Fourth in a series of profiles of candidates for governor.
Charles Lollar was at it again last week, the only Republican on stage with the three Democrats running for governor, wooing a crowd largely unable to cast a vote in the fast-approaching GOP primary.
His Republican rivals skipped the event at a Silver Spring church, but as he has done throughout the campaign, Lollar focused on charming voters in a Democratic stronghold. The ordained preacher and former tea party activist spreads a spirited message about rising above partisanship.
"We can't even talk about solutions for our state when we're not able to see past party politics," he said.
Lollar fits a profile coveted by Republican operatives seeking inroads in states dominated by Democrats: charisma, an African-American heritage, a military background as a Marine reservist, and business experience.
Polling puts him, at best, tied for second in the GOP primary race, but Lollar has been unrelenting in his strategy. He says he can win over Republicans by positioning himself as the most likely candidate to beat a Democrat in November.
"We continue to convince the Republican primary voters that we are the best bet," he said.
Lollar's passionate discussions of freedom, living the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and rolling back nearly every tax in Maryland has attracted a small but devoted following among conservatives.
"He's a very gifted guy. He has a unique ability to stand up and give a speech off the cuff that's logical, makes specific points, with personal examples that really touch people," said Anne Arundel County Councilman Jerry Walker, Lollar's friend and supporter. "He's got a compelling way about the way he speaks. People are drawn to him and want to hear what he has to say."
Lollar won the straw poll of GOP activists at the Maryland Republican Party's convention in April even though he was polling in the single digits at the time, had raised little money and had been written off by some pundits.
As Lollar points out, that motivated base could make a difference in the June 24 primary. Analysts say that with a low turnout and so many undecided voters, an upset could be in the making. A motivated group of voters could tip the scales the way Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in Virginia's primary this week.
Lollar says he expects national money to pour into Maryland to help him beat a Democrat in November. He has started laying the groundwork for that race.
Before a crowd of several hundred African-Americans at a Baltimore church in May, Lollar was again the sole Republican to show up. The coalition of community groups asked the candidates how they would deliver on several Democratic ideals: a higher minimum wage, better housing, more opportunities for ex-offenders and paid sick leave for all workers. None of those issues matched Lollar's platform, but he was undeterred.
"I'm running because I'm tired of your vote being taken for granted," he said. In the cadence of a pastor leading his flock, Lollar promised that his economic plan — which would eliminate the income tax, roll back the sales tax, end the estate tax and lower the corporate income tax — would promote such prosperity that businesses would voluntarily do the right thing and give workers paid time off.
"You all have the opportunity to change the way things are done in Annapolis for a very long time," he said, receiving some of the loudest applause of the night.
He says he would advocate to reinstate the death penalty in Maryland, bar most abortions after 20 weeks and undo the sweeping gun-control law passed last year. Lollar is against legalizing marijuana and has criticized its use to treat pain.
He opposed the state's recent increase in the minimum wage. He supports school vouchers, voter identification laws and the natural gas extraction process known as fracking.
All of these, he says, are not partisan solutions to Maryland's woes.
"Elimination of the personal income tax is not a partisan issue. It's a way to give people their money back," Lollar said.
Lollar has run his operation on a shoestring budget that has burned through at least two campaign managers. He did not raise enough money to qualify for public financing. In a filing last month, the campaign reported having a mere $18,000, but the bank froze the account because of a $20,000 judgment against it. Lollar lost a lawsuit filed by a political database company that alleged the campaign reneged on a contract.
Lollar said it was a misunderstanding and that the campaign recently offered the company a settlement in order to move forward.
As he crisscrosses the state, setting up "Democrats for Lollar" in at least three jurisdictions, Lollar took a leave of absence from his job as a manager at Cintas Corp., a uniform and business services company, and picked up some consulting work. He missed four days of campaigning last week to be at Quantico shooting rifles and fulfilling his monthly requirement as a major in the Marines Corps Reserves.
Lollar, 42, has never held public office, though not for lack of trying. Before he moved to Charles County from Georgia with his wife, Rosha, and four daughters in 2004, he had run for both the school board and the county commission in the suburbs north of Atlanta.
He was ordained a Christian minister in 1991 and spent time as senior minister in Georgia but does not currently hold a formal pastoral position.
Over the years, he filed paperwork to run for the Georgia House of Representatives and to challenge Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat in office since the civil rights era.
Lollar said he never campaigned in either of those races, but he eventually got into politics out of frustration with public policies. "I got sick of complaining," he said.
He toyed with running for governor of Maryland in 2010, but instead took on then-House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer in a year in which tea party-backed Republicans swept into Congress.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele headlined rallies on Lollar's behalf. He appeared on national political television shows bantering with personalities such as Sean Hannity.
Lollar lost to Hoyer in a landslide, but he won in St. Mary's and Calvert counties. Afterward, he became state chairman of the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, spent two years leading the Maryland Taxpayers Association and retained a following in Southern Maryland.
"He really developed a very loyal and very vocal following," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College.
"I'd see the other people who came up as sacrificial lambs against Hoyer. Even though they came up with about the same success, they faded," he said. "That commitment from the activists who supported Lollar never really ebbed."
Nonetheless, Lollar has been unable to gain traction with the party establishment, which has lined up behind Harford County Executive David R. Craig. Activist and businessman Larry Hogan has emerged as the Republican gubernatorial candidate with fundraising prowess and leads in the polls. Lollar was tied for second with Craig in a recent Baltimore Sun poll, garnering just 12 percent support from likely primary voters.
"For all of the power of his presentation, there's this sense that the substance just isn't there," Eberly said of Lollar's lackluster showing.
Part of Lollar's popularity with his base lies in his ability to entice a crowd, said Del. John Bohanan, a St. Mary's County Democrat. As Hoyer's senior adviser on Capitol Hill and a Southern Maryland lawmaker, Bohanan watched Lollar closely on the campaign trail in 2010 and has paid attention to his career since.
"He's an incredibly talented, gifted orator and someone who would have made one heck of preacher and could pack a megachurch," Bohanan said. "He's a guy who probably, if he focused on it, could go somewhere in this country and get elected to Congress. But it's not likely in a Maryland district."
Some in the Republican establishment agree.
"If we were in a state with an open primary, he would be killing it," said former state lawmaker Don Murphy, a prominent Baltimore County Republican who has not endorsed anyone in the race. "It's either naivete or arrogance. You don't get to the Super Bowl until you win the championship game first."
Next week: the Democrats.
Job: General manager, Cintas Corp., a uniform and business services company
Experience: Business executive, major in Marine Corps Reserves, former president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, former Maryland director of Americans for Prosperity
Education: A.A., Emory University; B.S., political science, Kennesaw State University; MBA, Regent University
Home: Newberg in Charles County
Family: Married, four daughters
Running mate: Ken Timmerman