Two years ago, state Sen. Rob Garagiola took up a bill that just about everyone else in Annapolis considered a lost cause.
The proposal, to require large retailers to offer employees 15-minute shift breaks every four hours, had languished for years under pressure from business groups. So the Germantown attorney locked lobbyists on both sides of the issue in a room until they emerged with a deal everyone could live with.
Three months later, the governor signed the measure into law.
"He took all the opposition out of it," state Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said of the behind-the-scenes wrangling. "Rob's a natural at that."
Now a candidate for Congress in Maryland's 6th District, Garagiola does not shy from his nine years in the State House, even as his opponents use labels like "insider" and "career politician" to describe him. Instead, the 39-year-old former Army Airborne reservist says his ability to broker compromise is exactly what a bitterly divided Washington needs.
Whoever wins the April 3 Democratic primary will face 10-term Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlettin November, assuming the incumbent wins his own nomination battle. The 6th District, which was redrawn last year by Democrats in Annapolis — including Garagiola — is among a handful of swing districts nationwide that will determine which party controls the House of Representatives. The district includes Western Maryland and parts of Frederick and Montgomery counties.
On issues like education and immigration, Garagiola believes the progress lawmakers have made in Annapolis should be a model for the nation. As a member of Congress, he says, he would support federal legislation similar to the law passed in Maryland last year (and petitioned to referendum) that would allow some illegal immigrants to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates.
He has secured the support of every major union in the state as well as several high-profile Democratic leaders, including Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Southern MarylandRep. Steny Hoyer.
But he faces a stronger-than-expected challenge from Potomac financier John Delaney, who recently reported raising three times as much money as Garagiola for the campaign this year. Garagiola has not run any radio or television advertisements — his campaign says they're unnecessary. He has less than $170,000 in the bank.
"If you go back a couple of weeks, without question Garagiola was the favorite," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College of Maryland who has followed the race. "But the dynamic has clearly shifted [and] it wouldn't surprise me at all if Delaney won."
Born in suburban Detroit, Garagiola and his family moved whenever his father, who worked in retail, received promotions or was transferred. By the time he was 16, Garagiola had lived in five states — from California to New Jersey, which is where his parents ultimately settled. He enrolled at Rutgers University and waited tables at an Italian restaurant.
He discovered politics in his junior year after stopping by the district office of Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone on a whim, just months after Bill Clinton had won his first presidential election in 1992. The director of Pallone's local office liked the calzones at Garagiola's restaurant. The 21-year-old, who had not yet settled on a major, landed an unpaid internship in the office.
And, he said, that's when he became hooked on politics.
Garagiola eventually spent four years with Pallone in Washington, working his way from receptionist to a senior legislative aide position responsible for the lawmaker's efforts on health care. Approached outside his office on Capitol Hill, Pallone, now in his 12th full term, instantly remembered Garagiola as a driven and bright staffer.
In Maryland, Garagiola defeated Republican state Sen.Jean W. Roesserin 2002 and has won re-election by large margins.
Considered a workhorse in Annapolis — and one of Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller's closest allies — Garagiola has sponsored some particularly controversial measures, including a same-sex marriage bill that did not pass last year but helped lead to this year's approval of a similar bill. He also introduced a $471 million package of tax and fee increases last year that would have raised the state's gas tax by 10 cents.
In the campaign, Garagiola has focused on his work promoting education and renewable energy. But mostly he has cast himself as a skilled negotiator who can work with Republicans.
"To make progress, there needs to be give and take on both sides," Garagiola said. "You've got to have your ideals and beliefs, but if everyone stood rigidly in those ideals and beliefs nothing would get done."
Delaney, his leading opponent, has frequently criticized Garagiola's five years as a federal lobbyist, mainly representing health care clients. Delaney's campaign has pointed out that Garagiola initially failed to disclose that employment.
Despite broad skepticism of officeholders, Garagiola doesn't believe his time in Annapolis or Washington will hurt his chances with voters.