In A State Full Of Safe Seats, Why Run For Congress?

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At a recent rally for Hillary Clinton in Cleveland, the Democratic representative from the 11th Congressional District, Marcia Fudge, introduced her party’s nominee for the presidency.

“We pick presidents, that’s what we do,” said Fudge, to loud applause.

Her district includes the east side of Cleveland, and part of Akron. Besides making the campaign rounds with national figures like Clinton and Barack Obama, Fudge is up for reelection. But she isn’t holding rallies in that campaign and probably doesn’t need to.

The election in the 11th district, and the rest of Ohio’s sixteen congressional races, have hardly gotten any notice this year. That’s mostly because none of the seats are competitive. Since taking the seat in 2008, Fudge has won with as much as 85 percent of the vote. 2014 was the congresswoman’s weakest showing – her margin of victory was 59 points.

But Fudge says she’s not taking that support for granted.

“I go to every kind of event I can possibly go to. I'm active in speaking in schools. I'm active with the universities, with businesses,” said Fudge, during a small, early voting rally outside Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. “It's easy to keep a connection when you spend a lot of time with your people.”

Fudge has used her time in Washington to move up in the party. She’s served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She gaveled in the proceedings at this year’s Democratic National Convention. In a political climate that could be summed up as ‘throw the bums out’, Fudge defends her status in the Capitol.

“How do you think I was able to bring back five billion dollars without earmarks? It's because of relationships. It's because people trust what I say. They respect what I do. They know that I work very, very hard for the people that I represent,” said Fudge.

She says she comes back from Washington every weekend. And staffs her office with specialists in veterans’ affairs, seniors issues and education to help with constituent concerns.

In eight years in office, Fudge has been the primary sponsor of only one bill that passed the House. It was a fire prevention program, establishing grants for the installation of sprinkler systems in college dormitories.

David Cohen of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics says these days it’s not about getting laws passed.

“There's an old saying in Congress that every member of congress knows and that is - before you save the world, you have to save your seat. And so the reelection priority overwhelms everything,” said Cohen.

Cohen says members from district’s like Fudge’s and Republican Jim Renacci’s 16th District have to worry more about getting ‘primaried’ from the left or right of their parties.

Renacci is a former car dealership owner who arrived in Congress in 2010, representing a suburban district west and south of Cleveland. His business was closed as part of General Motors’ government-assisted bankruptcy the year before. Renacci says that ordeal led him to run for Congress.

“I was concerned about the growth of the federal government and how it had now infringed into my personal life and my business life and how it was now infringing into others,” said Renacci.

Once in Washington. there was only one place to go - the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where tax law is written.

“Most people do not get on the Ways and Means committee for ten or twelve years,” said Renacci. “I continued to push my background, my experience, I went to members of the Ways and Means Committee, showed them how I could help. I went to the leadership.”

He’s since introduced a tax plan. It would eliminate the corporate tax, replace it with one on consumption and simplify income taxes into three brackets.

David Cohen of the Bliss Institute for Politics says this is not much more than a stunt, so he can say on the campaign trail:

“I put together a tax plan. I introduced this plan into Congress. I sponsored this or I co-sponsored this. I wrote this or I co-wrote this. Look at all the important things I've tried to do. If only I had a Republican president in office,” said Cohen.

It’s easy to forget this year, but Representatives Renacci and Fudge do have opponents.

The 11th District is Democrat country. Fudge won the seat in 2008, and for 40 years before that it was held by Democrats Louis Stokes and Stephanie Tubbs-Jones.

But Republican Beverly Goldstein is giving it a shot.

At a meeting of Democrats in East Cleveland, Goldstein made her quick pitch to residents of a city staring down bankruptcy and annexation by the City of Cleveland. A newcomer, looking to pick up disillusioned voters, could find them here.

“So I realize that not many white people are in the room today and I realize it’s a great thing when you can elect someone of your own religion, your own group to represent you,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein is 68 and surprisingly intense. She doesn’t beat around the bush. She focused on poverty while in East Cleveland and called out Fudge for spending years in Washington while the problems in the district persisted. Then she was off to another event.

 “I didn't decide to run for Congress because of the poverty issues but I think the poverty issues are half of the equation now that I am educating myself,” said Goldstein.

The other half, she says, is national security. Specifically, President Obama’s agreement with Iran, which aims to halt that country’s nuclear weapons program. Goldstein opposes that deal. But that’s not her pitch when she talks to voters.

“Starting in January, I started to take this national security message into the inner city to talk to people about why I was running for Congress,” said Goldstein. “And after a little while, people were saying, we think you're a really nice lady but what you're talking about isn't what we're worried about.”

And, on the other end of the political spectrum, is Keith Mundy. On one chilly Saturday morning in October, Mundy was out driving around the neighborhoods near his home in Parma, putting out lawn signs. It’s a windy day so he’s left the old camper, decorated with a four-by-six picture of himself, in his driveway.

Mundy’s running against Jim Renacci in the 16th District, a safe Republican seat, this one to the west of Cleveland. Mundy comes from the Bernie Sanders campaign for president. He calls himself a Berniecrat.

“And of course Democrats have gotten upset because I say I'm a Berniecrat,” said Mundy. “And I say well, I'm an FDR, New Deal kind of guy. I said I'm a real Democrat. I said it's the Democratic party that's moved away from me.”

When he’s not in full campaign mode, Mundy acknowledges that’s he probably not going to win. He sees his run as an example for young Berners out there thinking about taking a shot at politics.

“For some reason, you think you have to wait until a certain age, you have to play the game and earn your way to a certain spot,” said Mundy. “I don't believe that. I believe that if you feel you can do the job, you should step up and you should run for office.”

So Mundy and Goldstein, each for their own reasons, go out every day, knocking on doors and speaking to every crowd that’ll listen.

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