If it weren’t for a certain liquor magnate pouring millions of dollars from his personal fortune into his campaign, two state lawmakers from Montgomery County — Sen. Roger Manno and Del. Aruna Miller — would likely be running well ahead of the pack in the Democratic primary for the House seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. John K. Delaney (D).As it is, Manno and Miller are among eight Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in Western Maryland’s 6th District, a contest that includes numerous unknowns and one candidate who has been building name recognition for the past two election cycles. David Trone, who ran a strong race in the neighboring 8th District in 2016, finishing second behind now-Rep. Jamie Raskin, has decided to have another go at it, this time in a district where his rags-to-riches story and background in business, not unlike Delaney’s, may prove to be an asset. Miller and Manno, the legislators, will never match Trone dollar for dollar, but they may not need to. The three candidates, widely perceived to be the frontrunners in the June 26 primary, all exude a passion for service, an undeniable wonkiness and a belief in government’s power to re-stack the deck for folks whose contributions, and challenges, often go unnoticed.While Trone was revving up his media campaign in the late winter and spring (he is impossible to miss on radio, TV and the web), Manno and Miller were grinding it out in the halls of the state capital. Maryland Matters spoke recently with the pair about their tenure in Annapolis and what motivated them to seek a career in public service.Roger MannoManno brings a zeal to improve the nation’s health care system, a reaction to multiple health challenges that hit his family when he was growing up in New York City.“We didn’t have health care when I was a kid,” Manno said. “My dad walked into an emergency room and dropped dead, from a preventative heart condition, because he was poor and didn’t have preventative care.”The death of the elder Manno, a carpenter and the family breadwinner, proved devastating. “For many years thereafter, there was just this spiraling, cascading set of events, that was really the [classic] American health care nightmare. … Sadly, that economic nightmare is not uncommon today.”Sen. Roger MannoManno’s stay-at-home mom was forced into the workforce, but the family struggled financially. “[I decided] I wanted to be involved in public policy and I wanted to do something about that particular problem,” he recalled.An attorney, Manno ended up working on Capitol Hill through an American Bar Association “extern” program. He found himself helping draft a single-payer universal access bill at a time when Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), later a mentor, served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “I got a chance to walk that bill around for signatures,” he said.“It was a ‘Eureka!’ moment, [what] the whole crazy journey of my life had been about.”When Manno was elected to the House of Delegates in 2006, Conyers tasked him with organizing state legislators from around the country who supported single-payer. “About a year later, I got a call from a skinny [fellow] with a funny name who just got elected president of the United States.”Long story short, Manno ends up working “in the president’s private office, a door away from the Oval Office, to ink out provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And my specific contributions dealt with ending preexisting conditions — establishing for the first time in this country the right to not be discriminated against, differently rated [or] denied coverage altogether because you have a preexisting condition.”While Obamacare has helped millions of Americans, Manno said, “it’s unraveling.” He blames Republicans for repealing the health insurance mandate, and he acknowledges “we never bent the cost curve.”The goal now, he said, is to take things to the next level — Obamacare 2.0 — where government foots the bill. He dismisses claims that people in Canada and Europe endure long waits for treatment. “We’re no longer crazy lefties. Now we’re market realists.”“I learned that government can really fix broken lives and broken communities when it works well. … It’s a craft. It’s an art. I’m not that smart of a guy but I’m really tenacious. I work hard. And I care deeply about people.”Manno, 52, was treated for a heart condition as a child (by a doctor who “never sent us a bill”), and he more recently survived prostate cancer, allowing him to surpass the age at which his father passed away.A list of legislation that he provides to a reporter fills several pages and includes a wide range of issues, including a ban on texting-while-driving, an attempt to rein in school testing, and help for pregnant (or nursing) teens and shift workers. Manno spent one term in the House of Delegates and was elected to the state Senate in 2010, ousting an incumbent senator, Mike Lenett, in the Democratic primary.A passion to improve the nation’s health care system is what Manno calls his “theology.”“It’s deeply personal for me. And for my mom. She knows the work that I do and I’d like to make her proud. That’s why I do this.”Aruna Miller Miller’s legislative priority list is almost as wide as the district — Western Montgomery’s 15th — that she has represented in Annapolis since 2011. Miller, 53, said she has sought to be “the voice of the people who are not often heard, who are forgotten.”Her chief passion: stepping up to advocate for victims of domestic and sexual assault. Del. Aruna Miller Last year she was contacted by a family from a neighboring county — not constituents – after their daughter was killed by a knife-wielding ex-boyfriend who had a history of abusive behavior. The result: legislation that utilizes GPS technology to alert women, through an app on their phone, whenever a former partner is nearby.“We have thousands of cases where protective orders are broken all the time,” she said. “This has proven to be a very successful tool.” Legislation she backed this year makes it easier for police to arrest people in violation of the terms of their pre-trial release. Miller has shepherded legislation protecting children from sexual assault, and a bill providing college students — both the accuser and the accused — counsel when there are allegations of sexual assault.“These are silent, suffering voices,” she said. “And I want to make sure that we give them tools.”Other highlights:— She has fought the reluctance of the House Judiciary Committee to prevent people with criminal records from possessing antique, but functioning, weapons. (“Why would we allow ex-felons to have these?”)— Miller wants to require high schools to teach coding. “We want our students to be not just consumers of technology but creators as well.”— And like Manno, Miller has fought health insurance companies. One measure she championed guarantees that mammograms used to spot cancer can also be used in treatment, without exorbitant cost to patients. “The minute that preventive mammogram comes back abnormal, then it becomes… diagnostic. When it’s diagnostic, it’s the same machine being used again to see if there is any… cancer growth [but] all of a sudden, the co-pays and out of pocket fees kick in. These could be in the thousands of dollars.”Miller has fought to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of children and to protect young athletes from synthetic turf fields (made from “used rubber tires that have been pulverized that even the landfill doesn’t want”). In fact, Miller and Manno were prime sponsors this year of a bill to do just that – though both versions were bottled up in committee.Miller leaves Annapolis knowing first-hand that passing legislation often requires a multi-year approach, visibility and lots of coalition-building. “I’ve been a public servant my entire life,” she said. “This is a calling for me. This is who I am.”[email protected]
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va. He’s a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.