WASHINGTON – When John White, the Republican candidate for Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, was a high-school intern for Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, Hoyer’s chief of staff handed him his Capitol credentials and told him to “take advantage of the access because it’s an opportunity that you may never get again.”
Never say never, warned White, 36, a first-time candidate looking to fill a rare vacancy created by Rep. Ben Cardin’s bid for U.S. Senate.
At first blush, he’s famously overmatched — a Republican running on a platform of public safety and security against the Ivy-league educated son of a U.S. senator in a district with a better than 2-to-1 Democratic advantage. Oh, and he’s bearing most of his campaign costs, about $160,000 thus far, according to his most recent finance report filed in mid-September.
But White, sitting outside an Annapolis coffee shop about two blocks from the multi-million-dollar company he started nine years ago, says he has more than a fighting chance.
“No one has told me I’m crazy,” says White, who lives in Annapolis with his wife, Kathryn Goetzke White, and their black Labrador, Kali. On the contrary, “Anyone who thinks this thing is unwinnable, that it’s some kind of fantasy, is nuts. This is a moderate district.”
The way he says it, gently, without a drop of disdain, as though he’s used to explaining himself, signals that he really means it and he can list the reasons why.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, won the 3rd District comfortably in 2002, beating then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by 13 percentage points. And 44 percent of the district voted for President Bush in 2004.
That said, unofficial primary returns suggest a bear of a race for White.
His Democratic opponent, John Sarbanes, son of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, emerged from an eight-way primary with three times as many votes as White, who eked out the Republican nomination in an eight-way primary of his own. And even if all of the independents in the district flock to White in the general election, registered Democrats would still have a 44,000 vote cushion.
“Even if we were to get creamed — but I don’t think we will — we will have learned a lot and we will have done a lot of good. People are going to be surprised,” says Kathryn White, 35, who, in addition to running her own marketing company, Innovative Analysis, Inc., helps manage her husband’s campaign. “He’s the strongest person I know. When John is committed to something, he’s very committed.”
Besides, White, who holds degrees from Towson University and University of Baltimore, has never been beholden to the odds.
He drafted the plan for his company, Compass Marketing, Inc., nine years ago — on a napkin. “Don’t tell my business professors,” he says, only half joking.
White’s company — he’s the chairman and chief executive officer — records about $60 million in sales annually and has a client list that includes 10 Fortune 500 companies, including Campbell’s Soup Co. and Johnson & Johnson. His old boss, a former president of marketing giant Acosta Inc., works for him now.
“People may think he’s crazy for running, just like people thought I was crazy for starting my company, and thought John was crazy for starting his,” Kathryn White says. “We’ve both been underdogs before.”
White’s political aspirations hardened during his work on an Annapolis city attorney’s 2004 campaign for Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge. Republican Paul Goetzke (he is unrelated to Kathryn Goetzke White) was considered a long shot. No one had dislodged an incumbent judge in Anne Arundel County in more than 25 years. Goetzke won, and White took note.
Goetzke’s tough stance on crime, which White shares, and his refusal to accept campaign donations from lawyers endeared him to a broadly Democratic county, White says.
“Paul has an amazing moral compass,” White says. “The odds were against him, but he knocked off a sitting judge, regardless of what people were saying.”
Maura Walden, the judge’s sister, who also worked on the campaign, says she sees a parallel.
“John is a big-picture thinker, a very caring and concerned guy,” says Walden, who lives in Arnold, part of the 3rd District. “He’s got a good heart. I feel very comfortable voting for him.”
White says his message — part of it, anyway — is oblivious to party lines.
While he strongly supports the war on terrorism, White says local policing has suffered as more resources have been diverted into intelligence-gathering and protecting the country against outside threats. He wants to put the two on equal footing.
His zeal for safety and security, far from a party line, runs in the family. White, one of seven children reared in Prince George’s County, is practically “the only one at the Thanksgiving table without a gun,” he says.
His father worked for the National Security Agency, five of his family members are Maryland State Troopers, one is a state’s attorney, and another is a United States Park Police Officer.
He uses his background — he grew up in Clinton and lived there until college — to cast himself as Sarbanes’ opposite, if not in ideology, then certainly in pedigree.
“He’s a lawyer; I’m not. He went to Princeton; I went to Towson. He’s from a family of politicians; I’m from a family of law enforcers,” says White.
Who benefits more from these distinctions is still unclear. But even if White styles himself as an underdog, it’s clear he doesn’t believe it.
White says, “I certainly wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think I could win.”
– 30 – CNS-10-12-06