In many ways, the two leading candidates to fill Benjamin L. Cardin's 3rd District congressional seat couldn't be more different.
John P. Sarbanes, the Ivy League son of the well regarded U.S. senator, was literally reared in the milieu of politics from the age of 8, when his father was first elected to Congress. Sarbanes, a Democrat, has raised more than $1 million, winning a competitive eight-way primary that propelled him into November's general election.
John White, a self-made businessman, didn't even register to vote until several years ago. He was a Democrat at first but two years later switched to the Republican Party. And here he is now, essentially financing his campaign, sinking more than $300,000 of his own money into the race.
They have this in common: Neither has run for public office before. Cardin's decision to leave the House of Representatives to run for the Senate seat long held by Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring, created a rare opening and opportunity.
The oddly configured 3rd District cuts into portions of four jurisdictions: Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
Also running is Libertarian candidate Charles Curtis McPeek, a 77-year-old truck driver from Laurel. He has run for other congressional seats numerous times.
Political observers have said that in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1, a Democratic win is likely. But White, whose primary win surprised many, has launched an unusual campaign around the theme of safety and security.
He won 38 percent of the vote in the GOP primary, beating seven challengers, including Gary Applebaum, who had the unofficial support of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
White is distributing with his campaign literature pamphlets on safety for children and senior citizens, such as fingerprinting material and identity-theft information. "Our message resonates with all voters, regardless of their political positions," said White, 36, who lives in the Eastport area of Annapolis with his wife.
Sarbanes waged a fierce primary campaign, facing stiff competition from two high-profile opponents, state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who had a base in Baltimore County, and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson. Sarbanes came out on top with 32 percent of the vote.
Many observers attributed the win largely to name recognition. His father is the longest-serving U.S. senator in Maryland's history. But from the beginning, the younger Sarbanes said he was not campaigning on his name but using it as an opportunity to present himself to the voters.
"Every so often someone will say, 'You look awfully young,'" said Sarbanes, 44, who lives in Towson with his wife and three school-age children. "But I think most people have made the connection and understand the relationship now.
"The average person, as long as you've shown them that you've got your own stock, then they're like, 'Yeah, OK, that's cool. Why not be a chip off the old block?'"
White, who was raised in Prince George's County with his six siblings, graduated from what was then Towson State University and received a master's in business administration from the University of Baltimore. He worked at two consumer products brokerage companies for about 10 years before launching his own company, Compass Marketing, in 1998. "It was just me," said White. "I had no money, no customers, just an idea."
Eight years later, the office is located in Eastport, employing nine other people. It does about $60 million a year in sales, and clients include Fortune 500 companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Campbell Soup Co. The company advises companies on selling products in alternative spaces, for example securing Johnson & Johnson a contract to sell Tylenol in Staples stores.
Sarbanes grew up in Baltimore, the eldest of three children. He graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In between, he went to Greece on a Fulbright scholarship. After law school, he clerked for a federal District Court judge before joining the firm of Venable LLP in Towson, where he chairs the health care practice.
As an attorney, Sarbanes has represented hospitals and senior-living providers. For seven years he was special assistant to the Maryland superintendent of schools, and he has been a board member and president of the nonprofit Public Justice Center.
He says his diversity of experience qualifies him for the job. "I've done a lot of unique things, and I have a lot of different perspectives that I can bring to these problems," he said.
The candidates have starkly different views on most issues. White's campaign revolves around safety and security, issues he links to illegal immigration.
He believes an influx of illegal immigrants has contributed to crime rates that are "out of control," pointing to gangs as an example. "Our hometown security is just as important as our homeland security," said White. "I think that people in the 3rd District are directly affected in health care and education costs and crime because of the dramatic increase in illegal immigrants."
White is calling for federal legislation to force states to require residents to show proof of citizenship when they get a driver's license. He would also encourage police officers to enforce immigration law and would secure the borders with the National Guard and other parts of the military.
Sarbanes instead supports the bill introduced by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Their proposal would crack down on employers hiring illegal immigrants and allow immigrants to apply for visas to put them on the path to citizenship.
He accuses White of pushing a panic button. "I think he's less interested than I am in some of these constructive approaches," Sarbanes said. "And frankly, I think he's more ready to press a button that's based on fear and anxiety in people ... and that can be reduced to sound bites that aren't particularly constructive."
Sarbanes' campaign has centered on health care - and the need for a universal solution - as well as ending the war in Iraq, education and the economy.
With regard to Iraq, he supports withdrawing American troops as quickly as possible. "I didn't say immediate withdrawal," he said. "I said as quickly as possible."
White agrees that the Bush administration's Iraq policy has failed but does not believe withdrawal should begin until Iraq is secure. "I do not support a 'stay the course,'" he said. "I think we ought to have a set of defined goals."
McPeek, who is not raising money and has attended very few forums, says his main issue is overhauling the tax collection system by eliminating the income tax and moving to a pay-as-you-go flat sales tax.
White says that in a district in which both Ehrlich and President Bush won a majority, he has a "very good" shot of winning. "It's a very moderate district. It really is," White said.
For his part, Sarbanes says he's been sticking to the same message and detailed issue stances as during the primary.
"This was a kind of front-and-center opportunity," he said. "And I feel in a sense uniquely prepared to take advantage of it in a way where I can really make a difference."