CHEVY CHASE – On an evening in mid-August, when Jeff Stein’s campaign fliers began to disappear fast from their table at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg, the Republican candidate for the 8th Congressional District first began to think he could win the next month’s primary.
“Following the wisdom of our fathers,” the glossy red, white and blue sheets proclaimed above a list of historical statements accompanied by portraits: George Washington on the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton on the economy, Harry S Truman on human rights. They piqued a lot of interest, and one major complaint: Stein’s own picture was nowhere to be found.
“People wanted to see what I look like, so I wasn’t the invisible candidate,” Stein said.
Yet as a reluctant Republican challenger to popular incumbent Chris Van Hollen in a heavily Democratic district encompassing western Montgomery and a small part of Prince George’s counties, Stein remains just that, even after a surprise 14-point victory in the three-way primary.
“Does (Van Hollen) have an opponent?” asked Delegate Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, whose legislative district is mostly in the 8th.
“I’m not even sure if he has an opponent, and if he does, I’m not sure who it is,” said Silver Spring environmental counselor David Bushnell, a close friend of Van Hollen’s who lives yards from the 8th district.
Stein, a 31-year-old Rockville attorney, acknowledged that his chances of defeating Van Hollen are slim, but said he continues to run in hopes of changing the way politics is conducted.
“I wanted to try a different style of running,” he said. “I didn’t really like how politics had become a lot of sound bites, and I guess I wanted to try a substantive style.”
Stein is mostly getting the word out through his fliers, mailings and Web site, which contains treatises written by Stein and about 40 other political figures, from Greek statesman Pericles to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, but little about his personal life.
“I don’t like to self-promote,” Stein said. “John Adams didn’t advertise how wonderful he was everywhere. I mean, that should be self-evident.”
Stein is running a joint campaign with 4th District candidate Michael Moshe Starkman based on “a certain set of principles of government that have really been responsible for our success,” Stein said. His positions include preserving the country’s manufacturing base, finishing the Iraq war without weakening President Bush, curbing illegal immigration and defining marriage traditionally.
His college courses in American history influenced his campaign style as well.
“I was reading on how people conducted themselves back then,” he said. “There was a lot more writing, there was a lot more discussion, and I thought maybe it would be good to see if I can try the old style, see if it would have any impact.”
No matter the outcome, this campaign is a one-time deal for Stein, he said, because it takes too much time from his family. He and his wife, Dasha, have two children, Danny, 3, and Hannah, 1, and are expecting another this month.
Stein was born and raised in New Jersey, in what he describes as blissful boredom compared to the lives of his grandparents, who fled Ukraine when the Soviet Union took over.
“I’ve always had a very strong appreciation for what I’ve had . . . Compared to the lives my ancestors left, mine is amazing.”
Raised as a more secular Jew, Stein agreed to attend an orthodox synagogue and keep kosher and the Sabbath when he married his wife, an orthodox Jew.
“I had to give up Wendy’s,” he said. “That was the hardest part. I always used to eat fast food.”
Stein grew up the eldest of five children within five years of each other. He was the one to run the childhood games, remembers his brother Gary, 29, who lives in East Brunswick, N.J. Jeff also was the family trickster, he said.
“He could play a joke on you without you even realizing it and he could have you going for a while,” Gary Stein said. “He does it to me all the time.”
The family was not politically active, Gary Stein said, but Jeff, the one to go to Washington with the model U.N. in high school, might have been the exception. Jeff remembers things differently — he loved sports and didn’t like the model U.N. for the one year he did it, and he didn’t register to vote until 2000.
Stein is low-key, a trait he probably acquired from his father, his brother said.
“He’s not the most outgoing type, but people are always interested in him and what he has to say,” Gary Stein said.
That’s the strength of Jeff Stein’s campaign — the well-presented, thoughtful ideas that led to his primary win, Starkman said.
“It’s a dialogue that is not heard nowadays, and we realized that it’s received well once we’ve found people to listen and talk it through,” he said.
Stein’s weaknesses include his lack of political experience and his alignment with a party that is in the minority locally and losing popularity nationally, said Gus Alzona of Bethesda, a former member of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee who ran against Stein in the primary.
“His chances in this particular election year and in this particular environment, with our danger of losing seats in Congress, are problematic at best,” Alzona said.
Stein is also short on funding — he wants to print more of the postcards that were so effective in the primary, but he’s not sure he can raise the money.
“There’s a whole series,” he said. “It’ll be like collector’s items. That’s how we’re going to hammer Van Hollen and run him out of Congress.”
After a beat for comedic effect, he laughed.
“I don’t want to bother Chris,” he said. “I expect to be very ignored, which is what I like.”