- - Friday, October 14, 2011

The last time Maryland had a Republican senator, Ronald Reagan was president and now-U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin was serving his first term in Congress. But that history hasn’t deterred ex-Secret Service agent Dan Bongino from entering next year’s Senate race.

“There’s this idea out there that Maryland is this deep blue state; that no Republicans exist here,” Mr. Bongino said during an interview in his hometown of Severna Park. “It’s just not the case; there are good Republicans here who frankly fought the fights and are still fighting the fights.”

This is Mr. Bongino’s first venture into the political arena as a candidate, even though he’s been protecting politicians for the past 12 years as a Secret Service agent. He worked five years with the New York City Police Department, two as a police officer, and has earned psychology degrees from Queens College and City University of New York. He also holds a master’s in business administration from Penn State University.

An issue Mr. Bongino speaks most passionately about is education, especially the educational disparity in Maryland.

“I’m going after Cardin on this,” Mr. Bongino said. “I don’t understand how he can look lower-income families in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City in the face and tell them ‘I’m in it for you.’ Really? How? How are you in it? You’ve condemned a lot of these students and schools that have not done a good job.”

Maryland schools were No. 1 in Education Week’s 2011 states’ report card for the third year in a row. But, Mr. Bongino pointed out that same report ranked Maryland 38th for equity measurement, which compares the reading and math test scores between students eligible for the school lunch program and those who are ineligible.

The economy and what he calls institutional arrogance by Washington’s political leaders are reasons he cites for entering the race.

“People want jobs, they don’t care for party labels right now,” Mr. Bongino said. “If you can’t put Cheerios on your table in the morning for your kid, I’ll be honest with ya’, not much else matters. People want jobs, good jobs, quality jobs, jobs we created in the past.”

He does not support President Obama’s plan to create jobs, calling it “more big government intervention.” He plans to release his own economic proposal soon, which will include a lower income tax rate and dropping the 35 percent corporate tax rate to a flat 12.5 to 15 percent.

Mr. Cardin’s campaign spokeswoman Shelly Hettleman declined to comment on Mr. Bongino’s claims on the Democratic senator’s record. After the April primary, she said, Mr. Cardin “will be happy to discuss the issues with whoever the Republican nominee is going to be.”

Even though it’s early in the race, Mr. Cardin is still favored to win, according to Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. In 2006, Mr. Cardin received 54.2 percent of the vote against Republican Michael S. Steele, former lieutenant governor.

Nationally, next year’s election favors Republicans, with Mr. Obama’s approval rating at 40 percent and Congress‘ at 13 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. But Maryland’s Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies released a poll on Oct. 4 showing 63 percent of the state’s voters are opting for Mr. Cardin.

“The problem that any challenger has is becoming visible enough to become competitive,” Mr. Herrnson said.

Gaining that visibility could become more difficult for Mr. Bongino if previous Senate candidate Eric Wargotz enters the race. Mr. Wargotz, who ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Barbara Mikulski last year, has been soliciting donations for a potential run. Mr. Wargotz plans to make his intentions clear by November, a couple months before the January filing deadline.

Another possible contender is Delegate Pat McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, who said he plans to run for office but hasn’t decided between the Senate and Congress, specifically for the seat now held by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat. That decision will be made after the General Assembly’s special session on redistricting, which begins Monday, he said.

Mr. McDonough called Mr. Bongino’s run “a novelty act.”

“He’s done absolutely nothing for the Republican Party or for his community,” Mr. McDonough said. “You have these unknown people who come out of the woodwork who want to run for high office. It’s like joining the Catholic religion and wanting to be pope.”

So far, Mr. Bongino has reported $11,112 in campaign contributions to the Federal Election Commission. None of the other challengers to Mr. Cardin have reported more campaign contributions to the FEC than Mr. Bongino, but that could change with the Oct. 15 reporting deadline.

Those who have filed with the state are Republicans William T. Capps Jr., Richard Douglas and Rick Hoover; and Democrats Raymond Blagmon, J.P. Cusick, Ralph Jaffe and Lih Young. State Sen. C. Anthony Muse, Prince George’s Democrat, is also mulling a primary challenge to Mr. Cardin.

However, Mr. Bongino’s treasury contains a lot less than Mr. Cardin’s $2.3 million cash-on-hand. This election cycle, Mr. Cardin has raised $3.8 million and has been pushing supporters for more money, making him a formidable foe for any Republican.

While Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, has endorsed Mr. Bongino, the Maryland Republican Party is not endorsing candidates before the primary.

Interim Executive Director Justin Ready did say Mr. Bongino was a good candidate with a great back story.

“The way the state and national economy are going, no one who’s been in office for 40 years should be safe,” Mr. Ready said. “Cardin has been in office before many Marylanders were born. We think it is time for a change.”

A part of Mr. Bongino’s back story highlighted by several media outlets since he announced his candidacy in May, including on CNN, Fox News, and a Maryland ABC affiliate, was his job as a Secret Service agent where he served on George W. Bush’s and Mr. Obama’s security details.

“I have nothing bad to say personally about President Obama,” Mr. Bongino said. “I completely disagree with his politics. There’s very little politically we align on at all.”

But Mr. Bongino quit that job to dip his toe into politics.

“I left everything on the line to do this because I really believe in what I’m doing,” Mr. Bongino said. “There’s no question that it’s going to be a huge fight, but the momentum, I have no doubt, is on our side right now.”

While on his way to go quit his job, Mr. Bongino received a call from his wife, Paula Bongino, who told him she was pregnant with their second child. He didn’t turn in his badge until his wife signed off on his political ambitions.

“I said take an hour and tell me what you want to do,” he said. “She called me back and said, ‘Let’s do this. We can get through this.’ So I went upstairs and turned in the gun and shield and that was it. Hardest decision I ever made.”

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