Redemption Song

By Josh Kurtz

Mathew Mossburg was a prince of Annapolis – a young, ambitious, scrappy member of the Maryland House of Delegates in the mid 1990’s, gregarious and popular with his colleagues, serious about policy and savvy about politics. He moved through town like a Pied Piper, a guitar often slung across his shoulder, rapturous young staffers in his wake.

Mossburg shook President Clinton’s hand in the State House, and gushed that even though he was a Republican, he felt like he had “met the Dalai Lama.” The Washington Post ran an article about his side gig as a musician, featuring a Democratic lawmaker who observed: “Matt’s way too cool to be a Republican.”

Mossburg wasn’t expected to win the 1994 GOP primary or the general election in the newly-formed District 39, which took in the northern Montgomery County communities of Laytonsville, Damascus, and parts of Germantown and Gaithersburg – but he did, at the heady young age of 27. He was a prime sponsor of legislation to create a prepaid college tuition plan for Maryland families.

And yet, from the minute Mossburg arrived in Annapolis, there were signs of trouble.

He came from a fractious family that was frequently and publicly at odds with the political establishment; their foibles provided endless distractions. He was drinking too much, missing committee votes, and spending too much time on his music. He switched committee assignments twice – once after calling the late Pete Rawlings, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations panel, a dictator. He had financial troubles. Married with two young sons, he was frequently seen in the company of young female legislative staffers.

Then came the ignominy of defeat, in 1998 – Mossburg and the other two Republican House members from District 39 were wiped out after a targeted, relentless Democratic campaign.

“When I lost, that was the loss of my identity,” Mossburg said in a recent interview.

What followed were years of downward spiral – addiction to pain-killers and booze, a failed political comeback attempt, divorce, remarriage, family tragedy, job loss, another marital break-up, and finally, homelessness. He hit bottom earlier this decade.

“I didn’t shower or change my clothes for four months,” Mossburg recalled. “I was literally wandering the streets, begging God for mercy.”

The Rev. Clark Baisden, senior pastor at Difference Makers Church in Damascus, who has known Mossburg for years, didn’t recognize him at the time.

“He looked 40 years older than last I had seen him,” Baisden said.

Mossburg finally wound up in a Rockville homeless shelter and was eventually placed in a Montgomery County drug treatment facility; a long, faith-based recovery process followed – and continues to this minute.

Now 50, and sober since Jan. 7, 2014, Mossburg is ready to take the next step in his recovery. He’s having a campaign event Friday night at the Fingerboard Country Inn in Ijamsville, where he’ll formally announce that he’s running for the state Senate, seeking to oust Sen. Ron Young (D) in Frederick County’s 3rd district. He’s calling the gathering a “Kickoff for Recovery” and “an evening of song, story and fellowship.”

Mossburg’s journey, through triumph and tragedy, through addiction and recovery; his “bleeding-heart conservative” political beliefs and his message of love, faith and redemption, will be laid bare before the voters, the central themes of his campaign. Mossburg is hoping that voters see their own trials and tribulations in his.

“God has taken my mess and turned it into a message,” he says.

Mossburg

 

GROWING UP MOSSBURG

The Mossburg family, volatile, controversial and litigious, was frequently in the news in Montgomery County in the 1980’s and ‘90s – and rarely in flattering ways. A 1995 Washington City Paper article about them ran with the headline, “The Montgomery Hillbillies.”

Billy Mossburg, the family patriarch, ran a garbage dump and recycling facility in North Potomac, where a fire notoriously burned for months. As Montgomery County boomed, Mossburg got rich disposing of and repurposing construction debris. For years, county government officials tried to shut him down, but Mossburg, a wily businessman with an explosive personality, kept the government at bay.

Matt Mossburg was the middle child; his older brother Bill helped run the family business; his younger brother, Christopher, was arrested in the early 1990’s for trying to hire a hitman to kill their old man. The case didn’t stick.

In 1997, Billy Mossburg and hitmen were again in the news, this time when a well-connected but clearly off-balance politician named Ruthann Aron enlisted his aid to find someone to kill her husband and her former attorney. The elder Mossburg thought he was being set up by the county government at first; eventually, he cooperated with authorities and helped send Aron to prison.

