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Running in spite of the odds


Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, take note: There's an avid cookie baker in Crofton who wants your job.

So does a lay minister in Jessup and a retired high school teacher in Gaithersburg. Then there's the convicted felon who owns a used-appliance store on U.S. 1 - and maintains his innocence.

They are among the 11 challengers entered in the March 2 primary election to unseat three-term Democratic incumbent Mikulski, who has held the post since 1986. She announced her bid for a fourth term last month with more than $2 million in campaign funds.

But besides state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, her likely Republican rival, most of the fringe candidates have never held political office, have a scarcity of campaign money (if they're spending any at all) and know they have little chance of emerging victorious.

They are running anyway. Some paid their $290 filing fee for the soapbox it provides to stump for their pet issues.

Others are perennial candidates and gadflies who are becoming record-holders for failed campaigns.

The way many of them see it, it is their constitutional right to run for public office, a right they take seriously. And besides, people sometimes vote for them.

"For many people it's an ego trip," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It's a very healthy thing because it's an open democracy and anyone with minimal qualifications can run. It gives us a bit of political humor."

Republican candidate Eileen Martin, a Crofton mother of four who bakes a lot of cookies, said she is running as the "anti-politician" on a platform that promotes the value of a strong work ethic, personal responsibility and common sense.

"I want to be a voice for the silent majority, those people who are the cookie bakers, who go to work, who pay their taxes, who take care of families, of our homes, our children, who are our volunteers," said Martin, 63.

She is not raising money, passing out bumper stickers or buttons, or even putting out lawn signs, she said, because "I don't do what politicians do." (Even if she wanted a sign on her own lawn, neighborhood covenants prevent it.)

"I'm not interested in transforming myself into what certain interest groups want," Martin added. "Like Popeye the Sailor Man, 'I am what I am.'"

Looking out for the little guy is a common theme among the Republican candidates, many of whom believe they can wrest the congressional nomination from Pipkin.

Raymond J. Bly, convicted in 1988 of child abuse and fourth-degree sexual offense involving a young woman, has canvassed Eastern Shore shopping malls in his Toyota 4-Runner distributing bumper stickers that read: "Vote for Common Sense, Blue-collar Vietnam Vet, Ray Bly for U.S. Senate."

"I'm trying to finish what Martin Luther King Jr. started which is to bring economic change to the city, to the poor and bring back fair trade," said Bly, 54, owner of Ray's Used Appliances in Jessup. He received 348 votes, 23 percent of the electorate, in the Republican primary for Howard County Council's District 2 seat in 2002.

Bly outlines his 16-point platform and explains that he has documented proof of his innocence on his Web site. The Constitution does not prevent convicted felons from running for U.S. Senate.

"I am a true friend of the little people in Maryland," said John Stafford of Jessup, an attorney and a lay minister who garnered 6 percent of the electorate, 18,294 votes, in the 2000 Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

As senator, Stafford, 63, said he would work to cut taxes, raise the child tax credit, restore the federal prohibition of state lotteries, outlaw casino gambling in every state and "restore sanity and shrewdness" to trade policy.

Gambrills resident and businessman Gene Zarwell, 62, said no one knows where he stands on the issues because he only gets two minutes to speak at debates. But the Web site developer created an Internet site where he shares his views. It's his sixth attempt for public office.

"My whole campaign is legitimacy, responsibility and credibility," said Zarwell, who took home 522,785 votes, nearly 32 percent of the electorate, in the 2002 comptroller race against William Donald Schaefer. "Today, trash collectors have a better reputation [than senators]," he said, "because of the false promises."

Republican candidate James A. Kodak and the two other Democratic candidates, Sidney Altman and A. Robert Kaufman, have no delusions about their chances. To them, the race is a chance to raise important issues.

Kodak, an Odenton attorney and a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, wants to end the high cost of pharmaceuticals by creating a market dominated by generics, restrict contingency fees for legal services, reduce America's dependency on foreign oil and decriminalize drug use. "I want to bring these policies to the fore," said Kodak, 33, who outlines proposals for each on his Web site. "If they can be recognized as substantive and important, then that, in and of itself, is a victory."

Altman, 82, a retired New York schoolteacher, said he hopes to "rally people who agree with me on the issues."

His goals: cut defense spending, reform high school education and create tax deductions for renters. He said he hopes his election results put pressure on the Maryland delegation to take action on his issues.

For perennial political candidate Kaufman, 72, who has run for president, governor, congressman, mayor (twice) and city councilman, the campaign is a chance to promote a socialist perspective.

"The single purpose of America's foreign policy is to maximize the profits of the international corporations which finance the two political parties of capitalism," the Baltimore activist said in a letter to The Sun. "I have no illusions that I can win this election."

Republican candidates Dorothy C. Jennings of Baltimore and Earl S. Gordon of Olney could not be reached for this article.

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