A leading Democrat and the Republican incumbent running for Congress in Maryland's battleground 6th District turned their attention to the economy Tuesday, previewing a looming clash over the top issue of next year's election.
State Sen. Rob Garagiola, who officially launched his campaign Tuesday, used his first major address to argue that Republicans in Congress have all but ignored the economy. He said government needs to invest more to create jobs instead of just looking for ways to trim spiraling budget deficits.
"Too many middle-class families are struggling, and our economy is floundering," the Democrat told supporters at an event in Montgomery County. "Rather than focusing on our economy and jobs, this ideological Congress has taken this country to the brink of economic disaster."
Republican incumbent Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who says he's running for re-election, also believes the economy will be the top issue in the new district, which includes Western Maryland and some Washington suburbs.
But Bartlett's approach for addressing the nation's stubbornly high unemployment is vastly different from Garagiola's.
"We need to reduce government spending," the 10-term lawmaker said in an interview as he ticked off a dozen other policies he said would help create jobs — from eliminating federal regulations to "scrapping the tax code" and replacing it with a tax on consumption.
"It's really about jobs," Bartlett said, drawing a distinction between employment and some of the nation's broader economic concerns. "If everybody had a job, they would not be asking as much about the economy."
To be sure, unemployment will play a prominent role in congressional races nationwide next year. But with the new 6th District shaping up to be one of the most competitive contests in the country, voters here will have an especially good seat from which to view contrasting Republican and Democratic ideas on the economy.
Maryland's new 6th District has captured the interest of both parties after the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley approved a congressional map last month that places far more Democratic voters into what had been a conservative stronghold. That offers Democrats a rare opportunity to add to their numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The district includes Maryland's panhandle along with the city of Frederick and heavily Democratic portions of Montgomery County. It no longer reaches east into rural and Republican portions of Baltimore and Harford counties.
At 5.8 percent, the unemployment rate in Montgomery County is relatively low compared with the national rate of 9.1 percent — thanks in part to the large number of federal jobs based there. However, the jobless rate runs far higher in rural Allegany County, at 9 percent. The unemployment rate is 9.9 percent in Washington County, also part of the new district.
Early wrangling over job creation comes as a $447 billion jobs bill proposed by President Barack Obama is languishing in Congress, with Republicans and some Democrats concerned about new taxes included to pay for it. The legislation – and several of its components – failed to capture the support needed to advance in the Senate.
The proposal would extend a payroll tax break for individuals, create new tax breaks for businesses, pump $100 billion into infrastructure and extend long-term unemployment insurance. Obama has increasingly used inaction on the bill to paint Republicans in Congress as obstructionists.
Garagiola kicked off his campaign Tuesday with a five-event swing through the district, including a meet-and-greet in Cumberland and a speech in Hagerstown.
In a speech that was part introductory and part an indictment of Congress, Garagiola argued for a "cut and invest" strategy he said has worked in Maryland. Specifically, he called for new investments in education, targeted tax cuts for small businesses and a new national power grid.
Though he appears for now to be the leading Democratic candidate, Garagiola's path to the nomination is far from certain. A handful of high-profile Democrats are said to be eyeing the race, including former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan and a commercial banker named John Delaney who is heading an effort to diversify the state's economy.
Duchy Trachtenberg, the only other Democrat to enter the race, questioned whether Garagiola — whom she described as "an establishment candidate" — had the right credentials to lead on the economy. She said she believes Maryland needs to do more to lure large employers away from lower-tax states such as Virginia.
"Economic security is on everyone's mind," said Trachtenberg, a former member of the Montgomery County Council. "Getting out of this economic mess will require really hard choices."
Robin Ficker, a former state lawmaker and perennial candidate who is running for the Republican nomination, showed up at several of Garagiola's events. Ficker held a tall two-by-four with a half-dozen red signs hanging from it, all reading "No gas tax hike."
"It's going to kill jobs," Ficker said of the possibility of an increased gas tax in Maryland. "We can't stand silent."
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