Matt Mossburg shared his family’s libertarian leanings and anti-government views, but he was more intellectual than brawler. He studied political theory and economics at Georgetown University, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college, and rode the national Republican wave of 1994 into the House of Delegates, even though District 39 was drawn to elect Democrats.

But while Mossburg was chock-full of good ideas and good intentions, like so many of his fellow freshmen, it was clear to some of his colleagues that he was weighted down by his family’s history and pathology.

“He was working with one hand tied behind his back when he got to Annapolis,” said John Hurson, who was House majority leader at the time and befriended Mossburg even though the two disagreed on almost every policy question. “Despite these problems, he was effective on the Maryland college pre-paid tuition bill, which he sponsored.”

HITTING BOTTOM

After finishing first in the 1994 general election in District 39, Matt Mossburg finished last in 1998 – the target of a withering campaign by Democrats, who swept all but one of the upcounty legislative seats in Montgomery County that year.

“That began my four-year narcotic run,” Mossburg said. “I did it all. I was lying, scheming, manipulating. I had one job – and that was to get myself high. The first time I did Percocet, I thought, ‘where have you been all my life?’ That was my thinking.”

Somehow, despite his painkiller haze, Mossburg found the wherewithal to run for state Senate in 2002, this time in District 14 – and this time as a Democrat. He finished a distant third in the Democratic primary.

Political insiders have long memories, but most don’t remember a thing about Mossburg’s first comeback attempt – and neither does the candidate.

“Nothing highlights the insanity of my disease more than my run as a Democrat,” he jokes.

By then divorced from his wife, Dawn, Mossburg slowly began to find solace, and the first steps toward recovery, in religion. He had always considered himself religious, and attended Christian schools for most of his life. But the teachings began to take on deeper meaning, and he literally wore his faith on his sleeve, getting religious sayings and Biblical passages tattooed on his arm in various languages and typefaces.

Through his church membership, Mossburg cleaned up and fell in love with another woman, Chelsey. They got married, had a son, and moved to Rock Hill, S.C., near Charlotte, N.C., to be near her family. Mossburg took a job with the National Association of Manufacturers, selling memberships from his home, living what he calls “that restored fairy tale life.”

But that existence was literally shattered when Chelsey was grievously injured in a car accident in 2010. Their son Asher was 1 ½ at the time.

Chelsey suffered a brain stem injury and became almost completely paralyzed. For months, Mossburg was her primary caregiver. But the workload and stress proved unbearable, and he succumbed to his addictive personality. Soon, he was abusing painkillers and ceding care of Chelsey to others.

Mossburg returned to Maryland in 2013. As he walked the streets, he thought a lot about God – but concluded that salvation was too elusive because he had fallen so far and didn’t deserve it.

“Basically, I was limiting God,” he explained. “I thought, you can’t forgive me because I’m so bad.”

But Baisden, the minister, told him that this was precisely the point where his recovery should begin – that his pain and suffering, and the suffering he had caused others, while unique, was not that special.

“This is all of our story,” Baisden said. “If the grace of God is sufficient for anybody, it’s sufficient for everybody.”

After his stint in rehab, Mossburg moved to a Christian halfway house connected to the Difference Makers Church, where he lived with other addicts trying to stay sober. They attended daily meetings, counseling sessions and Bible study.

Lorelei Irons, who runs the program at the Nathan’s Ridge sober house, said she had never seen an addict so low.

“He was sad – he was the saddest case,” she recalled. “Just ripped and worn. He was at a desperate, desperate place.”

But Mossburg, Irons said, became engaged during the group discussions about the Bible, and eventually opened up. “One of the coolest things about Matt is he is so smart, even Biblically, he is so smart. He wanted to delve so deep [into the Bible], we would make fun of him.”

Also during this period, Irons observed, “Matt only ate Pop-Tarts.”

Mossburg voluntarily stayed at the sober house almost a year, longer than officially prescribed. Today he still lives with ex-addicts who provide comfort and encouragement to one another. He regularly attends AA meetings. When he travels, he makes sure he knows where the AA meetings are being held.

“The spirit of Christ is in Matt,” Irons said.

When Mossburg got out of the sober house, he began reconnecting with members of his family, one by one. He is also repairing relations with his three sons – Michael, 25, Mario, 21, and Asher, 9.

