Abigail Diehl knew how crucial Wednesday night was to her long-shot campaign for Congress.

Born and raised in Severna Park, she works in cannabis and owns popular produce stands that sprang from the one her dad opened 53 years ago. She talks about her ideas with anyone who will listen. Plenty of people recognize her in return — one person even sent Diehl a photo of them together in the second grade.

With the Eastport United Methodist Church pulpit behind her, Diehl stood up from the table with 15 other Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in the 3rd District. She took a step back, raised her right hand high above her head and ticked off what is important to her.

“Clean food, clean water, clean energy, clean medicine,” Diehl said.

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Wednesday night in Annapolis was a snapshot of Democracy in 2024.

A current and former occupant of the Oval Office are running for president in November. Both sides say it’s a historic fight for the fate of the republic.

A former Republican governor wants to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate after years of saying he wasn’t interested in the job. A billionaire wine and liquor salesman-turned-congressman and a D.C.-area county executive are neck and neck in the Democratic contest to oppose him.

And in this district, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes’ decision to step down after nine terms loosed a swarm of ambitious Democrats hoping to replace him. One is likely to win. It’s a solid-blue district that stretches from Annapolis across half of Anne Arundel County, all of Howard County and a few precincts in Carroll County.

With early voting starting on May 2 and the primary election set for May 14, the 3rd District race for Congress is probably a two-person contest.

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A day before the candidate forum in Annapolis, neither former Capitol Hill police officer Harry Dunn nor state Sen. Sarah Elfreth predicted that anything inside the church was likely to change that situation.

That didn’t mean it would be comfortable.

Elfreth, just blocks from her Annapolis home, found herself at the center of a long table covered in a white tablecloth, creating the weird impression of a last supper tableau akin to Leonardo da Vinci.

“I truly did not intend for it to look so familiar,” the Rev. Chris Broadwell told hundreds of people in the pews. “Just beware of friendly kisses.”

Candidates sat at a long table covered by a white cloth inside the Eastport United Methodist Church on April 17, creating a tableau the pastor admitted looked unexpectedly like the last supper.
Candidates for the 3rd Congressional District sit at a long table covered by a white cloth in the Eastport United Methodist Church. (Rick Hutzell)

Several candidates attacked Elfreth over a television spot backing her and paid for by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The pro-Israel group has unidentified Republican and Democratic donors — dubbed dark money in politics — and is working against candidates that it considers foes of Israel in its bloody war with Hamas.

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“With dark money flooding into this race, it sullies our election process,” said union attorney John Morse, the only candidate to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. “It makes it so that your vote is drowned out by that dark money.”

When co-moderator Dan Nataf asked candidates to stand if they supported getting corporate donations and PACs out of elections, all but Elfreth did. Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College. pressed the point, asking anyone neutral or opposed to stand.

Elfreth, looking puzzled and annoyed, stood.

“Sarah!” someone shouted angrily.

Co-moderator Keanuú Smith-Brown, already established as the guy tapping candidates on the shoulder if they strayed beyond their two-minute answers, looked to the back of the church. ”We’re not going to tolerate that,” he warned.

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The format meant that neither front-runner got to answer questions on their strengths.

Dunn, who defended the U.S. Capitol against an assault by insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021, and wrote a book about the experience, has built his campaign on countering the dangers of a second Donald Trump presidency. But he was never asked about threats to democracy. That didn’t keep other candidates from taking a swipe at him for living in Silver Spring, outside the district.

“District 3, I live here. My children go to school here. My family and friends are here, and I volunteer here. And, I don’t have to commute from outside the district to campaign here,” said Juan Dominguez, a cable company executive, glancing at Dunn next to him. “If anyone needs to borrow my RV to get back and forth to the district, just let me know.”

Predictable: Unlikely policy pronouncements a-plenty. Unpredictable. Out-of-the-blue perspective.

