The first thing you need to know about Dawn Gile is that she worked hard to capture a Maryland Senate seat that Republicans had won for most of the past 50 years.

“I knocked on a ton of doors and talked to a ton of people,” the Severna Park Democrat said. “I worked hard to understand the issues, to speak to people and to assure them that I would be an effective representative for this district.”

Perhaps the second thing you should know is that she had a lot of help from her fellow Democrats.

The Maryland Democratic Senate Caucus poured more than $500,000 into the campaign to defeat Republican Del. Sid Saab — more than it spent on any other race in the state. Most of that money came in the form of direct mail aimed at defining Saab as an opponent of abortion rights, a strategic attack after last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

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Gile also coordinated with Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in Anne Arundel County, not just her running mates in District 33.

“During the course of that campaign, we all worked together as a coordinated effort from top to the bottom. So, we’ve developed a very good relationship with County Executive [Steuart] Pittman. I was very thrilled to see his reelection.”

County Democrats certainly benefited from a strong showing at the top of the ticket, with Wes Moore winning 57% of the vote in Anne Arundel against a Republican candidate who questioned the 2020 presidential election results. Gile herself won 55%, a slightly higher percentage than Pittman.

Sitting in a Severna Park restaurant near her house the other day, Gile talked about the changing district, the recent fall election and what lies ahead as she starts her first General Assembly session.

The legislative district shifted from electing an all-Republican slate to adding one Democrat in 2018, to choosing the three Democrats and one Republican who will take office Wednesday in Annapolis. She rattles off the Democrats she’s looking forward to working with: Heather Bagnall and Andrew Pruski in the House of Delegates and Julie Hummer, Alison Pickard and Lisa Rodvien on the County Council. She’s reached out to council Republicans, too.

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Gile said she decided to run despite the district’s reputation as a Republican stronghold. Only one Democrat, Bob Neall, has held the state Senate seat in the modern era, and he switched parties after being elected as a Republican.

“When I decided to run, a lot of people didn’t think I had a chance. The first person I spoke to give me a 5% chance of winning,” Gile said.

Dawn Gile speaks at a candidate forum in September 2022 during her campaign for state Senate. (Courtesy of Dawn Gile)

But she began noticing how things her neighbors were saying didn’t match up with the conservative positions of the Republican state senator, Ed Reilly. She and her husband, Sgt. Major D.J. Gile, moved to Severna Park in 2016 with their three daughters as they prepared for his retirement from the Army.

Meanwhile, people from Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and other urban areas have been moving to Anne Arundel County. The district stretches from Davidsonville and Crofton in the west to Sandy Point in the east and Fort Meade in the north. Communities such as Odenton and Gambrills were among the fastest-growing in the county.

Election trends were also changing. In 2018, Democrat Eve Hurwitz narrowly lost a bid to unseat Reilly. Two years later, Democrat Joe Biden won the district in the 2020 presidential election. Redistricting by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly added blue precincts to further tilt the district.

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“I think a lot of people look at my race and say, ‘Oh, it was gerrymandered for a Democrat’ or something. I think the district had changed a lot to begin with,” Gile said. “I think that I was a candidate that fit this district.”

An attorney, Gile specializes in defending companies facing insurance claims. But she is perhaps better known as the former leader of a national organization of military spouses. She grew up in the Midwest and considers herself an inheritor of that region’s conservative political thought. Her campaign focused largely on education spending and family issues, such as paid family leave and support for military spouses.

Despite those trends, many political observers considered Gile a long shot to defeat Reilly, a well-known figure in county politics. Reilly was known, among other things, for rewarding friends by appointing them to jobs at the county liquor board or supporting one side over the other in community disputes.

“I think he served his district, even though I disagree with him,” Gile said. “I think he served according to his conscience. And I think when he was elected, he was what his constituency wanted.”

If there was a crack in his armor, it might have been Reilly’s views on reproductive health. A leading opponent of abortion rights in the Senate, he surprised many of his constituents in 2021 with a resolution calling for county schools to teach teenage girls how to chart their cervical mucus patterns, a commonly known form of natural family planning that is considered an unreliable way to avoid pregnancy.

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“What I found particularly egregious about that was that was the first full session after COVID,” Gile said. “People not getting access to unemployment benefits, and schools struggling with how to educate kids remotely.”

“I think the feeling was, like, ‘Really? Is that what you’re focusing on right now?’”

The election dynamic changed in April, when Reilly announced he would not seek another term and Saab filed to take his place. A Lebanese American business owner, Saab offered a compelling story about the pursuit of the American dream. But he also carried baggage.

His partner in a medical clinic was indicted on Medicaid fraud charges related to COVID testing, and he was sued for sexual discrimination at his Severna Park fitness club. The lawsuits showed up in negative campaign fliers, and Saab sued Gile for defamation even though they came from the Democratic campaign organization.

Once the election was over, Saab dropped the lawsuits. He called Gile to concede on the Friday after Election Day, shortly after she put out a statement claiming the win.

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“We knew what the outstanding mail-in ballots were, what ... percentage of those were registered Democrats, and we knew we were going to win. But as the counting progressed, it was absolute torture,” Gile said.

Gile campaigned on broad themes and has yet to announce what bills she plans to introduce — not an uncommon situation for a freshman senator still waiting for her desk assignment in the Senate chamber, a parking space and access to email. She’s hired a chief of staff, Allison O’Brien, who will run her office and guide her through the initial phases of learning how things work.

She plans to address some of the issues she talked about during the campaign. Gile expects to focus on veterans and military spouses, possibly making it easier for military spouses to transfer professional licensing into Maryland, helping daycare access for military families, and increasing mental health resources for veterans.

She also wants to understand why Maryland continues to reject making military retiree pay exempt from state taxes. Fort Meade is the largest single employer in the state, and retiring personnel often move to states that offer the tax exemption.

“Almost all retirees, unless they plan to go back to their home state or something, have a chart and know these are the states where we could possibly settle,” she said. “Part of the mind is always on that chart, a consideration of whether or not they tax military retirement. Always.

“And I have no doubt that we are losing military retirees,” she said, “and we’re losing skilled labor in the state for that reason.”

This column has been updated to clarify that a Democrat was elected to represent District 33 in 2018, starting a shift over the last four years from all GOP to the current mix of three Democrats and one Republican.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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