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A relative newcomer, Szeliga has become leading voice for GOP

Republican nominee for Senate Kathy Szeliga talks about issues such as the national debt and free college tuition during a debate held by the League of Women Voters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

Days before this year's General Assembly session ended, Democrats in Annapolis were divided over a proposal to make it easier for women to get a restraining order to stop harassing phone calls and emails.

That was when Del. Kathy Szeliga stepped in.

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The highest-ranking elected Republican woman in Maryland used a floor speech in the House of Delegates to encourage her GOP colleagues to support the measure. She implored them to consider domestic abuse victims and "protect women."

The amendment passed, over the objection of the Democratic leaders in control of the chamber.

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During her campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat, Szeliga has sold herself to voters as a folksy, affable mother and grandmother — attributes that are genuinely hers. But the 55-year-old Perry Hall woman has also proved to be a surprisingly adept political tactician for someone elected to her first office just six years ago.

"There is something in the law that needs to be fixed, to be changed," Szeliga, the minority whip in the House of Delegates, said as she recalled the domestic violence legislation, which ultimately died in the Senate. "It isn't right."

During her campaign for Maryland’s open Senate seat, Republican Kathy Szeliga has sold herself to voters as a folksy, affable mother and grandmother — attributes that are genuinely hers. But the 55-year-old Perry Hall woman has also proved to be a surprisingly adept political tactician for someone elected to her first office just six years ago.
During her campaign for Maryland’s open Senate seat, Republican Kathy Szeliga has sold herself to voters as a folksy, affable mother and grandmother — attributes that are genuinely hers. But the 55-year-old Perry Hall woman has also proved to be a surprisingly adept political tactician for someone elected to her first office just six years ago. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Since her election to an open seat in 2010, Szeliga helped orchestrate a leadership coup in 2013 and expand the Republican caucus a year later. In less than two terms, she quickly emerged as the GOP's strongest contender for the U.S. Senate seat long held by Barbara A. Mikulski.

After Mikulski announced her retirement last year, Szeliga rapidly locked down support from state GOP leaders.

"She is relentless," said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County. "She's the first one in line with a drill or a hammer to fix the problem."

Since clearing a crowded 14-way primary in April with 36 percent of the vote, Szeliga has run a general election campaign focused in part on her family's early financial struggles. As a newlywed, she worked as a parking lot attendant, maid and house-sitter.

She regularly points to the construction firm she now runs with her husband as evidence of her small-business acumen.

And she reminds voters at every turn that she has the endorsement of Larry Hogan, the popular governor whose upset win in 2014 has given a flicker of hope to Republicans in all corners of a blue state.

Chris Van Hollen was in his late 20s when he found himself on the border between Iraq and Turkey, standing on a desolate dirt road in the mountains within firing range of soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein.

But despite running a professional campaign, Szeliga has had difficulty gaining ground against Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic nominee. Not only has she faced her party's traditional head winds — registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1 in Maryland — she's also had to contend with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.

Szeliga has supported the GOP standard-bearer since he won the party nomination, even as polls have indicated he is deeply unpopular in the state.

Szeliga got a taste of politics in the mid-1990s by organizing opposition to the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program, a controversial test used to assess schools. A former Baltimore teacher, Szeliga secured meetings with school officials and led protests at the Maryland State Department of Education.

The test was replaced in 2003 with a new assessment regime.

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"She kind of reminds me of me, 30 years ago," said Ellen Sauerbrey, the former state lawmaker and two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee in Maryland. "She's not afraid to buck the system."

Colleen Dunlap, Szeliga's legislative assistant, has been a friend for more than two decades. She described Szeliga as intensely loyal, both to her friends and to her conservative principles.

Dunlap remembered colleagues' alarm one day several years ago when they heard Szeliga roaring at a member of then-Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration during a private meeting in her office.

"She was yelling, 'Get your hand out of my pocket!'" Dunlap said. "I mean, you could hear it in the hallway."

The official was asking Szeliga, then a member of the Appropriations Committee, for more funding for his agency. The next time he visited with Szeliga, Dunlap said, he brought help.

Dr. Margaret Flowers says she gave up a 17-year practice as a pediatrician a decade ago out of disgust with health insurance companies. Now, as the Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate from Maryland, she is prescribing a radical shift in policies for the nation.

Aside from that incident, friends describe Szeliga as warm and quick to laugh, even when she's on the opposite side of an argument. She is naturally good at establishing a rapport with voters, but also at needling the inner workings of government to get a result, said Rep. Andy Harris, a former boss.

In that sense, her style — if not her politics — is similar to Mikulski's.

"I would see how she interacts with constituents, and it just became very obvious," said Harris, who hired Szeliga as his chief of staff in 2004, when he was serving in the state Senate. "She just gets along with people."

Del. Angela M. Angel, the Prince George's County Democrat who authored the domestic abuse amendment, gave Szeliga credit for "reaching above partisan politics."

"She has a very powerful story to tell," Angel said.

An Army brat, Szeliga started high school in Virginia and finished in Severna Park. She met her husband, Mark, that summer in Ocean City, and the two eloped to Boulder, Colo., when she was 18.

It was during that time Szeliga worked a succession of low-paying jobs. She was a waitress, a maid and a dishwasher. She removed rocks from a golf course that was under construction. She briefly house-sat for singer Jimmy Buffett.

The motorcycle she has featured in two television ads during the campaign has its origins in those early years. When she and her husband had only one car, a borrowed bike was her most reliable way to get to work. Their first car, a jalopy they nicknamed "La Bamba," was already long gone.

Before that, she says, she and her husband often had to hitchhike to the grocery store.

After the birth of her first son, Szeliga moved back to Maryland, and to her family. She and her husband started a construction company that began flipping houses in West Baltimore, and later focused on commercial construction. She worked in the office, raised her children and took night classes at Towson University. She earned a degree in elementary education in 1994.

Even as they became more comfortable financially, Szeliga's two sons would tease her about the family's low-budget vacations. There was the Outer Banks trip where their rented home was so decrepit the family slept outside for a week. On a trip to Mexico, the family arrived to find their "resort" had been wiped out by a hurricane.

"Our family vacations were always a little bit different," said Steve Szeliga, the younger of her two sons. "Our joke as a family is: 'The Szeliga family vacation: Where the expectation is the place we're staying at is falling apart.'"

The years Szeliga spent scraping by didn't dampen her embrace of Republican orthodoxy on issues such as raising the minimum wage or paid sick leave — she opposes both. Those positions have led to some sharp exchanges during debates with Van Hollen.

Szeliga says workers on minimum wage don't want a raise, a short-term fix, as much as they want a long-term career. Van Hollen says there is an inconsistency in a candidate who claims to speak for working people but does not support policies such as increasing the minimum wage.

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Szeliga has said she wants to work on improving the Department of Veterans Affairs, and on cutting federal regulations for small businesses. Like Hogan two years ago, she has carefully avoided divisive social issues such as abortion and gun control.

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Broadly, she has sought to tap into an anti-establishment sentiment that was part of Hogan's successful formula.

"There's a groundswell across Maryland of people who think that government doesn't care about them, average people," Szeliga said. "I just don't think we're going to change Washington until we put some people down there who look like average Marylanders."

twitter.com/jfritze

Kathy Szeliga

Party: Republican

Age: 55

Prior experience: House of Delegates, 2011-present; minority whip, 2013-present

Personal: Married, two sons

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