James J. Riley says this is his last hurrah.
It's now or never. This one's for all the marbles.
A veteran of four previous unsuccessful campaigns, the Republican candidate for a District 31 House of Delegates seat says he can't stomach another defeat, another disappointment. What's more, his wife of 32 years says she can't take it, either.
"I can't do this anymore," said Riley, 55, of Severna Park. "I've been a bridesmaid too many times. It's time to catch the bouquet and go to the altar."
During the last 12 years, Riley has waged four emotionally and financially consuming campaigns for House of Delegates, County Council and Congress.
His narrow loss in a divisive 1986 House of Delegates race may have been the most difficult. The retired social studies teacher finished fourth, trailing incumbent Democrat Charles W. "Stokes" Kolodziejski by only 155 votes.
"Now that I'm retired, my wife wants me to spend more time with her," Riley said. "But I came that close -- I have to give it one more shot."
Riley said he will do whatever it takes to win the election this time.
And he began by switching parties.
A member of the Severna Park Democratic Club for nearly two decades, Riley had run in the last four elections as a Democrat. But last June Riley entered the race as a GOP candidate -- a move that initially drew criticism from both parties.
Riley readily admits he switched parties to avoid a hotly contested Democratic primary.
"It would have been like entering the ring with (former heavyweight boxing champion Mike) Tyson," Riley said. "I couldn't win that contest.
"Many people who spent $30,000 (on their campaigns) came away with air.
The same thing would have happened to Riley."
Instead, Riley -- who frequently refers to himself in the third person -- didn't spend a dime on his primary campaign, relying instead on his name recognition from previous elections and constant roadside campaigning. In the primary, he finished ahead of three avowed Republicans, edging Pasadena resident Douglas Arnold for the top spot by 35 votes.
"It was closer than I thought it would be," Riley said. "But, since I'm a new Republican, I have to be satisfied."
Republican Party officials have since embraced Riley officially.
"People were annoyed at first that he ran as a Republican," said Mary Rose, outgoing chairwoman of the Republican Central Committee. "But it's fair. Once they win the primary, they deserve the stripes. He's one of ours and he's doing his job."
Sen. John Cade, R-Severna Park, Anne Arundel's highest-ranking Republican, was supposed to speak at Riley's fund-raiser this week. The influential legislator backed out unexpectedly, saying he had a prior engagement.
Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park, said Riley has become "somewhat of an opportunist. He's willing to do anything to get elected."
Trevor Kiessling, a Democratic delegate candidate who lost in the primary, said he doesn't believe Riley's party-switching strategy will succeed. "Not many people in either party like that," he said.
Although Riley placed first among the four Republicans in the primary, "Look at who the contenders were," Kiessling said. "They didn't really have a field."
"I'm sure he'll see some resentment from both (parties)," said Charlie Vane, vice president of the Severna Park Democratic Club and a Riley supporter. "He's a friend and neighbor so I'm going to back him anyway, though I've never backed a Republican before in my life."
The son of a U.S. seaman, James Joseph Riley was born at a San Diego, Calif., naval hospital in 1935. He counts among his earliest memories the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
"I was 6 years old and we were coming back from the rodeo," Riley said.
"I remember someone getting on the bus and saying the Japanese had attacked."
The Riley family settled in the Brooklyn section of Baltimore City in 1948.
No sooner had the family unpacked, then Riley's father, who had gone no further than the sixth grade before he enlisted, earned his high school degree. Then, in 1955, the elder Riley received his degree in romance languages from Johns Hopkins University.
"My father always preached education," said Riley, who followed his father's footsteps and graduated from Towson State College in 1959.
Riley met his wife, Irene, while he was a lifeguard at a Brooklyn pool.
"She looked good in a bathing suit and we just started dating," he said.
A geography major, he went to work in the Baltimore City schools as a history and government teacher.
"I was a strict authoritarian teacher," said Riley, who retired last year. "If I gave you a 300-word composition as punishment, that was admission to my classroom. If you didn't have it, do me a favor and don't come back.
"I did that for 30 years. While the Baltimore City schools were falling apart, there was education in my classroom."
"He was a team player," said Linda Beechener, a Pasadena resident who was vice principal for five years at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, where Riley taught. "He had a lot of creative ideas on how to teach young people."
Riley became more and more interested in Democratic politics during the early 1970s. He chaired Marylanders Against Gambling Machines, a group which fought against the legalization of slot machines, in 1975.
