OVER AN early-morning bowl of oatmeal, the breakfast of pacifists, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson confesses he had only one fistfight over the course of his entire youth. He was a fifth-grader. A classmate who had been annoying Beilenson put a couple of words together in unhealthy conjunction. Beilenson, the future health commissioner of Baltimore, threw a hard right hand, never in this lifetime to be repeated.
"I thought he was calling my mother a name," Beilenson says, more than three decades after the fact. So he bloodied the kid's lip.
The story is worth telling for a couple of reasons. The kid with the bloody lip was Ron Reagan, a classmate when they were growing up in Sacramento, Calif., where Beilenson's father was a state senator and Reagan's father was a governor with his eye on the White House.
Beilenson is expected to enter the second big fight of his life in a couple of weeks, when he'll likely announce he's running for Rep. Benjamin Cardin's 3rd district U.S. congressional seat.
And, unlike the fight between Beilenson and the potty-mouthed son of a Republican icon, this one may draw blood strictly between Democrats. State Sen. Paula Hollinger may get into the race. Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens may get in. And the names of such Baltimore County legislators as Jim Brochin, Jon Cardin and Bobby Zirkin are also being mentioned.
But it's misleading to think Beilenson's had no political fights since he took on young Reagan. As the city's health commissioner for Martin O'Malley, and for Kurt L. Schmoke before him, Beilenson's been a pretty high-profile figure for the last dozen years on some of the city's most intractable challenges: drug treatment, the spread of HIV, teen pregnancy, gun violence, the environment.
As health commissioner, he's made himself a familiar public figure. In TV circles, he's known as an easy sound bite. He's always available. This immediately sets him apart from Ben Cardin, whom he wishes to succeed, and the retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, whom Cardin wishes to succeed.
Over the course of his political career, in Washington and Annapolis, Cardin has been regarded as a man of intelligence and integrity. Likewise Sarbanes. But getting either to raise his voice on controversial public issues is another matter.
Some believe such a low-key approach has helped Republicans corner the market on political debate. The modern Democrats seem too nervous at the sound of their own voices, while Republicans are all over the national airwaves, usually complaining that they can't get their message out because of "liberal media." The Democrat Beilenson's approach is calm and studious. But he has not been shy about expressing himself.
For instance, he wants drug treatment to be "medicalized," rather than "punishment-driven." Is everybody paying careful attention? Schmoke tried to make a similar argument, early in his mayoral tenure, and was shouted down so brutally by those who imagined he was calling for legalization that he rarely brought the issue back so forcefully again.
Beilenson's careful to say he's "not talking about legalizing drugs." But he is talking about two distinct types of drug offenders: the large numbers who should be treated medically, and those "violent and high-level offenders who need prison."
"Once they're adult," he said, "it's tough to change violent offenders. Maybe you don't give them life, but you give them 30 years. But the nonviolent ones, they're the ones we've got to treat medically, and get away from this notion that you just lock everybody up."
In one study linking drugs and violence among several dozen youthful offenders, says Beilenson, the arrest records of homicide victims was studied. All of the victims turned out to have had a history of arrests for drug trafficking. The average age of first arrests was 13. The average age they were shot was about 16.
"So we have a chance to intervene," says Beilenson.
These are issues that have been kicked around for the past several decades as the country has mounted one so-called "war" on drugs after another. Beilenson's strength in the argument is that he hasn't been observing it from a distance - not in a city with "45,000 to 50,000 hard-core drug abusers," where he's dealt with the problem close-up and seen it spread significantly to surrounding counties.
But he's also speaking out about some issues he hasn't had to deal with directly. Stem cell research, for example. "We're talking," says Beilenson, "about already existing embryos that would be disposed of, which can give life. The Republicans talk about believing in a culture of life. You use a phrase like that, and you turn your back on stem cells, then it's just making up words. It's empty phrases.
"Or 'fiscal responsibility.' How do you talk that way and turn the biggest surplus in history into the biggest deficit? That's insane. And the biggest victim is the middle class. Or the cost of prescription drugs, where the only ones who are happy are the drug companies. This is sheer idiocy."
For a guy who can only claim one fight in his life, Beilenson seems ready to throw a few punches. For a Democrat, this is remarkable. The question is: When all the Democrats line up to run for Cardin's old seat, who winds up with the bloody lip this time?