Voters go to the polls tomorrow to replace Rep. Albert R. Wynn in a $1.3 million special election that state officials say will give his successor an edge of seniority in the new Congress that convenes in January.
The race pits Democratic activist Donna Edwards - who defeated Wynn in the February primary - against Republican Peter James. The winner of the special election will have to run again in November but is expected to have a substantial advantage in that contest.
In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-1, Edwards is considered the prohibitive favorite to replace Wynn, who announced in March that he would vacate his seat and join a powerful Washington lobbying group.
Maryland Democratic leaders balked at the idea of leaving the seat open for six months and rushed through a plan for tomorrow's special election. They said doing so would ensure that the district, which includes parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, would have a say in congressional votes this fall - and that the new representative might get better committee assignments and office space in January.
"It's a nice boost," said Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, who said the winner will enjoy a modest gain in seniority over next session's freshman, which can go a long way. "A number of decisions are made where a nod is given to that seniority. You get to ask questions before others do, for example, or sit on a desirable subcommittee before the people who come afterward."
Committee seats are ultimately assigned by the House speaker and the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. The seats must be approved by the Democratic caucus.
The winner "will have the status of incumbency," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat who chairs the Maryland delegation, and who said she assumed Edwards would win. "She'll have more ability to choose where she can be the most effective because of this."
An Edwards aide said the attorney hopes to find a spot on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the short term but eventually would like to sit on Wynn's old committee, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
"I think it's a tremendous advantage and one that I hadn't counted on," Edwards said. "I want to take advantage of even the smallest opportunity."
Edwards said she expects the biggest plus would be the chance to learn her way around Capitol Hill.
Incoming freshmen typically enroll in a new member orientation scheduled in the months before they are sworn in. The lessons range from how to pick staff members to the mechanics of writing a bill, according to Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the committee on House Administration.
But Edwards said the best lessons would come from voting on legislation in the waning months of the 110th Congress, including a fiscal year 2009 appropriations bill and possibly the Iraq war supplemental appropriations bill.
James said if he wins the election, the biggest advantage would be a chance for voters to get a sample of his leadership without a big commitment.
"For me, it's like a free trial offer to my constituents: 'Hey, you can try me out for couple of months to see if you like me,' " James said.
The special election has an estimated bill of $1.3 million, with Prince George's County paying $700,000, Montgomery County footing $600,000 and the state adding $50,000, mostly for setting up polling stations and programming ballots. The alternative would have been to leave the seat empty until November.
"Having this seat filled immediately ensures the residents of the 4th District will continue to have a full voice in the United States Congress," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat.
But how big a practical difference the early start will make is debatable. The number of meaningful votes the winner will cast could be affected by a relatively slow legislative pace and the presidential election.
"We may see a significant rush of things in the final few months, particularly because the Bush administration maybe will have an incentive to get some things done," said Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute. "But you have to be skeptical about how much difference that will make because so far the track record is not much happening."
And Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat who took office in a March 8 special election after Republican former House Speaker Dennis Hastert resigned in November, said the seniority means little in the early stages of a political career.
"Seniority makes a huge difference when it decides who will chair a committee, but the difference between very junior and a little bit junior are not as pronounced," said Foster, who added that he had the opportunity to launch a decisive vote on the house ethics reform bill during his brief tenure.
The most tangible advantage of an early start might be first dibs in picking office space.
Tomorrow's winner will take over Wynn's old office before he or she is moved at the start of the next session. "If you get a large group of freshmen, some can end up in the congressional equivalent of Siberia," said Ornstein, adding that if she wins, Edwards might also elect to keep some of Wynn's staff members. "[A good office] actually makes a difference if you have decent space for your staff or if you can walk to the capital for votes more easily - it just makes your life and work easier."
For Foster, the best benefit of his early arrival was taking over Hastert's office. Offices are usually assigned based on seniority, and freshman who start in January usually get the shaft, according to experts.
"It's just pleasant," said Foster, who took over Hastert's office space in March. "I inherited a beautiful office suite with a view of flags flying over the capital and the cherry blossoms on the Mall."