Midway through an acrimony-laden candidate forum Sunday at the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Democratic congressional contender Jesse Colvin — while responding to a question on immigration reform — lobbed a verbal grenade. ”Dr. Harris, I know we’re both veterans, but this is one of those moments where I wish you had a chance to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan or a war zone,” Colvin told his opponent, avowedly conservative four-term Rep. Andrew P. Harris. “And I say that because in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam, ideological leaders got people killed.”
A stunned look could be seen on Harris’ face. “Wow,” he muttered softly, seated at the other end of the table from Colvin, with Libertarian Party nominee Jenica Martin serving as a human buffer between them.
Colvin continued his answer. “If we’re ever going to have a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, it depends on who’s at that table. Because if you have ideologues at the table, we’re never going to get anywhere.”
Two questions later, when a member of the audience at the League of Women Voters forum asked about the environment, Harris took the opportunity to strike back. “Some people suggest there’s divisiveness going on,” he told the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, I never thought that I would ever hear a fellow veteran criticize my 16 years in the Navy Reserve as a physician taking care of our wounded men and women in uniform … and it happened at this table. Think long and hard about what happened.”
Colvin, a 34-year-old veteran of four tours of Afghanistan, sought to retreat a bit.
“Dr. Harris, we were not very sensitive in the Army Rangers, and I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” he said.
But the 61-year-old congressman, apparently sensing a self-inflicted wound, kept up the counteroffensive. “I’m going to repeat it — I never thought I’d hear the day a fellow veteran would say that somehow my service was unequal to someone else’s service. That is stunning to me,” he declared, to groans and other expressions of disapproval from an audience clearly partial to Colvin.
Welcome to war — or something close to it — this year in the 1st District, a 200-mile-long expanse of a dozen counties centered on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
In a constituency where up to 75,000 residents are veterans of military service, Colvin, in a recent interview, compared his campaign to an “insurgency.”
“This election is a referendum on Andy Harris — and there is an insurgency in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District to unseat him,” Colvin declared. “I am the leader of that insurgency.”
Notwithstanding the sentiments of the audience in Easton, few outside the Colvin camp believe that — barring a blue wave of unprecedented proportions on Nov. 6 — the Democrat has a shot at toppling Harris this year. During the 2011 redistricting, Maryland Democrats packed as many Republicans as possible into the 1st, to give them the edge in the state’s other seven congressional districts.
But Colvin — thanks to a relentless schedule of campaigning, a large network of volunteers and strong fundraising — is giving Harris a contest unlike any that the incumbent has seen he was first elected in 2010. And Harris appears to be taking the challenge seriously.
During the only two debates of the campaign — one in a studio aired last Thursday on cable TV in Cecil County, the other Sunday’s LWV forum — Harris was repeatedly on the counterattack. His frequent verbal “fact checks” on claims made by Colvin were clearly aimed at undermining the credibility of his opponent, a first-time candidate. A couple of Harris’ efforts succeeded in calling attention to some overstated rhetoric on the part of his novice foe.
Colvin’s military service is not only something he mentions repeatedly on the trail: It has infused his campaign organization and strategy — his campaign manager was his deputy in a Ranger unit in Afghanistan — and given him confidence that he can overcome steep political odds.
“I just set about applying what I had learned in Afghanistan,” Colvin said during an interview late last month. “When I talk about running an insurgency, we have 1,250 volunteers on the ground, and they are reflective of the coalition that we’ve built. It goes from one side with the Bernie Sanders chapter to the AFL-CIO, to Congressman Wayne Gilchrest to President George W. Bush’s secretary of the VA.” Both Gilchrest, a Republican who represented the district from 1990-2008, and Bush administration VA Secretary Anthony Principi are among those scheduled to speak at a veterans’ roundtable sponsored by the Colvin campaign in Harford County this Wednesday night.
In a district where Republicans have a 45 percent-35 percent advantage over Republicans, and which President Trump carried by more than 25 points in 2016, Colvin has sought to keep his public distance from state and national Democrats — even as he has received significant financial support from Democratic insiders.
