Kathy Szeliga was trying to work her way toward a pavilion along the Potomac River at Washington County Commissioner Jeff Cline’s picnic this summer. But she was repeatedly stopped by people who wanted to chat.
The picnic was packed with Republicans excited at the prospect of switching retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat from blue to red.
When one attendee stopped Szeliga to talk, the “purpling of Maryland” — Szeliga’s campaign message that voters want a little more Republican red in their blue government — came up.
Szeliga slid her foot from a ballet flat and shimmied her toes — they were a shiny shade of purple.
“Divided government works. You know you get a better government when you have Republicans and Democrats both coming together to solve problems,” she told The Frederick News-Post. “Then you don’t have extremists on either side running the show. Everybody’s coming together, a lot more like citizens, to somewhere in the middle. Everybody gives a little bit. And in the end you get a better product.”
When Mikulski announced her retirement, Szeliga started considering a run.
“I said, ‘Gosh, well, let’s put a younger, taller Polish girl from Baltimore in the Senate seat,” she said. “A small-business owner that can bring change to Washington just like Larry Hogan is doing in Maryland.”
Szeliga has crisscrossed the state of Maryland — at times riding the Honda motorcycle from her first campaign ad to events. She talks to voters about being one of them — closer to their lives than longtime Washington bureaucrats.
“I was a maid, a waitress, a dishwasher,” said Szeliga, who prefers expanding career options to increasing the federal minimum wage. “I understand being a working family because I’ve been [in] one.”
Szeliga, a state delegate from Baltimore County and the House minority whip, first ran for the House of Delegates in 2010 because she felt the voice of more small-business owners needed to be heard in Annapolis.
She and her husband own a general contracting firm.
“Having that real experience of signing paychecks and employing people and trying to work your way through government bureaucracy gives you a different perspective on lawmaking,” Szeliga said.
Since she arrived, Szeliga said, she has learned to work across the aisle on certain issues in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
In 2016, she co-sponsored a bill with Montgomery County Delegate David Moon, a liberal Democrat, to create live and archived video streaming of General Assembly floor sessions. That bill, however, wasn’t voted out of a House committee.
On Capitol Hill, Szeliga said, she would focus on reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“That is not a Democrat or a Republican issue,” she said. “We have a moral obligation in this country to take care of men and women who sign up for our United States military.”
She said long delays for treatment and poor handling of calls to the VA’s suicide hotline are unacceptable.
Szeliga has criticized Democratic candidate Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-8th, for voting last month against the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, which would reform how Department of Veterans Affairs employees are demoted and fired.
VA leaders and an employee union opposed the changes, some going as far as to call the reforms unconstitutional.
The measure, authored by 34 Republicans, ultimately passed with a bipartisan majority, but Van Hollen, along with 115 other Democrats, voted against the measure.
Szeliga’s father is a 20-year Army veteran who served in Korea, at bases in Maryland and at the Pentagon. Her mother was a teacher.
While raising less than 10 percent of the contributions brought in by Van Hollen’s campaign, Szeliga’s campaign has received financial support primarily from Baltimore and parts of the state outside the inner D.C. suburbs, where Van Hollen raised the most.
Van Hollen has criticized Szeliga’s relationship with David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the group behind the Supreme Court case that led to significant growth in spending by super PACs.
Szeliga’s campaign has been boosted by more than $37,000 in spending from Citizens United, but the vast majority of her donations — about 86 percent — has come from individual contributions.
She has criticized spending from lawyers and lobbyists on Van Hollen’s behalf and discounted the role of money in politics.
“You know, Gov. Hogan won his race with Anthony Brown, who had five times as much money as he did,” Szeliga said.
She is endorsed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Like other Republican candidates, she has said she supports Donald Trump as her party’s nominee for president.
The general election is Nov. 8. Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers is also on the ballot.