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Election 2022

Biden’s visit to Hagerstown spotlights increasingly hot Trone-Parrott race

Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington) at a State House news conference earlier this year. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

During his visit to a Volvo truck plant in Hagerstown on Friday, President Biden is expected to spotlight the steps Democrats have taken to shore up the economy. His trip to Maryland — his second in six weeks — will also draw attention to the most competitive congressional race in the state, the battle between incumbent Rep. David Trone (D) and Del. Neil Parrott (R).

The contest is a rematch. Trone crushed Parrott two years ago, securing a second term by nearly 20 points. But his district looks a lot different than it did in 2020.

Although General Assembly leaders initially sought to pack a large number of Democrats into the 6th District — as they did more than a decade ago — they changed course following a successful legal challenge by Republicans. Their redrawn map, rushed through just before they adjourned for the year, puts fewer Montgomery County voters and more voters from Frederick County into the 6th, making it far more competitive.

The Economist calls the 6th the only competitive district in Maryland. Parrott, they calculated, has a 53% chance of winning. (Incumbents in the other seven districts are said to have a 99% chance of winning re-election.) The website fivethirtyeight.com rates the district “highly competitive.” Politico projects a status quo election, with no change to the current 7-1 divide in the state’s congressional delegation.

The Trone-Parrott race pits a successful businessman and wealthy self-funder against a conservative state legislator and engineer who decided to forgo a fourth term in Annapolis to take another run at a congressional seat.

The fundraising battle favors Trone. The owner of a national chain of liquor stores, he routinely spends more than $10 million of his own money each election. As of June he had poured $12 million of his personal fortune into this year’s battle, despite not having a competitive primary. When he files a new campaign finance report on Oct. 15, that number will no doubt climb.

The political environment may favor Parrott. The party that holds the White House almost always loses congressional seats in the midterms, and high inflation and economic uncertainty are expected to hurt Democrats in November, though the overturning of Roe vs. Wade looms as a wildcard.

With three weeks to go until early voting, the race is coming to a boil.

U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.). Official congressional portrait.

Trone is using his millions to pound Parrott on radio and TV and in mailings. He has called his challenger a “homophobic extremist who opposes same-sex marriage and trans rights [and] supports conversion therapy.” Trone notes that Parrott backed President Trump’s call to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a move that would likely result in people with pre-existing medical conditions losing their health coverage. He also labeled Parrott one of the “least effective” legislators in Maryland, due to his 90% failure rate in getting bills he sponsored passed.

Parrott accuses Trone of teaming with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to advance White House-backed measures that exacerbated the deficit and fueled inflation. He opposes the decision to hire 87,000 new IRS agents, and he said that Trone’s support of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act will lead to the “defunding” of local police.

Trone supporters describe him as a workhorse who delivers for his district. In recent weeks the lawmaker has touted the $4.6 billion that Maryland will receive to improve bridges and highways, along with the $3 billion the state will get to improve broadband access, water systems, and public transportation. He has pressed the Postal Service’s inspector general to look into mail delays in Western Maryland, and he is co-founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force.

The lawmaker has received endorsements from groups that advocate for labor, the environment, reproductive freedoms and gun safety.

Parrott said in an interview that if Republicans retake the House, they will implement their Commitment to America, a pledge to toughen the nation’s borders, cut federal spending and  improve neighborhood safety. He is also touting “pro-parent” policies that have become popular among GOP office-seekers.

Parrott’s call for an HIV ‘tattoo’ draws fire

Parrott called a press conference on Wednesday to defend himself against charges he once supported tattoos for people with HIV. In a 2005 op-ed in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail, Parrott said tattoos could slow the spread of the disease.

“This mark could be inconspicuously placed, perhaps in a spot covered by a bathing suit, warning only those who might engage in intimate encounters with the infected person,” he wrote. He suggested that compliance with a tattoo mandate could be enhanced if the government were “to provide medicine to the infected individual only after they have received the HIV tattoo.”

At his news conference, Parrott accused Trone of digging up an old controversy to boost his re-election changes. He did not repudiate the tattoo concept, claiming instead that when he wrote his op-ed, AIDS was “a death sentence.” In fact, according to healthline.com, deaths from HIV were cut by half in the mid-1990s due to antiretroviral therapy, which “became the new treatment standard in 1997.”

Parrott’s tattoo proposal is the subject of one of several ads that Trone is running on local TV. The spot features footage of children on a playground with “HIV” tattoos on their forearms. “Yeah, crazy,” a narrator intones. “In fact, the only thing crazier would be sending Neil Parrott to Congress.”

More attacks on Parrott’s record can be expected in the coming weeks. As a state legislator, he advocated for a constitution amendment “to establish that a marriage between one man and one woman shall be the only domestic legal union valid or recognized in the state.” He also led efforts to block in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, the abolition of the death penalty, and a measure to provide protections for transgender persons.

In an interview, Parrott called Trone’s attacks “distracting” and “deceptive.”

“That wasn’t a policy position. It was just a letter to the editor,” he added. “And it’s 20 years old. … He’s grasping at things that happened a long time ago.” Parrott said he has consulted with lawyers and is considering suing to have Trone’s ads taken off the air.

Trone’s campaign manager, Cheryl Bruce, defended their focus on the issue.

“Whether Neil Parrott supported government-mandated tattoos for people living with HIV in 2005 or yesterday, it doesn’t change the fact that this so-called solution was extreme and cruel,” she said in a statement. “Even [Wednesday], he did not apologize or show remorse for his position but rather fumbled through a half-hearted explanation saying he only changed his mind because of the availability of new medication.”

In the meantime, Parrott is pushing back. He has embraced allegations that the Trone campaign is using “windowless” vans to recruit college students to become field workers, offering as much as $80 per hour. Students who sign up must agree to have tracking devices placed on their phones, Parrott alleged.

Trone’s campaign said it “welcomes college students who are interested in volunteering.”

But it is legal and common for candidates to pay campaign field workers.

Parrott conceded that he pulled out of a Sept. 27 Frederick League of Women Voters debate because Trone and the league wanted the event held on Zoom. Parrott insisted it be held in-person, to prevent his rival from “hiding in his house” and reading off “cue cards.”

Both camps have agreed to attend an Oct. 24 forum at Frostburg State University and an Oct. 26 forum sponsored by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.