WASHINGTON — Neal Simon, a Potomac businessman launching an independent campaign for the Senate in Maryland today, watched last week’s State of the Union in a state of despair. His problem wasn’t with what President Donald J. Trump was saying, per se, but the reaction he was getting from the House floor.
“The reaction was just so partisan,” the 49-year-old businessman said, noting how Democrats sat in stony silence as Trump spoke. “Our country should be a place where people can applaud for each other and applaud when we’re doing well, regardless of who they think is responsible.”
Simon’s frustration with what he felt that scene represents is a central reason the CEO of the Rockville-based investment firm Bronfman Rothschild is running for the Maryland U.S. Senate seat held by Ben Cardin, a Democrat.
Polling suggests millions of Americans are fed up with Democrats and Republicans, but independent campaigns rarely succeed. In 2012, the last time Cardin was up for re-election, an independent businessman named Rob Sobhani spent $8 million and won 16 percent of the vote, placing third.
Simon dismissed that campaign. It started too late, he said. He told The Baltimore Sun he’s heard from hundreds of voters who are tired of Washington’s gridlock, and he believes the time for an independent campaign is now.
He is targeting the Senate on the idea that a handful of like-minded independents in the narrowly divided chamber could change the direction of the entire government.
“It’s about trying to do something that changes the way Washington works,” said Simon, a New York native who is married and has three children. “The government is not listening — Congress is not listening — to the people of Maryland.”
Simon’s announcement came just hours after Cardin filed for re-election. The 74-year-old, a fixture in Maryland politics for decades, faces a primary challenge from Chelsea Manning and three other Democrats.
Manning, the transgender woman who was convicted of sharing thousands of military documents with Wikileaks, is running to Cardin’s left.
Cardin — who won a nine-way primary election in 2012 with 74 percent of the vote and a four-way general election with 56 percent — said he welcomed the interest in the race. He is running for a third term in the Senate.
“I‘m prepared for whomever gets in the race,” Cardin told The Sun. “I have a story to tell that’s going to be rather compelling.”
Asked about the attention Manning’s campaign had brought to the Democratic primary, Cardin quipped, “I recognize that there are now more people aware of my re-election than there was before.”
Though Manning appears to be prepared to run a campaign to the left of Cardin, the incumbent said he isn’t worried about his ties to progressives.
“What Donald Trump has brought to Washington is going to be a central part of this campaign,” Cardin said. “I don’t believe there will be any question as to where I stand regarding President Trump.”
A spokeswoman for the Manning campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Only one Republican, Gerald I. Smith Jr. of Cecil County, has filed for the Senate race. Former CIA officer Sam Faddis has been raising money for a campaign. Faddis ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in Maryland’s 5th Congressional District in 2016.
Simon, who was registered as a Democrat but now is unaffiliated with a party, must submit 10,000 eligible signatures by early August to get onto the ballot in Maryland.
The longtime businessman, whose firm manages more than $6 billion in assets, has said he is willing to invest in his own candidacy, but he has declined to discuss the amount of that investment, even in broad terms.
Asked if he might put “millions” into the race, Simon said flatly he wasn’t going to comment on it.
He also declined to say whether he had hired a campaign manager or a fundraiser, allowing only that he is building a staff.
Simon repeatedly declined to be pinned down on specifics of how he would approach policy and political issues in Washington. Would he caucus with Democrats or Republicans, or neither party?
“I would caucus with the people of Maryland,” he said.
Are there specific policies on which he could work with the Trump administration from the center?
Maryland Policy & Politics
“I think the Trump presidency, unfortunately, has added to the divisiveness in our society,” he said.
He pointed to rising health care costs as a concern. Asked how he would address them, he said he would look to shift incentives in medicine away from the fee-for-service model.
While that idea has drawn some support from both sides of the aisle — including from Cardin — there are major obstacles to revamping insurance markets.
“To the degree that there’s a serious, thoughtful proposal about how to control some of the health care costs, I would love to be part of that process,” Simon said.
Roughly 700,000 voters in the state are not affiliated with a party, a number that, reflecting national trends, has continued to grow. There are 2.1 million registered Democrats about half as many registered Republicans.
Simon, a graduate of Brown University and the University of Chicago business school, was hesitant to directly criticize the man he hopes voters will oust.
“For me the election is not about Ben Cardin. It’s about change,” he said. “I do not believe that having another party-line Republican or party-line Democrat go to Capitol Hill is going to change anything.”