When U.S. Representative Thomas McMillen knocked on the door of a Brooklyn Park home recently, he was puzzled when an 80-year-woman answered.
"The voter lists didn't show anyone that old had ever been registered there," McMillen, D-4th, recalled Tuesday night while campaigning for state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, who is engaged in a fierce battle to retain his seat. "So I asked her, 'How come in all those years you never voted?' "She said, 'Oh, that only encourages them politicians.' Well, right now, we Democrats need all the encouragement we can get."
McMillen was at the Roland Terrace Democratic Club in Brooklyn Park this week rallying support for Jimeno, who is running against Republican Delegate John R. Leopold for the District 31 Senate seat, as well as for the Democratic candidates for House of Delegates.
The congressman has joined a parade of prominent Democrats -- including Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- stumping for Jimeno, who many consider the underdog against Leopold.
The election pits Jimeno's populist organization against Leopold's money and relentless style of campaigning.
An insurance agent and father of two, Jimeno has developed a loyal political following through his community activities as a band parent, Little League coach and officer in his Brooklyn Park neighborhood association.
Jimeno, 43, was elected to the House of Delegates in 1978, re-elected in 1982 and appointed to the Senate in 1985 when then-Sen. Jerome Connell was convicted of federal income tax evasion. He was elected to the seat in 1986.
A full-time lawmaker and political consultant, Leopold has been a headache for District 31 Democrats since he stepped off the plane from Hawaii eight years ago. His year-round, door-to-door and roadside campaigns have helped him create a personal appeal apart from mainline Republicans.
Leopold, 47, who served eight years in the Hawaiian legislature, moved to Anne Arundel County in 1982 after suffering a series of political defeats in the islands. He lost his 1978 bid for governor of Hawaii and a 1980 attempt to return to the Hawaiian Senate.
But, less than a year after moving to Pasadena, Leopold won a Maryland House of Delegates seat, defeating incumbent Democrat William Burkhead and becoming the only Republican ever elected in the district.
Now, Leopold's bid for the Senate has Democratic politicians countywide rallying against him.
"We've just found that he plays to the crowd and he just isn't responsible," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Democrat from nearby District 32. "He's a master of taking credit for things he didn't do and placing blame where it doesn't belong."
"The Republican Party threw him out of Hawaii," McMillen said. "Now the Democratic Party has a chance to throw him out of Maryland."
Once largely blue-collar and dominated politically by a half-dozen Democratic clubs, the district now includes increasing numbers of young, mobile professionals. Still, the issues are the same: taxes and the environment.
Depending on which community activist you speak to, Jimeno and Leopold both are champions of the environment. Rock Creek activists credit Leopold with bringing the plight of that tributary to the attention of the state Department of the Environment. Other North County activists praise Jimeno for passing new clean air requirements last spring to protect residents from the chemical industries located nearby in Baltimore.
Both candidates present themselves as fiscally conservative. But, on the stump, Leopold frequently notes that only he opposed Baltimore's new baseball stadium and, in 1987, voted against a 5-cent increase in the gasoline tax, which finances state roads and transportation projects.
Leopold said he would rather have seen the money being spent on Camden Yards stadium used to construct roads.
"He's a foxy, clever politician," Wagner said. "He votes against the gas tax and yet he wants to build roads and bridges."
"(Leopold) talks out of both sides of his mouth," Jimeno said. "He publicly supported projects like the widening of Mountain Road, but then he didn't support the funding for them."
Leopold's two major advantages in the campaign are money and name recognition.
During the last three years, he has campaigned nearly non-stop for county executive. Although he never officially registered to enter that race, he amassed $163,464 in preparation for it and attempted to make his name a household word through public appearances and advertising.
Last June, when he decided he couldn't defeat former Delegate Robert Neall in the Republican primary, Leopold entered the Senate race and brought his campaign chest with him.
Several who contributed to Leopold's county executive campaign complained last summer they didn't support his bid against Jimeno, who so far has raised $40,703 to finance his re-election. But Leopold said no one has asked him to return their contributions.
Jimeno's camp generally concedes Leopold is more widely known.