His campaign signs, omnipresent on road sides throughout the district, do not identify him as a Democrat. Many include the phrase “Country Over Party,” a mantra he invoked a half-dozen times during Sunday’s 90-minute forum.
He has not endorsed his party’s gubernatorial nominee, Benjamin T. Jealous, while at times seeking to identify with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), a popular figure in the district. “It’s a difference between ideological conservatism versus the pragmatic conservatism of a Gov. Hogan,” Colvin gibed at one point during Sunday’s debate, seeking to compare Harris unfavorably to Hogan.
And he has sought to avoid direct attacks on Trump. “This race is a referendum on Andy Harris: It is not left versus right, it is not Democrats versus Republicans,” Colvin said in the earlier interview. “We have folks in our tent who support the president, and we have folks in our tent who don’t.”
What he sees uniting the two camps is, in part, generational. “My sense is that there is a widespread recognition that Congress is so weighed down by hyper-partisanship and careerism — that they are looking for a new generation of leadership that is going to put country over party, and they see that in a candidate who volunteers for combat in Afghanistan and is a Democrat but whose wife is a Republican,” he said. His wife, Jordan Colvin, is a former police officer.
One of Colvin’s national endorsements has come from With Honor — an Alexandria, Va.-based group that seeks to promote “next-generation”, post-9/11 military veterans running for office. Colvin is among nearly 40 endorsements by the group nationwide, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
“We’re immensely frustrated — we fought years in Iraq, we fought years in Afghanistan, we were sent there with no exit strategy,” Colvin said. “Many of us lost friends and colleagues over there, many of us have lost friends and colleagues since we got home, to things like post-traumatic stress.”
Groups such as With Honor and Vote Vets, which also has endorsed Colvin, “are counting on us, when the party bosses want us to vote down party lines…where it would be to the detriment of our country, to speak the truth to power and volunteer to raise our hands and say no,” he said.
As part of the endorsement from With Honor, “you sign a pledge grounded in civility and integrity — and things like once a month in office, you’ll get coffee with somebody from the other side of the political aisle,” as well as participating in a bipartisan Veterans Caucus, Colvin explained, adding, “I think it’s a sad reflection of where we are in terms of in terms of hyper-partisanship in Congress that we need that pledge.”
But if Colvin is vowing to forge a newly civil tone on Capitol Hill if elected, his strategy for getting there at times has seemed akin to rhetorical scorched earth policy.
”There’s something called the Ranger Creed. For Army Rangers, it’s sacrosanct — for me, it’s just shy of my marriage vows,” he told Harris during a discussion of health care during Sunday’s forum. “There’s a line in there — never leave behind a fallen comrade. For you sir, your Ranger Creed is the Hippocratic oath. You’ve left behind fallen comrades.”
“We have a fantastic VA facility in Cambridge, Md., that services the entire Eastern Shore,” Colvin declared during last week’s debate at Cecil College. “We went down and did a visit, and one thing we learned was that, in eight years, Dr. Harris, you’ve never gone to that VA facility. You have a condo down there and you’re a physician; you’ve served in the Navy…Shame on you, sir.”
Retorted Harris: “You’re right, Jesse: You’re a veteran and I’m a veteran. But… I’ve actually taken care of patients in a VA hospital.” The jab continued. “And I’m glad you could find your way to Cambridge, Jesse, because a newcomer to the district sometimes can’t find their way there.” Colvin, who repeatedly boasts of being a fourth-generation Maryland whose grandparents arrived in Baltimore more than a century ago, lived in New York City and Washington, D.C., prior to moving to Perry Hall in Baltimore County — located in the 1st District — about 14 months ago.
History Repeats Itself
The historical irony is that Harris is employing a tactic that was used against him 10 years ago when he first ran for the seat. Then a resident of Cockeysville in Baltimore County — which today remains his primary place of residence — Harris lost in 2008 to Democrat Frank Kratovil amid suggestions that he was insufficiently tied to the Eastern Shore core of the district. He proceeded to establish a second residence on the Eastern Shore, and ousted Kratovil in 2010.
Besides highlighting his own military experience, as part of the Johns Hopkins Naval Reserve Medical Unit, Harris has sought to draw Colvin into the politically charged debate over whether veterans should be able to opt to seek care outside the VA hospital system.
