Anne Arundel County Council Chairman John Grasso (R) tells Maryland Matters that he plans to challenge state Sen. Ed DeGrange (D), a top Republican target, in 2018.
Grasso, an unvarnished politician and energetic campaigner, may not formally announce his candidacy for several months. But the real estate developer and landlord, who largely self-funded his two council campaigns, has a fundraiser scheduled for Thursday evening at La Fountaine Bleue, a catering hall and event venue in Glen Burnie.
“I’m in – no ifs ands or buts,” Grasso said in an interview this week.
Grasso’s pending bid means that Republicans are getting closer to their goal of landing top recruits in most of the nine Democratic-held Senate districts that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) carried in 2014. Democrats currently hold a 33-14 advantage in the Senate, and Republicans would love to pick up the five seats needed to sustain gubernatorial vetoes and launch filibusters.
“I’m very excited about John running,” said Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland GOP. “John’s a terrific candidate, a very strong candidate, and we have not historically had strong candidates in that district.”
Grasso, who is term-limited, said he is running because the 32nd District, which includes Glen Burnie and communities near BWI Airport and Fort Meade, needs more energetic representation. The Republican is a vocal proponent of term limits; DeGrange was first elected in 1998.
“I’m sure he’s a good guy, but once someone has been there for a long time, they become complacent,” Grasso said. “He’s been there way too long.”
Grasso described his own recent legislative activity on the County Council as an argument in favor of his Senate bid. In the past two weeks alone, he said, he has introduced bills dealing with the occupancy rates at county schools, development issues, and the timing of hearings on proposed zoning changes.
“I’m still full of a lot of piss and vinegar,” Grasso said, adding that he already has a full complement of bills he’d like to introduce in the Senate. These include measures on child support, court calendars, school vouchers, and charter schools.
“I’ve got a bunch of stuff ready,” he said.
Last week, Grasso posted a missive on Facebook complaining about the length of time it takes for criminal cases to work their way through the court system. He concluded his post by saying, “Stay tuned for Senator Grasso.”
Grasso, 55, is an unconventional politician who is unafraid to speak his mind. But that candor has occasionally produced unwelcome headlines. He has disparaged the city of Baltimore and tenants of subsidized housing, and caught flak in 2011 for calling Glen Burnie, the heart of the legislative district, a “new ghetto.”
But Grasso is also a relentless campaigner and says he’s looking forward to knocking on doors in every corner of the district. “When I go out to talk to voters, it’s uncensored,” he said.
DeGrange, 67, will be no easy mark, however. He remains a popular figure and major power in Anne Arundel County politics, thanks in part to his perch as chairman of the Capital Budget Subcommittee in the Senate.
While Hogan is highly popular in the 32nd, the district has produced an all-Democratic legislative delegation for the last few elections, and DeGrange has never received less than 59 percent of the vote in his four re-election races since narrowly ousting Republican Sen. Ed Middlebrooks in 1998.
In addition, Hillary Clinton last year became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Anne Arundel County since 1964, and she racked up her biggest margin in DeGrange’s district.
Equally significant, DeGrange was sitting on $183,000 in his campaign account as of mid-January and has another fundraiser coming up in June. That may explain why Grasso is raising money for the first time after running shoe leather campaigns for council.
Grasso said he did not feel comfortable taking money from developers or from constituents who would be affected by the day-to-day performance of the county government. But he said he is willing to raise money now because the legislature is a different type of entity.
“This time I’m asking people to get behind me,” Grasso said. “People want to be part of a cause, a message that you bring.”
In an interview, DeGrange said he is ready for the fight, and pushed back on the criticism that he has become out of touch with his constituents after so many years in Annapolis.
“I never expected to be in office as long as I have,” he conceded. “But I have a long association with the business and community associations. I came up through those organizations. The people continue to elect me.”
DeGrange said he is proudest of his work securing grants for communities affected by the growth of BWI Airport, his ability to win funding for public – and private – education, and his work on the capital budget. He dismissed Grasso’s call for term limits.
“Term limits are placed on elected officials by voters,” he said. “As long as the voters will have me, I’m happy to serve.”
DeGrange observed that while some of his district is turning more Republican, he believes that areas near the airport and Fort Meade are trending Democratic. Parts of Grasso’s district, he noted, overlap with his, but added that the councilman will have to move to run for the Senate seat and familiarize himself with new territory.
“I’m sure it will be an interesting race,” DeGrange said.
While Republicans consider Grasso’s Senate run a recruiting win, they are also making progress finding candidates for other Senate races they are targeting:
**In District 3 in Frederick County, Craig Giangrande (R), who owns several Burger King franchises, is gearing up to challenge Sen. Ron Young (D) – assuming Young, who is 76 and held on by a 2-point margin in 2014, runs again. Young had $61,000 on hand in mid-January. Giangrande had $50,000 in his campaign account, including $35,000 he had loaned the campaign. But he has stepped up his fundraising efforts and is reportedly willing to dig deep into his own pockets if necessary.
On Tuesday night, former Montgomery County Del. Mathew Mossburg (R) announced on Facebook that he also planned to run for the District 3 Senate seat.
**In District 8 in eastern Baltimore County, Del. Christian Miele (R) hasn’t formally announced his plans, but is expected to challenge four-term Sen. Kathy Klausmeier (D). Klausmeier, who previously served two terms in the House, had $116,000 on hand in mid-January, compared to Miele’s $45,000. This will be a generational battle: Miele is 36, while Klausmeier is 67.
**In the Annapolis-based 30th District, veteran Sen. John Astle (D) is running for mayor of Annapolis this year and is unlikely to seek re-election in 2018 if he loses that race. Former Del. Ron George (R), who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014, has been campaigning for Senate for more than a year, and had $89,000 in the bank in January. Del. Herb McMillan (R) hasn’t ruled out making the race, but is seen as less likely to run. Democrats increasingly expect party activist Sarah Elfreth, who works for the development consulting firm headed by former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), to emerge as their contender. She had $12,000 on hand in mid-January after a short stretch of fundraising.
**In District 38 on the Lower Eastern Shore, Sen. Jim Mathias (D) is a top Republican target — and knows it. Mathias, who retained his seat by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin in 2014, banked $162,000 in mid-January. The leading Republican in the race is Del. Mary Beth Carozza, a former George W. Bush and Capitol Hill aide who had $67,000 on hand at the end of the reporting period.
**Republicans also have high hopes in Baltimore County’s District 42, which stretches from Towson to the Pennsylvania border. Sen. Jim Brochin (D) is seriously exploring a run for county executive – and party leaders concede that he is probably the only Democrat who can hold the seat. Several Republicans are exploring the race, including Del. Susan Aumann, Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, and former Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman. Aumann had $52,000 on hand in mid-January while Kach reported $59,000.
“We’re going to focus on nine or 10 seats at the end of the day,” said Haire, the state GOP chairman. “We’re still noodling over a couple of the districts.”
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are mainly focused on playing defense in 2018. But if it turns into a Democratic wave election, they believe they could see late pick-up opportunities in races against Howard County Sen. Gail Bates (R), Harford County Sen. Robert Cassilly (R), Anne Arundel County Sen. Ed Reilly (R), and eastern Baltimore County Sen. Johnny Ray Salling (R). No strong challengers have come forward at this stage.