This is the first in an occasional series on the 2024 election for Congress in Maryland

Sarah Elfreth eased into the dimly lit, crowded interior of the Eastport Democratic Club just as The Leftovers were finishing their Wednesday night set.

Michael Hughes, an affable MC who reminds members to tip the bands and bartenders generously, stepped in front of the mic and apologized for what he was about to say. The club is a lowercase d place, as in democracy not Democrats, and he encouraged anyone who felt like it to file a complaint.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Sarah Elfreth in the $*&#@%! U.S. Senate!” Hughes shouted.

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The state senator from Annapolis, setting down a box of chicken wings, looked at him from the edge of the dance floor, shaking her head as people cheered.

“What? Oh!” Hughes quickly added. “The House! ‘$*&#@%! U.S. House of Representatives.”

It would be another few days before Elfreth’s official campaign kickoff for Maryland’s 3rd District seat in Congress, an open seat now that U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes isn’t seeking reelection next year. But this was the first public acknowledgment in her hometown, in front of a friendly, if slightly inebriated, group of 50- and 60-somethings out for some midweek music.

Hughes was being emotional and flippant for a friend, but still. It’s an apt description. Right? Dysfunctional, profane, angry and widely reviled. If we’re honest, Hughes’ choice words summed up how most people outside of Washington feel about Congress.

Maybe it’s always been this way, and the Republican chaos now clouding the Capitol is exposing the truth. Maybe the lingering pandemic effect on mental health is to blame. Maybe the events of Jan. 6, 2021 wounded the institution.

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So, why run? Not why should we vote for you, but why would anyone in their right mind want this job? It’s a question voters should ask first.

“Fundamentally,” Elfreth said, “and as kind of naive as it seems and sounds, Congress isn’t gonna get any better unless good people run.”

This will be a crowded race, at least until the May 14 primary. The 3rd District — all of Howard County, northern and central Anne Arundel plus a sliver of Carroll — still skews Democratic, if not as much as before a court-ordered redo of the boundaries for 2022. Anne Arundel voters dominated in that first race with this map, casting 25,000 more votes than in the other two counties combined.

All of those candidates undoubtedly believe they can make a difference. But voters should ask about the wisdom of wanting to work in the Tower of Babel.

“My family asked me that too. Why would anybody want to do this?” said Yuripzy Morgan, a conservative talk show host from Glen Burnie considering another run as a Republican after losing to Sarbanes, a Democrat, in 2022.

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"I'm here today to make an important announcement and something I'm going to have to get used to saying over and over again until I'm blue in the face," State Sen. Sarah Elfreth said Saturday in Annapolis. "But my name is Sarah Elfreth and I'm running to be your next congresswoman."
“I’m here today to make an important announcement and something I’m going to have to get used to saying over and over again until I’m blue in the face,” State Sen. Sarah Elfreth said Saturday in Annapolis. “But my name is Sarah Elfreth and I’m running to be your next congresswoman.” (Rick Hutzell)

“For me, it’s not so much about the atmosphere of Congress. But when you are there, you’re one of only [535] people in the nation who can make these decisions on behalf of our citizens.”

As names bubble up in the next few weeks, most will evaporate. Some will file only to quickly figure out they just don’t have the support outside of their current constituencies or network.

Geography will be a driving reason for some. The political culture in both Howard and Anne Arundel counties nurses the wounds of not having a hometown member of the House in a very long time. Although the boundaries have changed over the years, it’s been since 1992 for Anne Arundel and all the way back to 1938 for Howard.

“Howard County is the heart of the district,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat who filed her candidacy paperwork on Saturday.

Too many primary candidates from one county, though, might split alliances and voter bases and toss the race to a single strong candidate from the other.

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Lack of money will knock out many candidates, particularly vanity candidates such as Democrat Kristin Anne Lyman Nabors (Slogan: Washington Needs a Nurse) and Republican Berney Flowers, who finished fourth in the 2022 Republican primary for the 2nd District.

Table stakes are probably something like $2 million, rising to $3 million if there is a competitive Republican in November 2024. Crazy numbers are always possible. U.S. Rep. David Trone, now a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, spent more than $10 million to win the 6th District seat in the last election.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball is in his second term. In 2018, he became the first African American person to be elected to the post. (Courtesy of Howard County)

Those who run will use a lot of words like consensus, experience and leadership.

That’s certainly true for Calvin Ball, the Howard County executive. A former mediator, legislator and educator, he was among the first to be mentioned as a possible candidate for this race, and he plans to decide by Thanksgiving.

“I definitely see that there could be value and building consensus around the issues that matter to all Marylanders and people in our country,” Ball said Sunday.

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“I think that if you were to see a crowded field, which you likely will, those of us who have put in the work and had successes and accomplishments and worked with and for the residents of those three jurisdictions and beyond, will likely be victorious,” he also said.

Reaching consensus will be hard, no matter who is elected.

Sarbanes is considered by many a deliberative, thoughtful legislator. After about 17 years in Congress, he can claim a role in passing dozens of bills into law. Just two bear his name as the lead sponsor.

But in the ways of Washington scorekeeping, you also have to count companion bills from the Senate that did the same thing, or legislative language that gets rolled into a big spending or policy bill through amendments.

That will be a change for executives like Ball or lawmakers such as Atterbeary or Elfreth. In her five sessions in Annapolis, Elfreth’s website touts her role in passing dozens of bills signed into law.

An hour before Elfreth’s official campaign launch at an outdoor pavilion in Annapolis on Saturday, Cub Scout Pack 153 was gathering a few steps away for a tour with the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

“There is a special event here today, so we need to listen,” the pack leader told the boys.

A package of signs for state Sen. Sarah Elfreth's campaign for Congress waiting to be unpacked Saturday before her kickoff announcement in Annapolis.
A package of signs for state Sen. Sarah Elfreth's campaign for Congress waiting to be unpacked Saturday before her kickoff announcement in Annapolis. (Rick Hutzell)

As the scouts filed inside a nearby building, three volunteers were setting up a lectern and microphone and unpacking a bundle of newly printed campaign signs, the familiar green of Elfreth’s two state Senate campaigns altered with the words “for Congress.”

In the days after she made her choice, Elfreth hired a full-time campaign manager, an attorney, two fundraising consultants and a media consultant. She filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, reupped the mailing and polling firms she used for her state races, opened a bank account and launched a website.

She accepted her first check for a campaign donation and locked in more than a dozen endorsements from fellow state lawmakers, city and county council members, school board members and others. She did it while holding down multiple jobs, state senator, part-time college professor at Towson University and consultant.

She worked the crowd of about 75 people at the pavilion Saturday. Volunteers set up tables and put out doughnuts.

“My first few races, I had fantastic teams, but I also did a lot of it on my own,” Elfreth said. “And that’s just not something I’m capable of doing for something this size.”

With a backdrop of sailboats behind her, and surrounded by early supporters, she started her run for Washington by repeating words you’re likely to hear a lot in the 364 days until Election Day 2024.

“Like so many of you, I’ve been tired of the chaos and toxicity that comes out of Washington D.C.,” she told the crowd “And as I thought really hard … about whether or not to throw my hat in this particular ring, I came to a simple conclusion that Congress isn’t going to get any better unless good people run.”

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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