When the Maryland state senate convened last week, the chamber’s lone Hispanic member refused to join the otherwise unanimous vote to reelect senate president Mike Miller. Sen. Alex Mooney, whose mother hails from Cuba, says he abstained because was concerned about recent ethical questions that had been serious enough to trigger the ethics panel — dominated by Democrats from both legislative bodies — to reprimand one of its own. Unlike the Democratic members of the panel that strongly rebuked Miller, however, Mooney had the freedom to vote his conscience. That’s because he’s one of the handful of Republicans in Maryland’s senate.
Wasting no time, Mooney has already introduced legislation that is bitterly opposed by Big Labor. Two years ago, then-governor Paris Glendenning pushed through a special favor for his friends in organized labor: a law forcing local school construction projects to pay union wages to all workers. Though he’s unlikely to succeed, Mooney wants to at least make Democrats to publicly endorse the idea of diverting dollars away from the classroom to line the pockets of union bosses.
Mooney doesn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer; he is the different drummer. Until his arrival four years ago, Maryland Republicans had a long tradition of acquiescence. Not content to plead for mercy or settle for scraps of legislative pork, however, Mooney fought and clawed, making Democrats fight hard to win passage of liberal bills. And he’s doing it in full view of his constituents, fulfilling a campaign promise to shake things up in Annapolis.
The unabashed conservative stormed onto Maryland’s political scene by knocking off the then-number-two GOP member of the state senate, 16-year incumbent Jack Derr, in a surprise landslide victory, 63 to 37 percent. The result may have been most surprising to Derr, who had never taken Mooney’s challenge seriously. In a GOP-leaning Frederick County district that is not exactly a bastion of conservatism, Mooney promised voters — 20,000 of whom he chatted with on their doorsteps — that he would reject the compromise mindset embraced by Derr and would fight vigorously to lower taxes and cut government spending. Mooney courted both traditional and nontraditional voters; he campaigned at gun shows, but also reached out to rank-and-file union members and won the endorsement of a group of black ministers. His straightforward pitch worked better than expected, as voters enthusiastically dumped a veteran lawmaker who had first been elected to the state senate when Mooney was just eleven years old.
After four years of gleefully attacking one liberal bill after another, Mooney became a top target on the Democratic hit list. After redistricting, Mooney’s territory became markedly less Republican, with only a slim GOP-registration edge in his new district. With a more Democrat-friendly terrain and the promise of big financial help from the state party, Democrats last year recruited a sitting state delegate, Sue Hecht, who had been elected four times by the same voters. Spending nearly a half-million dollars — almost one-third of which came from various outside Democratic sources — Hecht was still unable to muster even a close contest in what turned out to be the most expensive state legislative race in Maryland’s history.
What helped get Mooney through the bitter battle with Hecht — and helps distinguish him from most other state-level lawmakers — is his keen knack for fundraising. Mooney amassed an astonishing $850,000 for the 2002 campaign, much of which was raised through an extensive direct-mail operation. In fundraising letters, the hard-charging senator delivers the same message he gives his constituents: He needs all the help he can get to help beat back the powerful liberal forces that have long dominated Annapolis.
Though he seems content, for now, representing the people of the Third District of Maryland, people who know Mooney predict that he’s bound for greater glory in the not-too-distant future. Former attorney general Ed Meese — himself no stranger to the concept of defiantly battling liberals — offers high praise: “Alex is one of the brightest young political figures that I know, whose competence and dedication mark him for great things in the future.” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, calls him a “hero to the taxpayer” and predicts that he’ll eventually wind up in Congress. Mooney’s friends seem to agree. Many believe he would be the perfect candidate to someday succeed current congressman Roscoe Bartlett, a staunch conservative who is also Mooney’s former boss.
If Mooney ever does make it to Capitol Hill, it’s unlikely that he could be elected statewide in Maryland. Even with the first GOP governor in a generation — the newly elected Bob Ehrlich — Maryland is still not friendly territory for conservatives. But betting against Mooney isn’t always a wise move — just ask Derr. “Alex is a great guy, and voters see that,” notes Morton Blackwell, president of the Leadership Institute and a former boss of Mooney’s. “There’s no telling where he’ll end up.”