“If you believe that environmental degradation and pollution are nonstarters, you don’t flood the community with yard signs made of new plastic,” said Kristin Anne Lyman Nabors, a nurse. “The earth and our environment should never bear the burden of the quest for higher office.”

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Famous names dropped like rimshots all night — the late House Speaker Mike Busch of Annapolis, former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, President Harry Truman, Indian nationalist Mahatma Ghandi, boxer Mike Tyson, Sigmund Freud, Trump, President Joe Biden and Morse’s mom. Only the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes failed to earn at least a patter of applause or laughs.

There was widespread support for reproductive rights, voting rights, term limits and universal healthcare. Some wanted a wealth tax or demanded “No taxes on tips!” Others said they would help with medical debt, student debt and the cost of housing.

Some candidates said they would pursue specific legislation, such as passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and the Child Tax Credit expansion. A few repeated popular sayings as political wisdom.

“I guarantee you, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu,” said state Del. Terri Hill, of Howard County.

Former Capitol Hill police officer Harry Dunn, left, talks with Abigail Diehl and John Morse at the District 30 Democratic Club candidates forum in Annapolis on April 17. All three are running for Congress in the 3rd District.
Former Capitol Hill police officer Harry Dunn, left, talks with Abigail Diehl and John Morse at the District 30 Democratic Club candidate forum in Annapolis. All three are running for Congress in the 3rd District. (Rick Hutzell)

Elfreth and state Del. Mark Chang pivoted from their early priorities to say Sarbanes’ successor must work to fund a replacement of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which collapsed on March 26 after it was struck by a container ship that had lost power. Each applauded when the other said it.

Lindsey Donohue, a health information technology director, called for gun reform, listing the sites of mass shootings. She asked the audience to imagine being the parent of a child killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. “And yet we still have a gun problem.”

Yet she didn’t mention the 2018 Capital Gazette shooting that killed five people in Annapolis.

State Sen. Clarence Lam, running third in funding and probably name recognition, said Congress needs a doctor with perspective on reproductive rights and gun violence.

“I’m a physician, and I’m a pro-choice physician,” said Lam, a public health specialist who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University. “Because it’s important to overturn the horrific decision of Dobbs [overturning abortion rights].”

Hill, a plastic surgeon, agreed, but added that she would not only be a doctor in Congress but a woman doctor.

The evening ended with a straw poll for members of the District 30 Democratic Club, which sponsored the event. Elfreth won, taking 40 of 64 first-choice votes cast. Morse, another Annapolis resident, came in second with seven. Dunn was third with five.

Elfreth is a former club president, so it didn’t signify much. She and Dunn did OK off their central topics and said what they wanted in opening and closing remarks.

They walked out of the church where they started, the candidates with the biggest reach as voting nears.

But just because you don’t have money for television ads or endorsements from unions and party powers doesn’t mean you can’t hope.

Don Quinn, who talked about his political awakening in Annapolis and the need to stop bombing the Middle East and concentrate on China, certainly can.

“I think it’s going to be a low margin of victory,” the candidate said Tuesday morning. “And because of that, and with so many people dividing the vote, I don’t think that this is a traditional election.”

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth talks with a member of the crowd at the Eastport United Methodist Church on April 17 for a candidate forum. Elfreth is one of 22 Democrats running for Congress in the 3rd District.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth talks with an audience member at a candidate forum at the Eastport United Methodist Church. Elfreth is one of 22 Democrats running for Congress in the 3rd District. (Rick Hutzell)

Diehl, Nabors, Donohue and other low-profile candidates all see the same window of opportunity. The thinking goes that Dunn, Elfreth and all the better-known candidates divvy up the primary vote so much that a groundling can slip past for the win.

It’s a theory. The winner will need about 25,000 votes. Possible, but … is it likely?

“I’m not sure the math works on that,” Elfreth said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the titles of state Sen. Clarence Lam and state Del. Terri Hill.

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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