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For First-Timer, Political Campaign Is a Family Thrill

By Chris Yakaitis
Capital News Service
Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

ODENTON, Md. - It's five days before the general election, and 65-year-old Jerry Benoit is trudging up and down steps on Kirby's Landing Court in Seven Oaks, opening townhouse screen doors and tucking fliers into the frames.

"I hate to stuff them in handles, because they fly away," he says, sweat beading on his forehead and darkening the right side of his shirt collar. "You get a lot of exercise. It's good for the cardiovascular system."

Despite the workout on a sunny morning, he wears a navy blue sweatshirt that reads "Jamie Benoit for County Council." About 100 doors later, his 35-year-old son, G. James "Jamie" Benoit Jr., joins him on the campaign trail. Jamie glances at the small stack of fliers in his father's hand.

"Is that all we have left?" asks the younger Benoit, who is running as the Democratic candidate for the Anne Arundel County Council and, at the moment, fighting a cold. "I'll have to go print more."

Benoit is one of dozens of candidates statewide who are introducing themselves - and more often than not, their families - to voters as they make their first bid for public office. For some, it will be the first step to bigger and better things; for others, their nascent careers will end on Tuesday.

Without the cadre of reporters and television cameras that follow the high-profile races, Benoit is like most political novices, building a campaign at the grass roots, running for much-work-and-no-glory offices like county council.

Benoit says he has long planned to go into politics but decided to jump this year when the county council seat in his district became open, sparing him from having to face an incumbent.

As he canvasses Seven Oaks with fliers noting his endorsement from The (Annapolis) Capital, Benoit passes scores of half-built homes in this booming portion of western Anne Arundel County. A Gambrills native, he says he's watched his hometown and the surrounding community grow dramatically in recent years.

He wants to ensure streets, schools and utility infrastructure are in place before construction progresses. He wants to protect open space and expand parkland. He wants to use his military experience to ease the influx of residents expected with the Department of Defense's Base Realignment and Closure Commission plan at Ft. George G. Meade.

But first, he has to get elected.

And the first-time candidate for public office says this is what it takes: pounding the pavement, calling undecided voters personally and dropping as many pieces of campaign literature as he possibly can in the final week of the campaign. His goal for the day is visiting 500 houses, a task for which he's enlisted his father, his siblings and a handful of buddies from his boyhood soccer days.

Benoit says he's done much of the work himself. He spends mornings on the phone, pushing for contributions. He knocks on doors every night. When he opens the door of his Honda Civic, handwritten letters to prospective constituents sometimes spill out of the back seat.

"We run when we do this," says Benoit, a Baltimore lawyer and former Army officer. "And I just dropped off some screws and a hammer to a guy who's going to put some signs up for me."

He's had his brother and four sisters promote his candidacy at polling places during the primary. He has turned to his father and his wife, Kari, to act as his campaign managers.

"It was probably like the first day that we ever went out on a date that we discussed this," says Kari, 32, who grew up in Crofton and now owns a wine store in Piney Orchard. "It was always what he had always aspired to do and be. He spent a lot of years checking the blocks along the way to get himself in this position... When he decided last year to run, I was not by any means shocked."

Benoit once rode for thrills on the streets he now walks for votes. As an Arundel High School student, he was an avid skateboarder. And to his day, he admits to jumping on his deck and grinding the stairs and railing at his wife's store.

"It gives you a certain rush doing it. Your mind is telling you, you can do things your body can't do," he says, eyes lighting up. "It was such a fun part of my life."

With his competitive spirit and nearly lifelong goal of entering politics, Benoit doesn't just want to win - he's looking to take nearly 70 percent of the vote. "That would be a mandate," he says. "I will not let anyone outwork me."

That presumably includes his opponent, Republican Sid Saab, of whom, Benoit says, "I haven't seen him [campaigning]."

Saab declined a request for an extensive interview from Capital News Service.

Benoit's desire to run and win - and win convincingly - in part stems from his childhood. His grandfather was a local politician in Massachusetts, and he would spend his summers working on campaigns. "I'm an old field hand," Benoit says.

His father, a former Housing and Urban Development manager for the federal government, offered this advice: "You don't want to go out on your first go-round and get beat," he says. "That will stay with you."

Though a first-time candidate, Benoit was a White House intern for President Clinton shortly after he graduated from St. Mary's College and has spent much of his adult life working with campaigns. He's also served on the board of directors of the Piney Orchard Community Association.

His father says Benoit has always been "very organized, very goal-oriented" - and very competitive. Instead of playing soccer for Arundel High School, Jamie joined the National Capital Soccer League in Washington.

"He needed tougher competition," his father explains.

Adds Kari Benoit: "I think that this is what he's cut out to do. ... He really cares about it."

When he began his campaign last year, Benoit spent his mornings on the phone, working through a list of friends and potential donors from whom he eventually raised more than $80,000. Now, he calls District 4 residents to ask for their votes before heading out to flier neighborhoods until dark.

Kari Benoit says despite the challenges of not having her husband around the house as much - "We're a military family, and he might as well be deployed at this point," she says - she has thrown her full support behind Jamie's campaign. She has stayed up nights with him stuffing envelopes and posting labels on postcard after their two young children - Isabelle, 3, and Iris, 5 months - are asleep.

"He and I are organized in very different ways. I am the attention-to-detail person. I'm like the operations manager of our life, and he's like the dream seeker," she says. "He's always been organized in his life plan, actually more than anybody I've seen. It's a little eerie. But he knows what he wants, and he's always done all the things that he needs to do to get there."

Kari Benoit says Isabelle points out her father's road signs as they drive through the county.

She adds: "When I tuck her in at night, she'll always say, 'Where's daddy?' And I'll say, 'Where do you think he is?' And she'll say, 'Knocking on doors?' And I'm like, 'Yep, he's knocking on doors.'

"She gets it," Kari Benoit says. "My family thinks we're corrupting her."


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Copyright 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.