Mossburg speaks frankly of his father and the large shadow he has cast over his family, and admits he once feared him. But now Mossburg is working as a salesman for a stormwater management company that his step-mother owns. Several other relatives also work for the company.

Mossburg’s dad is now 74 – and a cancer survivor.

“His facing cancer affected me much more than I thought,” Mossburg said. “It’s the first time I saw this towering influence in my life weak. He’s a much mellowed Billy Mossburg.”

Mossburg has also resumed playing music. He’s an acoustic guitarist in a Christian rock group called Scandalous Grace.

“Doing music in a church, in a worship setting, I’d rather be doing that than playing in front of 100,000 people,” he said.

BACK TO ANNAPOLIS

In 2015, John Hurson, then a decade removed from the legislature, but still active on policy and political matters, invited Mossburg to spend Sine Die with him in Annapolis. Mossburg had not been back to the State House since cleaning out his office after losing re-election in 1998; he figured he’d hardly know anybody.

But Annapolis is funny that way: The names and faces hardly ever change. Mossburg was delighted to see a lot of old friends. And most were highly supportive when he told them his story.

A year later, Mossburg was asked to testify in Annapolis on the state’s opioid epidemic. For a short time, he did some advocacy work on recovery and treatment – not just describing his own situation, but speaking fluently on funding and policy debates.

He took a room in Annapolis – which worried his friends in the recovery community.

“We all know the political world is a party world,” Irons said. “He’s going to have to stay grounded in faith.”

Mossburg said he did just that, eschewing the party scene for AA meetings and prayer sessions. But clearly, he re-caught the political bug. After prayer and consultation with his friends and recovery mentors, he decided to become a candidate again.

“I’m going to come back to be the addiction apostle in Annapolis,” he said, only half-jokingly.

Mossburg plans to address the opioid crisis regularly on the campaign trail, talking about what works and what doesn’t in treatment, and how the state “needs to be smarter” about how money is spent to address the problem. Even as a fiscal conservative, he concedes when pressed that more government funding is needed.

But Mossburg also sees himself as a walking symbol of survival and hope – and wants voters to take comfort in his recovery.

“I decided to run because it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about this message and about this crisis and trying to address it.”

But it’s also a heavy message that, even in this era of crazy, unadorned politics, may be difficult for some voters to embrace.

“I think the best leaders are transparent leaders,” Baisden said. “I think the best leaders are not hiding anything. Matt through his brokenness has been forced into a situation where he has no choice but to be a servant. You’ve got folks who aren’t going to trust you to start with, who you may never be able to win over. I think he’ll have his critics and he’ll have his enemies – but he’s got that already.”

But Hurson, who spent four terms in the legislature, isn’t sure how voters will react to Mossburg’s openness.

“I don’t know how to calculate that…It’s kind of a heavy lift, but he wants to go there,” Hurson said. “He is being honest about his life. It’s up to the voters to decide how to handle that.”

Before he can even prepare for a general election showdown with Ron Young, who is completing his second term in the state Senate but whose political career dates back to 1970, Mossburg must first get through a Republican primary. Much of the GOP establishment has cast its lot with Craig Giangrande, a wealthy businessman who owns Burger King franchises.

“He got out very early – probably about a year ago already,” said Darren Wigfield, the Frederick County Republican chairman, who is officially neutral in the Senate race. “Showing up at events, volunteering, making a significant effort to make himself known.”

Mossburg, Wigfield said, came to a recent fundraiser for the Frederick GOP and has been invited to address a central committee meeting, but has not reached out to party leaders at this stage. And the GOP field could still grow: Frederick County Councilman Billy Shreve is also contemplating a Senate bid.

“It’s going to be a very contentious race if we end up with those three,” Wigfield said.

Mossburg figures he’ll need to raise about $250,000 by next June’s primary. He says he isn’t afraid to ask for contributions and is confident he’ll get them.

Mossburg is enjoying seeing how the world of campaigning has changed since his first run 24 years ago. He has used social media deftly, putting several emotionally-charged videos about his addiction and recovery on Facebook and You Tube.

Mossburg insists he is prepared to lose – and is confident he won’t relapse if he does.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m in this to win,” he said. “But win or lose, this is one way for me to tell my story so someone can get hope.”

 

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