In Montgomery, Senate primaries turn nasty

In her bid to win a second term, Maryland Sen. Nancy J. King, Montgomery County Democrat, has traded views with her primary challenger on gay marriage, corporate taxes and other issues one would expect to get a full airing in a county that prides itself on high-minded discourse.

But the dominant image on King's recent campaign mailers is more telling: It's a photo of her opponent, Del. Saqib Ali, sacked out on a couch in the State House. King also has launched a website to further embarrass Ali, with whom she shares a legislative district. It features a few dozen of his more colorful Facebook postings, including one in which Ali shares a "man crush" on actor Jason Bateman.

The contest may be among the more spirited this year in Maryland. But it's hardly the only one in which civil debate has been replaced by civil war.

In eight primaries that will be settled Tuesday — including four in Montgomery — incumbent state senators are being challenged by current or former delegates from their district. And most of these races haven't been pretty.

And in another, the incumbent, Mike Lenett, has created a website that alleges his challenger, Del. Roger Manno, has "covered up" parts of his past, including his and his wife's ties to Wall Street and a name change in 2002 from "Rajah" to "Roger."

In a statement Tuesday, Manno fired back, accusing Lenett of having "taken Montgomery County politics into the gutter like no other candidate before him."

"What we are witnessing this year is unlike anything anyone here can remember," said Adam Pagnucco, a popular blogger on Montgomery politics. "And if all the challenging delegates lose, it may not happen again."

In the past, delegates have been largely deferential to their Senate counterparts. In fact, the last time a sitting delegate from Montgomery challenged his senator in a primary was 1994, according to Pagnucco's blog, Maryland Politics Watch. That was the year that Chris Van Hollen, now a prominent member of Congress, advanced from the Maryland House to the Maryland Senate.

While Montgomery may be ground zero for ambition, the attempted upheaval is not confined to the county. There are two Democratic primaries in Prince George's County that fit the same pattern: Del. Joanne C. Benson is trying to unseat longtime Sen. Nathaniel Exum; and Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a two-term House member, is hoping to knock off David C. Harrington, a former County Council member appointed to the Senate in 2008.

A couple of Republicans are trying to pull off the same feat: House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank is gambling his seat on a bid against longtime Sen. Donald F. Munson in Washington County; and Del. James J. King is among those gunning for appointed Sen. Edward R. Reilly in Anne Arundel.

"I think it's the mood of the country," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Calvert County. "There are a number of delegates who are feeling it's their time and that they can ride this anti-incumbent sentiment."

Others, including House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery Democrat, suggest that may be reading too much into what's happened. While some races have showcased ideological divides, others seem driven more by personality. They are all being waged largely by door-knocking and direct mail.

"The contests are as individual as the individuals themselves," said Barve.

The Montgomery feud that has drawn the most attention is in District 39 between King, a former school board member with the backing of much of the party establishment, and Ali, a first-term House member who has positioned himself as the "true blue Democrat" in the race.

Among the issues on which Ali has sought aggressively to draw distinctions is gay marriage, which he said he supports as "a question of civil rights." In a recent debate, King was more equivocal, saying that full marriage equality is "a very, very difficult issue in our district." If a gay marriage bill emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee, King said she would vote for it — a position Ali criticized as " Annapolis-speak."

Ali has also sought to portray King, a former Republican, as too cozy with the alcohol and gambling lobbies. She has denied that and has argued that she is as "progressive" as Ali on most issues and that her seat on the Senate budget committee positions her to better help the district.

King, who was appointed to the Senate in 2007 after serving a term in the House, suggested Ali should have stayed there and tried to build a record.

Policy disagreements between the two have been overshadowed recently by a series of King mailers showing Ali asleep on a couch in the House lounge and the anti-Ali website that King set up. King said the photo of Ali sleeping was intended to highlight votes he has missed.

"This is the nastiest race I've ever been in," King said. "I've never had to resort to this stuff before, but you have to defend yourself."

Ali said the quirky Facebook posts show "I'm a regular person" and questioned why a state senator bothered to comb through them. "She knows she can't compete on her message, so all she can do is try to completely tear me down," he said.

The contest between Lenett and Manno in District 19 has turned increasingly bitter in recent days as well. Manno has been highly critical of the leadership style of Lenett, whom he accuses of being unable to work effectively with his three delegates. Among other things, Manno said, that has undercut their ability to speak with one voice about the effects of the Intercounty Connector, a road project with a major impact on the district.

"About a year ago, there was an intervention from community leaders and elected and former elected leaders," Manno said. "We all knew there was a problem. ... Even the simple things in Annapolis, like meeting as a delegation, we haven't been able to do."

Lenett bristled at that charge, accusing Manno, a former Capitol Hill staffer, of "absolutely lying." More broadly, Lenett questioned Manno's rationale for running, arguing that they have few policy differences and that Manno steered few bills through the House.

"I'm not down there to join a social club. I'm down there to get things done," Lenett added, pointing to legislation he has pushed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay and to restrict cell phone usage while driving.

A mailer sent by Lenett over Labor Day sparked a new round of recriminations. The mailer — and a companion website — accuses Manno of a litany of "cover ups," including failing to disclose his wife's work on Wall Street on ethics forms and the 2002 name change from "Rajah" to "Roger."

Manno said he has amended his ethics forms and accused Lenett of bringing up the name change to scare voters with "racial and ethnic undertones."

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