Wily Veteran Campaigner Seeks A Return To Politics

October 31, 1990|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The battles have sometimes been ugly and the defeat was bitter, but the taste of politics remains sweet to Bill D. Burlison.

Now he stands at the far end of an 18-month trail, having knocked on the door of just about every registered voter in District 33. That's nearly 45,000 voters in a district that stretches from Fort George G. Meade to Lothian, from the Patuxent River to Ritchie Highway.

This is nothing new for the Crofton Democrat. He's been campaigning with the tenacity of a door-to-door salesman ever since he tramped through the cotton fields of southeastern Missouri and won his first seat in Congress in 1968. Back in Missouri people still remember the 58-year-old former Marine as the hardest campaigner they ever saw.

"It's my style," said Burlison, sitting in his Crofton law office.

"That's what I do best. That's what I know."

On this particular afternoon Burlison looked tired. It was mid-October and Burlison confessed to having fallen a bit behind schedule in his door-knocking campaign. He looked tired but sounded hungry.

And why not? He's come so close to winning before -- a second-place finish in District 33 in 1986 -- and he's encouraged by winning a seat on the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee this fall. Burlison, who moved to Crofton from Prince George's County in 1984, has been out of elective office since 1980.

Three Democrats and three Republicans are seeking three District 33 House of Delegates seats. Burlison says all the incumbents -- Democrat Marsha G. Perry of Crofton and Republicans Elizabeth S. Smith of Davidsonville and John Gary of Millersville -- are vulnerable because of their stances or failures to takes positions on issues.

But Burlison has singled out Smith. He has tried to make her personal wealth a campaign issue, calling her a "millionaire legislator." He suggests she may be too close to the business community and says she should either sell her assets or place them in a blind trust.

Smith, who sold a network of radio and cable TV stations in the early 1980s, has said her personal finances should not be an issue.

Burlison, who says he has spent nearly $50,000 of his own money on the campaign, stops short of accusing Smith of allowing her financial interests to influence her actions in the House.

The attack on Smith was a departure for Burlison, who has focused his campaign on issues. He advocates a 3-percent annual cap on property tax assessment increases and faults his incumbent opponents for abiding by the 10-percent ceiling adopted by the legislature this year.

He decries the proposed eastern highway bypass -- being planned to reduce congestion on the Washington Beltway -- as the ruination of Anne Arundel County. All the candidates "say we're agin' it," said Burlison.

"Where we differ is none of the other candidates has offered any strategy for stopping it."

Burlison says he'll stop it by appealing to Congress's sense of fair play. Anne Arundel County, he argues, has already borne more than its share of the Washington traffic burden. He hints that his old Washington connections could be helpful in making the case against the bypass.

Burlison also advocates eliminating the $7 million education patronage system, reducing the House of Delegates by a third to 94 members and imposing mandatory minimum sentences for first-time drug offenders.

It's an agenda as likely to appeal to conservative Republicans as Democrats in a district split just about evenly between the two parties.

And Burlison, a lifelong Democrat, has for this campaign taken registered Republicans for his campaign manager and treasurer.

The exception to Burlison's conservative agenda is his support of abortion rights. For that, he has won the unsolicited endorsement of the Maryland Women's Political Caucus. He's the only candidate in the race endorsed by the organization.

The House of Delegates "could have a great addition in having Bill Burlison there," said Bea Poulin, the caucus vice president. "We need qualified people there."

Poulin was among some 30 people who showed up for a Burlison fund-raiser at the Crofton Country Club two weeks ago. The featured guest was U.S. Rep.

Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who recalled how Burlison welcomed him to Congress and showed him the ropes when Gephardt was first elected in 1976.

Burlison headed Gephardt's 1988 presidential campaign in Maryland's 4th Congressional District.

"Bill is a long-standing friend of mine," Gephardt told the group, adding that he admires Burlison for his "ideas, his fairness and equity."

There are those in Burlison's old Missouri district who would argue with that assessment.

In fact, by the time Burlison neared the end of his sixth term, editorials in a number of local newspapers in his district had called for his resignation. He had been involved in several controversial episodes and was seen by his farming constituency as too liberal and less interested in local problems than in national issues.

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