2015 | Politics

Raskin Says He Wants To Be ‘Transformational’ Figure If Elected To Congress

In face of likely House GOP majority, he vows aggressive push for progressive agenda

Jamie Raskin (second from left) at a MCPS press event in May

Aaron Kraut

Appearing before a gathering of local Democratic Party activists, state Sen. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park said Monday that he aspires to be a “transformational” figure if elected next year to represent the 8th Congressional District.

“The big conclusion I’ve come to after being in office for 10 years [is that] there is a difference between transactional politics and transformational politics,” Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University, said in an appearance before the District 18 Breakfast Club in Silver Spring. “Some people start with the transactional frame of mind. Everything is a deal, and it’s all about wheeling and dealing.

“And then, there are other people who begin with a transformational analysis, which is ‘How are we going to actually make huge progress on the major issues of our time?’” he continued, adding, “I would say that the hallmark of my brief career in legislative politics is that I did take the most difficult, most seemingly intractable issues and figured out a coalition that would get us to victory. And that’s why I would like to go to Congress.”

Raskin’s appearance before the District 18 Breakfast Club was the third and last in a series that previously included separate appearances by two other leading contenders for the 8th Democratic nomination: state Del. Kumar Barve of Rockville and former Marriott International executive Kathleen Matthews of Chevy Chase.

Also running in the Democratic primary are Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase, former Obama administration officials Will Jawando of Silver Spring and Joel Rubin of Chevy Chase, and David Anderson of Potomac, an official of a Washington-based seminar and internship program. They are vying to succeed Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

The Breakfast Club audience applauded Raskin, as they also did when he—known in Annapolis for his outspoken advocacy of such causes as death penalty repeal and establishment of same-sex marriage—vowed to pursue a similarly aggressive liberal agenda on Capitol Hill, ranging from gun control to increased protections for organized labor to a so-called “Green Deal.” He described the latter as “a massive investment in American infrastructure in an environmentally sustainable and uplifting way.”

Less clear is Raskin’s strategy for advancing such an agenda in what is widely expected to be continued Republican control of the House of Representatives following the 2016 elections. Democrats currently control only 188 of 435 seats in the House—a 70-year low point for that party—and few see the possibility of a return to a Democratic majority until at least the next decade, following the 2020 census and another round of redistricting.

Asked how he can make progress in the face of strong Republican resistance to most aspects of his policy agenda, Raskin—in an interview following Monday’s breakfast—replied: “We begin by harnessing the optimism, the idealism and the energy of our own side. If we don’t believe we can win, then we’re not going to win.”

Added Raskin, one of seven contenders for the 8th District Democratic nomination: “The demographics of the country are with us. The Republican majority depends on naked gerrymandering of the congressional districts. The public doesn’t like gerrymandering; we need to take that on. It also depends on the infusion of big dark corporate money that the public also rejects—and we need to take that on.

“I simply refuse to believe we cannot make dramatic progress in Congress. Everything in my experience in politics tells me we can.”

Raskin’s optimism appears to spring from his initial election to the state Senate in 2006 in an upset victory in the Democratic primary—and his ultimately successful battle on behalf of the state’s same-sex marriage statute.

“That’s why I’m a Democrat—our job is to find what’s right and to bring the political center to us,” Raskin said in his talk to the breakfast gathering. “That is the public philosophy that I have pursued ever since I got to Annapolis. I have not minded losing,  I have not minded being on the outside…We were willing to lose several times before we built the coalition that made us the first state in union to pass marriage equality without being told we had to do so by our state Supreme Court.”

Raskin acknowledged that he faced doubts from close to home when he decided last spring to seek to trade in his role in a Democratic-controlled state Senate to try for a seat in Congress. “Most of the people who I know and love told me it was crazy,” he recalled. “They said ‘Why would you leave being the majority whip of the Senate, where you chaired several committees and are getting all kinds of incredible stuff done, to go to Washington—where it is paralysis and nothing but bad vibes all day?’

“And the first person who said that to me was my wife, Sarah,” Raskin chuckled. (Sarah Bloom Raskin is currently deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Obama administration.) “The next people to say that were my three kids.”

According to Raskin, he responded by saying to them: “…I’m a middle child, and I have a way of bringing people together, even people I disagree with fundamentally. A lot of my good friends are the Republicans, and we can oppose each other on matters on principle, but be totally civil and humane with each other.”

He said later in an interview that “we can build bridges to many parts of the Republican Party,” adding, “The libertarian wing of the Republican Party is presently ready for sweeping criminal justice reforms. I learned that in Annapolis.” He noted he had worked with Republicans on issues such as legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization of marijuana possession, and cited electoral reform and budget transparency as possible areas for bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

But, at the same time, the constitutional law scholar vowed to show little quarter toward the Republicans’ tea party wing if he reaches Congress.

“…I’m going to stand for [the] Constitution against the tea party, which doesn’t understand the first thing about it,” Raskin told Monday’s gathering. “It will be my joy to stand up and correct them and refute them at every moment.”

He added with a chuckle, “I’ve got to be sweet to my students, but I don’t have to be sweet to the tea party—which has distorted and maligned the meaning of the Constitution.”

In other recent 8th District-related developments:

Barve, seeking to become only the fourth Indian-American elected to Congress, has received the endorsement of the political action committee of the 18-member Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “Kumar Barve would be a great addition to the U.S. House of Representatives…[Asian American Pacific Islanders] are 6 percent of the U.S. population, but only 2.6 percent of the Congress,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the PAC’s chairman, said in a statement.

Shelly Skolnick of Silver Spring late last week became the first Republican to file for the heavily Democratic 8th District seat. This will be Skolnick’s third run for Congress: He sought the GOP nomination in 2012 after seeking the Democratic nod in 1992. He also ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for County Council in 2006 and last year.

At least three other Republicans are exploring a run for the 8th District, but have yet to file: attorneys James Calderwood of Chevy Chase and Bill Day of Bethesda, and accountant Gus Alzona of Bethesda.