. 30 filing with the FEC.
P.J. Hogan, Morella’s campaign manager, said that the congresswoman’s campaign would not be able to keep up with her challenger’s spending in all areas. But Hogan also said that Morella does not feel the need to match Lierman dollar-for-dollar.
“She’s so well known,” said Hogan, adding that her moderate record in the House helps her re-election chances as well.
Maybe that is why Lierman has had to resort to what Bodmer called a “creative way to reach voters.” The campaign made waves last week when it exploited a little-known rule that requires public stations to air messages from candidates for federal office, free of charge.
Lierman was not the first to use the rule, but he certainly heard the most about it after his ad ran on Washington public radio station WAMU. The next day, Morella vowed not the use the same tactic in her campaign.
While that flap put the Lierman campaign briefly on the defensive, it did generate headlines — one of several things the campaign has done well.
Besides getting attention, Lierman has raised huge amounts of money, compiled endorsements from high-profile Democrats in a Democratic district and worked hard at his campaign, which officially kicked off almost a year ago.
But that still may not be enough to overcome Morella’s grip on the seat, Lee said.
Lee said 8th District voters have gotten comfortable with Morella and it will be difficult for Lierman to get them to change. “There is a power of habit,” said Lee of voting patterns.
He gave Lierman credit for focusing the race on the Republican control of the House and the Democrats’ chance to retake it, instead of spending his time attacking Morella. That strategy has failed other Democratic challengers, he said, in a county where people recognize Morella and call her “Connie.”
“When voters call you by your first name” you’re pretty much home-free, Lee said.