Rep. Kratovil learns quickly how to play the Washington game

The Baltimore Sun

Washington - Frank Kratovil left the country 10 days ago, immediately after casting the first big vote of his Washington career.

The new congressman from Maryland wasn't exactly fleeing - though he did duck reporters who wanted to ask why he had just opposed the president's stimulus plan. He was flying out on his first official trip, to the Middle East, which conveniently put him beyond easy reach and allowed passions to cool.

Kratovil was one of 11 House Democrats who bucked their party's president on his first major initiative. The number of defectors wasn't particularly high, and more than a few conservative Democrats supported the $800 billion package.

But the "no" votes of renegade Democrats allowed the House Republican leader to deliver a somewhat cynical boast: that the "bipartisan position" on the stimulus measure was the one against it, since Barack Obama's plan got no Republican votes.

Kratovil, a new member of the fiscally conservative House Blue Dog Coalition, defended his action by saying that the stimulus package had been watered down by too much other spending.

Liberals called the vote a betrayal.

"I guess those 11 Democrats who joined the Republicans also come from districts that are just booming right along," huffed a Huffington Post blogger.

While Kratovil was hitting a series of Middle East hot spots, the phones were ringing back home. Not every caller was pleased, but Kratovil says he's had no second thoughts.

Overall, the response to his position on the stimulus "has been very good," he said in an interview at his House office, "if for no other reason than that folks think it demonstrates an independence."

He's hopeful the final stimulus package will provide more bang for the buck, he said. That view should be popular with constituents in his conservative district, which takes in the entire Eastern Shore, plus some mostly Republican parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Of course, his position can also be viewed as a classic Washington ploy, designed to generate maximum political benefit back home and minimal impact anyplace else. After all, Obama's package got through the House with a 56-vote cushion, and party leaders want to see their members survive in tough districts like Kratovil's.

If his handling of the stimulus issue is any indication, Kratovil could become a case study in how a freshman successfully defends a marginal House seat. Next year's election will severely test his political skills, and the contest will almost certainly be rated a tossup until the very end.

Last fall, the former Queen Anne's County prosecutor was the surprise winner of one of the closest House races in the nation. He is the first Democrat in 18 years to represent the state's easternmost district, redrawn at the start of the decade to enhance a decidedly Republican tilt.

He benefited from a rare Republican split. In the primary, conservative State Sen. Andy Harris of Baltimore County ended the career of moderate Republican Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest (who went on to endorse Kratovil). Strong turnout for Obama also helped Kratovil, even though Republican John McCain carried the district.

If history is a lesson, Republicans should recapture a number of House seats now held by Democratic freshmen. Some who rode the Obama tide into office will likely get swept out in 2010 as their districts revert to Republican form.

Running as an outsider, Kratovil won by campaigning against Washington. Now, as an incumbent, he's benefiting from business as usual.

Even before he was sworn in, he attracted more than $20,000 in post-election campaign donations from political action committees. They represent some of the nation's most powerful interests: the banking industry, pharmaceutical manufacturers, broadcasters, Realtors, dairy farmers (he landed a seat on the Agriculture Committee) and companies such as Verizon, Microsoft and Disney.

Democratic leaders also rewarded Kratovil with a spot on the House Armed Services Committee, a magnet for lucrative contributions from defense contractors.

His 2008 Republican rival, Harris, says he's "looking very seriously" at a rematch and met recently in Washington with officials of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

A committee spokesman, Paul Lindsay, in a carefully worded statement, praised Harris as "an experienced campaigner and proven vote-getter," and said party strategists were "interested" to hear about his plans. The spokesman said his party "will mount a formidable campaign" against Kratovil, "regardless of whom Republicans in Maryland choose as their candidate."

National Republican and conservative groups have made Kratovil a target for attacks from his first day in office.

It reminds him, he jokes, of a Far Side cartoon: Two white-tail deer are standing alone in a forest. One has a red bull's-eye on his chest and looks doleful. "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal," remarks the other.

"Maybe I'm na?ve," says Kratovil, "but what I've found in my life is that if you work hard, you can make a difference and you can prevail." He says that if he asks enough questions, stays independent and provides good constituent service, then "I think I'll be successful again."

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