WASHINGTON — Even the most established, well-funded Republicans have a difficult time gaining a foothold in deeply blue Maryland, from city elections to the state Senate.
GOP players eyeing an even higher political seat, such as the U.S. Senate, are seen as dark horse candidates. At best.
Enter Chrysovalantis (Chrys) Kefalas, a self-described “common-sense conservative,” who is not yet 40, has spent significant time behind bars (more about that later), and has never held elected office.
Tell this Greek-American Baltimore native that he faces an uphill climb and he replies: “I don’t think I need training wheels.”
Kefalals grows increasingly more relaxed with each passing question. Unlike more veteran politicos who tend to skirt questions, he keeps to mostly terse responses.
Should he get the Republican nomination, he will likely face one of two popular Democrats from D.C.’s Maryland suburbs to win the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a liberal stalwart who has first took office in 1987.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, of Kensington, entered the 2016 race first and has several high-profile endorsements. Rep. Donna Edwards, of Prince George’s County, captured support from national liberal groups, but faces fundraising challenges.
Maryland is 20.9 percent more favorable to Democrats than Republicans, according to Gallup.
I don’t think I need training wheels — likely U.S. Senate candidate Chrys Kefalas.
Kefalas’s career path has taken quite a few turns in the last 20-odd years.
In spending an hour with Kefalas, it becomes clear that his political pursuit is more reminiscent of a lean Silicon Valley tech start-up than a Washington Beltway operation.
That may have something to do with the fact that he has some lingering start-up mentality left in him.
As a teen, he was the mastermind behind CPK Sports, a now-defunct news company and magazine that grew to national prominence following its launch in 1994. He also bused tables and cleaned at the family-owned Costas Inn in Baltimore in the afternoons and evenings.
He then held brief stints at a Towson, Md., law firm and the Department of Justice, including an unorthodox yearlong stint as a speechwriter for Attorney General Eric Holder.
One recent afternoon, in his seventh-floor office at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, Kefalas, 35, ticked off a lengthy list of adversities he has overcome.
Chief among them is his sexuality.
He came out to family and friends in 2010. A year later, he took Maryland lawmakers to task, hoping his story could persuade them to legalize gay marriage.
The state became one of the first to do so in 2012, under the leadership of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, now a Democratic presidential contender.
Leaning back in his chair, Kefalas said equality legislation was one of the few good deeds of O’Malley’s two terms.
Kefalas has launched attacks against O’Malley repeatedly on Twitter and in opinion pieces.
— Chrys Kefalas (@CKefalas) April 17, 2015
He’s also unafraid to ruffle a few feathers in his own party, delivering several pointed jabs at Sens. Marco Rubio, Fla., and Ted Cruz, Texas, and Gov. Scott Walker, Wis., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
— Chrys Kefalas (@CKefalas) April 20, 2015
Should his exploratory committee transition into a full-fledged Senate bid — likely in September — Kefalas said it would hinge on five areas:
- Advocating fairer taxes
- Bringing major manufacturing back to Maryland and ushering in trade innovations (similar to New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yard)
- Pushing for a stronger border between the U.S. and Mexico
- Lessening burdens on the middle class
- Getting rid of the “War on Drugs” and treating most drug use as an illness
“People are seeing a lot more in me than I see in myself,” Kefalas, a 2001 graduate of Loyola University of Maryland, said. He said he has full support from his family and long-time partner, Tommy McFly, a popular radio host on the District’s 94.7 FreshFM.
“His conversations at the dinner table are about Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and mine are about Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. So, it makes for some fun discussions,” Kefalas said.
Is marriage on the agenda?
“You can ask Tommy that question,” he said. “We are in a big fight in this race, and there is a lot on our plates. You have to listen to the Tommy Show to find out.”
It’s going to be hard under any circumstances to win — Jim Kolbe, a gay former representative from Arizona
Back to his time spent behind bars. Kefalas spent hours in dim jail cells, working to remove low-tier criminal offenses, such as drug charges, from inmates’ records when he ran the executive clemency program for former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Former Ehrlich press secretary Greg Massoni said Kefalas’s work was sometimes as simple as helping a man earn a security license after being involved in a bar fight in Ocean City, Md.
“We consider Chrys a part of the Ehrlich family,” Massoni said.
Despite low name recognition, Kefalas has won over some fans in conservative news media.
Kefalas, who described himself as a middle-of-the-road negotiator, said he admires Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. The two men, he said, have shown that bipartisan work is possible in a gridlocked Washington.
While Kefalas would be the first openly gay Republican to seek a Senate seat, others have come out while in office.
Former House members Jim Kolbe, of Arizona, and Steve Gunderson, of Wisconsin, were among the first openly gay Republicans to serve in Congress, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is widely considered the most prominent gay politician in the country. He came out in 1987, the first member of Congress to do so voluntarily.
In all, just 10 openly gay members of Congress have scored victories on election night.
“It’s going to be hard under any circumstances to win,” Kolbe said, citing Kefalas’ party affiliation, his work with Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and lack of money.
During the most recent reporting period, April 1 to July 30, Kefalas raised $80,569 and spent $32,375, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records.
Campaign staffers are all volunteers except for his data guy, David Baker, who has roots at Google and Twitter.
One thing that shouldn’t stand in his way, Kolbe said, is Kefalas’s sexual orientation.
In a statement, Hogan, who has not endorsed any candidate, said the two “enjoyed a good working relationship.”
Should Kefalas attract attention among the state’s Republican-leaning suburbanites as a “middle of the road” moderate with an eye for economic reform, he could gain ground against his Democratic rivals, Kolbe said.
As a man often described by friends and family as “someone who can stand to loosen up a little,” there is one thing Kefalas is not: unfocused.
“I’m going to play where Democrats tend to play,” he said, his right pointer finger pressed firmly pressed down on the wooden table. “I am not going to just be defending Republican territory. I am going to be on the offense.”
With the stress of moving back to Baltimore from Parkville, Md., most campaigning is pushed to the weekends. Still, there’s one target Kefalas has set for the campaign: Visit every Greek diner in the state.
Reach Quentin Misiag at [email protected] or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Download photos and timeline code: Kefalas.zip