UPDATE 11/07/12: Yesterday John Delaney defeated Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett. Here's our October 2012 profile of him.
John Delaney wasn’t supposed to be the Democratic nominee in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.
That role was intended for Rob Garagiola, the 40-year-old state-senate majority leader from Germantown, a tall, handsome progressive whom party leaders in Annapolis had given the green light last fall.
Unlike Garagiola, Delaney hasn’t paid his dues in lower office. His career in finance has progressives leery, and his message of invigorating the private sector in Maryland to create jobs has others fearful he’s a closet Republican.
If Delaney wins the seat, he’ll be one of the wealthiest members of Congress—probably in the top five, with somewhere around $200 million in assets made from two financial companies he founded and built in Chevy Chase.
Garagiola’s supporters painted him as a rich, out-of-touch “1-percenter.” And with income averaging $14.5 million over the last seven years, he’s not just in the top 1 percent—he’s in the top 0.1 percent.
But after a nasty, expensive primary campaign that party leaders tried to squelch, Delaney is now given a strong chance of helping those same Maryland Democrats pick up another House seat.
The race wasn’t in the immediate plans of the wealthy Potomac entrepreneur until a gerrymandered redistricting proposal stirred him into action last fall, and it certainly wasn’t in the plans of the Democratic establishment that had redrawn the district lines with someone else in mind.
Yet Delaney’s run for office came as no surprise to some of his closest friends, including David Bradley, head of the Atlantic Media group, who says Delaney has been “playing with this question for at least a dozen years.”
He has “the striving gene,” says Bradley. “He’s been on a vertical run through life.”
Hungry to capture another US House seat in Maryland, Democratic leaders had put a target on the back of Roscoe Bartlett, the 86-year-old Republican incumbent. They handed the bow and arrow to Garagiola.
Leaders had first looked at how to reclaim the 1st Congressional District on the Eastern Shore, but that proved too difficult. Instead they dumped hundreds of thousands of new Montgomery County constituents into the 6th and lopped off large swaths of conservative voters who reliably supported Bartlett.
“I had never heard of John Delaney,” Garagiola says. But other Democrats had, in particular those who had benefited from substantial contributions from Delaney and his wife, April. In recent years, the couple had given at least $183,000 to the national party and candidates and $83,000 to the state party and candidates, some of whom were now backing Garagiola, including Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and lieutenant governor Anthony Brown.
The Garagiola forces were quick to attack Delaney’s business record. They defined him not as the job-creating innovator he portrayed himself to be but as an unscrupulous banker who preyed on others, financed substandard nursing homes, and foreclosed on mortgages. Delaney, who went to Columbia University on a scholarship from the electricians’ union his father belonged to, was even portrayed as anti-union.
“What the establishment was trying to do was to position me as a Republican running in the Democratic primary,” says Delaney, who does have Republican friends and contributors and has given to a few Republican candidates, such as Congressman Andy Harris. “I believe in the free market. I believe that business creates the jobs in this country and not government.”
Spouting such heresy, Delaney attacked Garagiola as a Washington lobbyist and incumbent legislator far too cozy with Annapolis special interests. Garagiola hurt himself by failing to disclose some of his past lobbying income.
Garagiola garnered dozens of endorsements. But four weeks before the April 3 primary, Delaney laid down two cards that trumped them all: He was endorsed by President Bill Clinton, followed a few days later by the Washington Post.
Delaney and his wife had been bundlers for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and he had been a Clinton delegate to the convention that nominated Barack Obama.
“The party of President Clinton is the party that I identify with,” Delaney says. “Suddenly my message had credibility. I was a Democratic candidate speaking to voters in language that they had forgotten about.”
The Post endorsement stressed Delaney’s theme of job creation and lambasted Garagiola’s connections to special interests.
At the same time, Delaney was shoveling his own money into the campaign, eventually $1.6 million in loans, most of it at the beginning of March as he began dominating TV and radio.
Garagiola was no slouch at fundraising, bringing in more than $700,000. But Delaney spent more than three times that.
In the end, the two candidates, with three other rivals, spent $4 million-plus competing for just 38,000 votes cast. Delaney got 54 percent of the vote, trouncing the three-term state senator by spending $135 a vote. Garagiola received 29 percent, spending $66 a vote.
Comptroller Peter Franchot, the only statewide elected Democrat to endorse Delaney, said the party establishment “got a real punch in the nose.” Franchot, a persistent pain to party bigwigs on fiscal issues, said it was Delaney’s emphasis on job growth that drew his support.
“Tammany Hall was all behind Garagiola,” Franchot says. In an off-season spring primary, “the Democratic machine generally prevails.”
But not this time.