Those experiences only whetted Riley's political appetite. So in 1978 the social studies teacher joined the District 31 House of Delegates race in an effort to sweep out the incumbent ticket led by then-Sen. Jerome F.
Although the three incumbent delegates were ousted, Riley finished a distant sixth. Looking back, the candidate said he lost because the ticket running against the incumbents, led by W. Ray Huff and Philip C. Jimeno, did not include him.
Two years later, Riley won the Democratic primary for 4th district congressional seat before losing to incumbent Republican Marjorie Holt. "I knew I had little or no chance of winning, but I believe in the two-party system," he said.
In 1982, Riley made his third elective bid, this time running for County Council. Although he raised more than $10,000 and was endorsed by The Sun, he eventually lost by 500 votes to Carole Baker.
"He's a real student of politics," Baker said last week. "He's well-spoken, he comes across well and he's been active in Democratic circles forever."
Riley made another bid for delegate in 1986. Again the ticket, now led by Jimeno, passed over Riley in the primary.
This time, Riley won anyway.
Finally, in hopes of defeating Republican Delegate John Leopold, the Democratic ticket -- which included delegate candidates Huff and Charles W.
"Stokes" Kolodziejski -- called and Riley joined up.
But the marriage was a rocky one.
From the beginning, Riley said, "Leopold was out there and we knew he would knock one of us off."
The ticket asked Riley, who was strapped for cash, for $3,000 to pay for new campaign literature. His ticket mates told him he couldn't campaign in median strips, waving to motorists, a tactic that he said helped win the primary.
"I felt handcuffed," said Riley. "I wanted the whole ticket out there with me. But they wouldn't do it."
By the end of the primary, Riley and his running mates were bickering among themselves. Jimeno, Kolodziejski and Huff have accused Riley of breaking ranks, running newspapers ads promoting himself and waving "Riley" placards along the highways.
"Toward the end, Jay just panicked," Jimeno said.
The ticket betrayed him, Riley said.
"We found out that Kolodziejski was calling all these people on the phones, which he wasn't supposed to be doing," Riley said. "When we criticized him for it, he said he was only calling Polish people -- as if they didn't vote."
As this year's Nov. 6 election comes closer, "the so-called unity of the ticket will fall apart," Riley predicted. "(Democratic delegate candidate) Joan Cadden I hope is not so naive that she's not protecting her flank on Election Day."
Forecasting a gloomy economic future and higher taxes, Riley likes to cast himself as the representative of the lower-middle class. The owner of a modest home in Riverdale, he notes that his wife drives a weathered 1981 Ford Fairmont. He bought his car, a used 1979 Buick Regal, from Jimeno four years ago.
"(Jimeno) made me promise that I wouldn't put a Leopold bumper sticker on it," Riley said.
A stocky, athletically built man, Riley said he's looking forward to the end of the campaign so he can resume weight lifting. He wears heavy brown-framed reading glasses with thick lenses. His silvery white hair is receding.
He's blind in his left eye, the result of a childhood illness, and bears a tattoo on his right forearm, spelling out "Jay."
"That was the stupidest thing I've ever done," he said of the tattoo.
Promising to hold the line on state spending and make the county government more accountable for property tax increases, Riley hopes he can convert his middle-class background into votes.
"Being a man of modest means, he's not a spendthrift," said Vane, who has organized a fund-raiser for Riley. "He would be very thrifty in the legislature."
But much of his campaign has been directed against Kolodziejski, who Riley said has been ineffective.
In seven years, Kolodziejski has shepherded only two laws through the General Assembly, including one last spring altering the state's insurance fraud statutes.
"He just made a few corrections to existing law," Riley said. "That's it for seven years. How sad."
"I have to work harder than him to beat him," said Kolodziejski, who dismisses Riley's criticism as failing to take into account constituent service and work behind the scenes. "I think the Democratic Party ticket will sweep. We're working hard as a team, and I think the team will go in.
"If the people liked him so much, he would have won before now," Kolodziejski said.
Riley, who looks on his early races as an education in politics, bristles when anyone, particularly the news media, refers to him as a "perennial candidate."
"A perennial candidate is like a damn flower that comes up every year," Riley said. "That's a helluva thing to say about anyone who's sincere and works hard at their campaign.
"I have to believe that finally, after 12 years, the voters will see James Riley is the best of the six candidates."