“So, Jesse, I’m going to call on you to join me and call to allow for every veteran who’s eligible to receive health benefits in a VA system to receive that inside or outside the system,” Harris during the Cecil County TV debate, a challenge repeated Sunday during the LWV forum in Easton. “They earned the ability to choose where they receive their health care.”
Colvin did not respond directly during either session, outside of observing during the first debate, “It’s really easy to beat up on the VA. What’s harder is showing up and building relationships.”
Colvin campaign spokesman Sam Schneider Monday charged that “what Harris is doing is just a dog whistle for privatization,” adding, “It’s a way of him pushing privatization without defending it.”
Harris Sunday also went after Colvin on two other health related matters: the opioid crisis and the Affordable Care Act.
— After Colvin declared three times during the Cecil College debate that Harris “has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars” in contributions from pharmaceutical firms, and repeated the charge at the outset of the LWV session Sunday in Easton, Harris told the audience: “You’re going to hear some outrageous things from my opponent today. You’ve already heard one–hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry.” Continued Harris, waving a sheet of paper: “The good thing is that you can actually go and check that. You can go to OpenSecrets.org and see how much it is. My opponents said he worked for a bank, he was assistant vice president. He should know numbers better than that.”
‘He Knows It’s Not True’
Asked to provide a figure to back up Colvin’s claims, the Colvin campaign Monday also pointed to the Open Secrets site, maintained by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. It shows Harris receiving $108,250 from pharmaceutical and health product interests since he first ran for Congress a decade ago — putting it above six figures, albeit short of “hundreds of thousands” cited by Colvin. Harris pharmaceutical industry-related donations fall far short of his major source of donations: health professionals, who have donated nearly $2.25 million to Harris, an anesthesiologist by profession, over the past decade.
— On the Affordable Care Act, Harris cited a Congressional Research Service study to dispute Colvin’s claims. “We’ll just do the soundbite fact check right up front because I know what my opponent is going to say. He’s going to say I voted to repeal Obamacare 70 times. He knows it’s not true,” Harris declared. “Twenty of those votes were actually signed into law by President Obama. So read the whole story.”
Colvin spokesman Schneider did acknowledge that about 20 of the 70 repeal votes cited by Colvin involved provisions that either modified or repealed portions of so-called “Obamacare,” that were signed into law by the former president, while contending, “Obama, in a lot of cases, wasn’t going to be able to get really critical legislation passed unless he conceded some ground on some of those votes. It wasn’t like he was in favor of these repeals and various adjustments — he had his hands tied.” Schneider added that the vast majority of of repeal measures supported by Harris were Republican-sponsored attempts at total repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Meanwhile, Harris also disputed charges by Colvin that he had voted to take away coverage of pre-existing conditions required by Obama. “I’ve always supported coverage of pre-existing conditions,” Harris declared. But the American Health Care Act — so-called “Trumpcare” that Harris supported last year as a replacement for the Affordable Care Act — potentially undercut coverage of pre-existing conditions for some citizens by allowing states to waive minimum benefit standards. The bill failed to clear Congress after the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cast the deciding “no” vote in that chamber.
The two sides also skirmished on the economic front. “National unemployment — it’s at an all-time low,” Colvin said during the first debate. “That’s great. Here’s the problem. In our district, it’s twice the national average.” When he repeated that statement in the Easton forum Sunday, it prompted Harris to gibe: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘There you go again’.” The only county in the district with an unemployment rate twice the national average was Worcester — home to Ocean City, said Harris, adding, “Mr. Colvin, if you weren’t from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore City, you’d know why Worcester County has twice as high unemployment as the official statistics…It’s seasonal business area. It’s had it for 50 years.”
The Colvin campaign responded Monday with federal statistics showing that Somerset County, next door to Worcester, also had an unemployment rate double the national average of 3.7 percent. The district-wide average is 6 percent, Schneider noted, suggesting that Harris was “splitting hairs.” Said Schneider: “Our point is that [the district rate] is almost double the national average, and 65 percent higher is a big deal.”