All the other Democratic congressional candidates had their place settings neatly marked at the table. As they settled into their seats, Deborah A. Vollmer noticed there wasn't a name card for her. An obvious oversight, she thought, that would be easily remedied.
But when she asked organizers of the candidates forum where she should sit, they told her there was no place for her. In their eyes, Vollmer was not a serious candidate -- not compared with a former Clinton administration official and two well-funded members of the Maryland General Assembly -- and she was not invited to speak to the audience that had gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville last month.
"I stood my ground," Vollmer recalled. "I said: 'I'm not leaving. I'm going to participate.' "
Eventually, after "making a lot of noise and complaining," according to Larry Salkin, one of the organizers, Vollmer was given a seat at the table.
Vollmer retold the story in an interview to demonstrate her persistence and will, the very attributes she believes would make her a strong representative for Maryland's 8th Congressional District, which includes part of Montgomery County and a slice of Prince George's. The story of how she crashed a candidates forum also illustrates how, in one of the country's most competitive House races, she is often overshadowed by the other three candidates in the Democratic primary and frequently dismissed as a long shot.
Vollmer, a 54-year-old lawyer from Chevy Chase, is not as politically connected as her opponents: Ira Shapiro, the former U.S. trade negotiator; Del. Mark K. Shriver, the Kennedy family scion; and Christopher Van Hollen Jr., the veteran Maryland senator. She does not have anywhere near their money because she refuses to solicit funds. And she has run for Congress so many times -- three times in California, twice in the 8th District -- that a California newspaper columnist recently awarded her a prize for "political futility."
But like the lack of an invitation to the forum, none of that will stand in her way, Vollmer said.
Her no-frills, grass-roots campaign and her progressive ideology give her the best chance, she says, to knock off Rep. Constance A. Morella, the Republican incumbent. After all, Vollmer points out, she finished second in the Democratic primary in 1998, getting 16 percent of the vote, and was second again in 2000, with 14 percent of the vote, without spending much more than $5,000 in either race.
She has no campaign staff or consultants. Her few campaign buttons and signs are recycled from previous congressional bids. She campaigns largely by herself, at Metro stops where she greets commuters with a soft, sincere smile, her gray hair usually bound in a bun. She prefers the one-on-one contact, she said, to formal speeches behind podiums and in front of cameras, which tend to make her nervous.
But campaign style is not the only thing separating Vollmer from the pack. Her Web site contains an essay calling on manufacturers to put more pockets in women's clothing and drawings she's made of her cat, whom she quotes in an opinion piece about the need to reform campaign finance: "Schmootsie says . . . 'Let's talk about campaign finance reform.' "
Asked for the name of a supporter or friend who might provide some insight into the kind of congresswoman she would make, she said: "My mind is drawing a blank. If you give me some time to think, I'm sure I can think of some."
One she does eventually mention, Steve Lapham of the Interfaith Peace Campaign, lauded her for her position against invading Iraq. But he added that her chances of winning "seem moderate to small."
Even Democratic Party officials, who typically remain neutral during primaries, said her chances are slim.
"From everything I've heard and know, she is a talented, intelligent and substantive person -- which is not to say that she has a realistic chance," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "She's not some crackpot running all the time. I believe she is someone who has a different view from how candidates should get elected. But there are realities."
Vollmer graduated from the University of Maryland Law School but has not practiced law since returning to Maryland five years ago from California, where she represented the United Farm Workers union. She came back East to care for her ailing father, whom she visits often in a nursing home. She lives on their savings, she said.
If she loses, she said she might open a law firm. She would not say whether she would run for office again.
Vollmer concedes that when she ran for Congress in California, she had no chance of winning. The district was too conservative for her liberal bent, she said, and she just wanted to draw attention to the issues that are still the driving force of her candidacy: providing government-funded health insurance to all legal residents and reforming campaign finance laws.
"Sometimes you run to win," she said. "Sometimes you run to educate people on certain issues."
This time, she said, she is running to win. With the name recognition she has built during past campaigns and the widespread media coverage the current race has attracted, she said she has a good shot.
She is the only Democratic candidate who has come out against the proposed intercounty connector, a highway designed to ease east-west traffic by connecting Interstates 270 and 495. She said it would hurt the environment. She supports building Metro's proposed Purple Line only if it is underground. A self-described "civil libertarian," she said marijuana use should be legal.
"But if the public isn't ready for that, let's at least legalize it for medical use," she said.
In addition to expanded health insurance, campaign finance is her top priority. That's what she chose to focus on during a recent taping for Montgomery Community Television, which gave all the candidates four minutes of airtime.
It was the sort of event Vollmer has been saying there should be more of: forums for candidates to outline their views on the issues. If elected, it's the sort of thing she would be required to do all the time on the floor of the House. Yet she spent a couple of days worrying about what was a perfunctory stop on the campaign trail, saying repeatedly that she does much better greeting voters personally.
In her speech, she compared modern elections to the custom of Native American tribes that picked their chiefs based on wealth. Using handwritten notes and no teleprompter, the speech came off smoothly, despite her nervousness. She said she was happy with the result, but said, "I was thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to flub it.' "
This is the first of four profiles of the Democratic candidates running in Maryland's 8th District.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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