Kathy Szeliga introduces herself to voters with the story of how she eloped as a teenager 36 years ago, when she and her husband had $5 in savings and a pair of minimum-wage jobs. She likes to talk about the price they paid for their first car, a jalopy.
"It was worth eighty dollars and a drill," she says, and laughs. Then she details her path to becoming a small-business owner: working her way up as a dishwasher, a housekeeper, a maid, a college student in her 30s with two kids, then a Baltimore City schoolteacher for a bit.
She's now the highest-ranking Republican woman in Maryland, co-owner of a business that flips houses, and the establishment's bet for the candidate with the best chance to win a statewide Senate race against a Democrat.
She sees a lot of herself in the retiring Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
"I thought, 'Why not send a taller Baltimore Polish woman to Washington?'" Szeliga says. "I have that same hard-working, blue-collar ethic that I bring to the table."
Szeliga, 54, presents herself as a folksy everywoman pragmatist cut from the same cloth as Maryland's popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. It's a strategy employed by several of the 14 Republicans competing for their party's nomination, but Szeliga's claim to it might be the most authentic.
"When she started to rise in politics, I jokingly said, 'I don't know if should still be your friend,'" said Carla Price, Szeliga's best friend. "And she said, 'No, no, no, I still need people like you in my life.'"
Price doesn't follow politics. She and Szeliga forged a friendship 25 years ago on the sidelines of their sons' soccer games. When she met the Szeligas' dog Ollie, she had to look up the pup's namesake, Lt. Col. Oliver North of the Iran-Contra scandal, to understand the family joke.
"She likes communicating with me because I can tell her what the real, average American feels like, because that's who I am," Price said. "And really, that's who she is."
As a Baltimore County mother of two adult sons and grandmother to a toddler, Szeliga considers herself a regular mom who happened to be a part-time legislator while handling payroll for a general contracting company that once employed 25 people.
She grew up an Army brat, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel who worked in intelligence. Her friends and colleagues describe her as a relentless source of energy and positivity.
When the Szeligas and the Prices unwittingly booked an oceanfront dump as a vacation home in the Outer Banks one year, Szeliga took a look at the mouse droppings and ants, and happily declared the families — with six teenage sons between them — would simply spend the week outside.
"It was the best vacation we've ever had," Price said. Szeliga and her husband, Mark, "just make the best of it. They make you feel comfortable. So, OK. If they don't care, we don't care!"
Szeliga once crashed her motorcycle en route to an interview on WBAL's conservative-leaning "C4 Show." Rather than cancel, she simply called to say she was running behind schedule. She showed up an hour late, cheerful and dappled with road rash.
After Mikulski surprised just about everyone last March with her announcement that she would retire from the Senate after 30 years, GOP leaders in Maryland "began to put our thinking caps on," Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh said.
"Very quickly, a consensus emerged among many of the elected Republican officials that Kathy Szeliga was the one and only answer," he said.
Szeliga, like Hogan, has experience in business. Like Hogan, she's known for her affable and direct style. And like Hogan — only the second Republican to win a statewide election in Maryland in the last half-century — Szeliga emphasizes her ability to connect with "regular" people, and characterizes career politicians as out-of-touch and perpetuating the country's problems.
While she has held public office for five years and is the closest thing Maryland Republicans have to an establishment pick, Szeliga sees herself as part of the anti-establishment wave of candidates this year. Being a part-time legislator, she says, is a far cry from being a full-time legislator in Washington for a decade or more.
If elected, she promises, she would serve no more than two terms.
"Washington would be much better off if it looked more like a state legislature," she says, with deadlines, rules that confine each bill to a single subject, and an expectation to solve problems. "They don't want to talk about things."
Critics point out that she's been unable to push the governor's agenda through the Democratic-controlled legislature in Annapolis. But the governor hasn't been able to do it either. She might not unite all warring factions within the state GOP, but party leaders say she won't alienate them, and she has crossover appeal to Democrats.
"She's exactly the kind of person who should represent the community," said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress and one of Szeliga's political mentors.
Harris, a tea party favorite, has earned a reputation for consistent conservatism. He says Szeliga is a very different type of politician.
"We're generally right of center, but she takes a much more consensus-approach to problems," he said. "I'm willing, probably, to be more vocal."
In Harris' congressional district on the Eastern Shore, Szeliga's signs are plastered in tandem with his. In her television ads in Baltimore, however, she talks about working with Hogan to repeal the so-called rain tax.
As minority whip in the House of Delegates, part of Szeliga's job is to coach freshmen lawmakers on how to be effective in a General Assembly dominated by Democrats.
"She's very open-minded," said Del. Carl Anderton, an Eastern Shore Republican. "She could be the only Republican who votes for a bill in committee."
Anderton sits beside Szeliga on the Environment and Transportation Committee.
"I was a knee-jerk guy," he said. "I'd see something, and go, 'That's bull-crap.' She taught me the ability to read and sleep on it. … As soon as she finds your limit, and you think she can't get any more out of you, she pushes through and squeezes more. She's a great motivator and a phenomenal leader."
A handful of public polls put Szeliga as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, but the vast majority of voters haven't settled on a candidate.
Szeliga took some convincing to get into the race. Schuh and Harris recruited her over a few months, helped introduce her to Republicans in Washington — former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia among them — and a small cadre of advisers.
She says she's still on the steep side of the learning curve on federal issues.
She says she wants to reduce business regulations and work on veterans' issues. She says has no plans to weigh in on the wedge issues, such as abortion, that can tie the Senate in knots. She says she plans to represent the social values of the state: "Maryland's discussed a lot of those issues, and they've been settled here."
If she were elected, Szeliga says, she would ride to Washington on her motorcycle.