BOWIE – In between bites of pulled pork and baked beans, a middle-aged woman looked up from the picnic table at a recent political rally to see the familiar Republican faces of Eisenhower, Hoover and Taylor staring down at her from a man’s tie.
“Hi, I’m Joe Crawford, and I’m running for Congress in the 5th District,” said the man with the tie, as he handed her a flier.
Identifying himself to voters — even friendly Republican voters — has been the challenge for Crawford, an underfunded, little-known GOP challenger taking on Rep. Steny Hoyer, a 11-term Democrat who has raised almost $900,000.
“I am going to every event I know to go to,” said Crawford, 49. “I don’t care if it’s a back yard barbecue with five people, if I’m invited, I’m going. I’ll go to the opening of an envelope.”
It may take all of Crawford’s hand-shaking to overcome the sizeable lead in funds and name recognition that 21 years in Congress have given Hoyer. The incumbent is so comfortable with his seat that he has spent more time and money campaigning for other Democrats throughout the country, than on his own election.
“It would require some type of major scandal or act of God for Hoyer to lose,” said Larry Harris, a partner at Mason Dixon Polling and Research.
While Harris said that Democrats are losing some ground in Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore, he does not see any way for Crawford to unseat Hoyer. Harris said Hoyer’s seat is so secure that his firm has not been commissioned to do a poll in the 5th District for at least eight years.
Considered the dean of Maryland’s congressional delegation, Hoyer has been rising in state and national politics since the age of 27. He was elected to the state Senate fresh out of law school in 1967, and became its youngest president ever in 1975.
After a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 1978, Hoyer returned to politics by winning a special election in 1981 to fill out the term of Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman, who suffered a stroke while campaigning. He has been in Congress ever since.
Hoyer’s cites his biggest legislative accomplishments as guiding the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Federal Employee Pay Comparability into law. He was the lead Democratic sponsor of the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Hoyer is also noted for his ability been able to steer major projects to his district, something his rivals deride as pork politics.
He protected the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station from a round of base closings and brought the National Archives II and a Food and Drug Administration building to College Park, among other projects.
“Steny represents the perfect blend of a person who has done an incredible job of representing his district, and being a national leader on important issues,” said Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, who has known Hoyer since they were in the legislature together in 1967.
But the executive director of the Maryland Republican Party said the projects Hoyer has brought to the district have done more harm than good.
“Another government building doesn’t do anything,” Paul Ellington said. “It doesn’t expand the tax base. All it has done is crowd the roads for people that live there.”
Ellington said that while Hoyer claims to be a moderate, he actually has a liberal voting record that is out of step with the district, where President Bush won 42 percent of the vote in 2000. The American Conservative Union in 2001 gave Hoyer a score of 9 out of 100 for his voting record, while the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave him a 95.
“He voted against the tax cut, he is pro-partial-birth abortion,” Ellington said. “He’s got a liberal voting record in what is a moderate to conservative district.”
Both Crawford and Ellington said the needs of the district have taken a back seat to Hoyer’s political aspirations. He has twice run unsuccessfully for House whip, most recently losing a bid early this year, and is poised to run again if the job opens up.
This year, Hoyer has traveled to 22 congressional districts and helped raise about $1.2 million to help threatened incumbents and challengers.
But Hoyer brushes aside such attacks.
“Obviously, I am a leader in the party,” he said. “We are working very hard to take back the House, and there are others who are more threatened than I am.”
Crawford, by contrast, has spent most of his life in the private sector. He grew up in Prince George’s County and graduated from Antietam Bible College in 1981. He has called Southern Maryland home since 1976.
He describes himself as an independent business consultant. With his brother, Jim Crawford, who is running for the legislature, he is trying to start a business that sells environmentally safe and efficient products. He once owned a one-hour photo shop, but said it failed when his staff quit on him.
Crawford ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1990 and said he was planning a bid for Congress in 2000, but backed out to let another Republican run. He is in third term as member of Charles County’s Central Republican Committee.
“He certainly represents the conservative views of Southern Maryland and the 5th District better than Steny Hoyer,” said central committee Chairman Ernest Wallace, who has known Crawford for four years. “He has been very active in promoting his views.”
Politically, Crawford fashions himself as the opposite of Hoyer. He would ban partial-birth abortions, calls for the repeal of the tax death and opposes any further gun-control laws.
He would also like to see the government cut down on the number of laws it has, and says there needs to be more parental choice and involvement in education.
“He’s a leftist liberal, I’m a conservative,” Crawford said of Hoyer. “The 5th congressional district is relatively conservative. The average voter thinks he is a moderate, but he is actually more liberal then Dick Gephardt.”
It is a message he hopes will play in the district, where registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans 183,448 to 102,162. The district includes all of St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties and parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
But history is not on Crawford’s side. Hoyer won with a comfortable 65 percent of the vote in 2000, when he faced a better-funded challenge from Delegate Thomas E. “Tim” Hutchins, R-Charles.
Crawford knows the odds are stacked against him, but he thinks the success of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich, who is in a dead heat with Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, signals that the political tide is changing.
At the campaign rally for Audrey Scott, the Republican nominee for Prince George’s County Executive, Crawford sounds an optimistic note.
“It’s got a lot to do with how well Audrey does and how well Bob does,” he said of his chances. “If they do well, then I’ll do well. If they tank, then so will I.”
But if it does not work out, Crawford said he is poised for another run for Congress in 2004.
In the parking lot of the Scott rally, Crawford stood outside his blue minivan, took down a giant American flag and prepared to leave when a man rolled down his car window to wish him luck and ask how the campaign was going.
“I’m having ball,” Crawford confessed. “If I didn’t enjoy myself when I came to these things, I’d stay home.”
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