FREDERICK – Two and a half years after Democratic primary voters ousted Jennifer Dougherty from the mayor’s office in Frederick, she’s come charging back with a congressional bid in Maryland’s 6th District.
In the process, she’s won back the same voters that took her out, and in convincing fashion. Now, she’s looking to use her roots in Frederick along with her momentum to catapult her into Congress.
Dougherty, 46, is gunning for a seat held by Roscoe Bartlett, an 81-year-old eight-term incumbent in the 6th District — the most Republican district in Maryland.
Dougherty’s political career has been a tumultuous one. In 2001, she was elected Frederick’s first female mayor, but was voted out in the next election cycle’s primary by former Mayor Ron Young in a brutal contest.
Dougherty said she’s learned from the 2005 primary, and it appears Frederick County Democrats agree.
Facing off against Andrew Duck — who had run a strong campaign against Bartlett in 2006 — Dougherty won by 14 percentage points in Frederick County, taking 49 percent of the vote to Duck’s 35 percent. In the 2005 mayoral primary, she lost by 14 points, taking 43 percent of city’s vote to Young’s 57 percent.
Dougherty said she’s learned from that campaign and its bitter tone.
“There were a lot of recriminations — personally” in 2005, but 2008’s campaign was different, she said. “My eye was solely on presenting the case that I was the best one to win in November.”
But current Frederick Mayor W. Jeff Holtzinger, who worked in the department of engineering under Dougherty, took issue with the way she ran the city.
“She was very autocratic, very heavy-handed in her rule,” Holtzinger said. “She was not a uniter.”
It was a style that he said was ill-received, and on the floor of Congress would earn her enemies.
“What really concerns me is that this is certainly going to require working with other people in a collaborative way,” he said. “You’ve got to articulate and condense and advocate with your colleagues in Congress.”
Her selling point in the primary of “experience” didn’t impress him either, he said.
“I just don’t think this position as the mayor of Frederick translates — I think it’s very dissimilar to what she would do as a congresswoman,” he said.
Len Latkovski, head of the department of history and political science at Hood College in Frederick, agreed that Dougherty’s style wasn’t the most personable, but wasn’t intentionally confrontational.
“Her personality isn’t the kind that’s designed to win friends, but she doesn’t try outwardly to antagonize people,” Latkovski said. “One thing you cannot say is that she did little or that she was helping her cronies … there were decades of the ‘good ol’ boy’ network.”
While he said her skills from Frederick City Hall probably won’t directly help her in Congress, they could still benefit her.
“When you’re running the city and trying to get the streets plowed and city services funded, it’s a far different set of skills than you need to use as congressperson,” Latkovski said. “Her role as mayor is only going to be incidental to this race, but if anything, I think her executive experience and contacts could only be an asset.”
Dougherty’s grandfather introduced her to politics at a young age. Born in Alexandria, Va., she grew up part of a large Irish family with six children in Washington.
Her grandfather, who lived with the family, had worked in the Truman administration, and conversations at the dinner table often gravitated towards government.
“Every night we sat down and talked about the news of the day, and my mom and dad and grandpa would be talking politics,” Dougherty said.
She attended Mount St. Mary’s University, where she was editor in chief of the student newspaper, as well as the only field hockey player to make the school’s athletic hall of fame.
Her mayoral tenure wasn’t her first opportunity in government.
Through family connections, she found and applied for a job with the CIA. However, when it was time to choose, she instead decided to be a line cook.
“Obviously, the CIA is always looking for people to blend in,” she said. “But that had been on the heels of 444 days (the hostage crisis) in Iran, and the Foreign Service was kind of a scary thing for some people at that point … so I opted for something a little closer to home.”
Dougherty worked her way through the restaurant business, eventually founding Jennifer’s Restaurant, which she’s run since 1987 in the heart of Old Town Frederick.
Dougherty never married and is very close to her siblings today, particularly her brother, John. An attorney for Kramon & Graham in Baltimore, he said they talk every day.
It was her restaurant, John recalled, that got his sister involved in politics.
“The first time I ever heard her talk about politics was when the city was repaving the street in front of her restaurant and it took forever,” he said. “It had an effect on her business and she said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.'”
His sister’s goal was to make the system work as well as possible, John said.
“Her motivation in going into politics was to make government work better, and to make it work better for everybody,” he said. “When she sees things that aren’t working, she wants to be fixing them.”
Though the tone of Dougherty’s tenure as mayor was contentious by all accounts, Frederick City Councilwoman Marcia Hall, who was elected in 2001 with Dougherty, said it wasn’t just the mayor who contributed.
“We argued pretty much about everything,” Hall said. “Almost all the votes were divided by party.”
The City Council consisted of two female Democrats and three male Republicans. One of the Republicans switched parties after he was elected as a Democrat, and at least one of the aldermen had designs on Dougherty’s seat, Hall said.
“I would say it wasn’t just Jennifer or the Democrat-Republican thing,” Hall said. “It certainly reflected some very strong and personal agendas.”
But few would deny Dougherty’s work ethic, Hall said.
“Even the people that hated her here will say that they didn’t know anybody that worked harder than her,” Hall said.
In the end, that’s what people need in Congress, Hall said.
“In someone I work with and someone that represents me, I want them to be smart, honest, really hard working, and I want them to be compassionate,” Hall said. “I think she was all of those things.”
There’s no telling what will happen in the general election at this point, Latkovski said. Bartlett has a strong base of support, and while more Democrats are registering in the 6th District than Republicans, GOP members still outnumbered Democrats by a 4-3 ratio as of February’s primary.
Though it’s typical for an incumbent’s primary not to draw many voters, almost as many Democrats voted in the 6th District’s primary as Republicans — 58,780 Democratic votes compared to 60,790 Republican votes.
“Here you’ve got an interesting, able person, the question is, can she get elected,” Latkovski said. “She has a formidable task before her.”