Washington Insider Takes Outsider's Tack In Campaign

Political Rookie Downey Hopes To Unseat Byron

February 16, 1992|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

FREDERICK — The Frederick Towne Mall was quiet one Thursday afternoon when Mike Downey stopped to meet voters. In the parking lot, he traded his bluesuit coat for a brown leather jacket and donned a black baseball capwith "Downey for Congress" in gold letters.

"When you walk aroundplaces like this, people don't want to see somebody in a suit," saidDowney, a self-employed consultant who spends most of his days in suits. "I hate to say you have to be a chameleon at times."

The Republican's manner is polite, his delivery direct and his gait jaunty. He said he won't interrupt people if they're in conversation.

His opening line -- whether he's talking to senior citizens atthe mall or teen-agers in a high school social studies class -- is direct.

"Hi. I'm Mike Downey. I've never been in politics before."

Another line he often uses is "My name's Mike. After I'm elected, I work for you."

Downey, 65, owns a satellite engineering and consulting company called M/R Communications Development Co. in Thurmont,Frederick County. The Army veteran owns a small cattle farm.

He is running for the 6th District seat occupied by Democrat Beverly B. Byron and has two opponents in the March 3 Republican primary.

Downey said he spends about 70 percent of his time in Washington lobbyingin Congress and working with trade associations. Until last October,40 percent of his business came from government contracts. (He said he let the contracts expire when he decided to run for Congress.)

Even though he's a political novice, Downey says he's not naive aboutthe ways of Washington.

His complaints against Congress echo those of many challengers: Congress is "out of touch," "bloated" and "arrogant."

"Enough is enough," Downey said.

He has vowed not to accept any contributions from political action committees and said if elected he will return 25 percent of his salary to the 6th District tobe used for education. He says members of Congress should be allowedto serve only four terms.

Downey recently toured Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick -- from which three of his stepchildren graduated -- to talk to teachers and students.

Downey told seven students in an advanced political science class, "I always pictured my nation being a shining knight on a white horse."

Since he's had dealings in Washington, however, he said he's found "there's a lot of control and tarnish. Billions (of dollars) are poured down the rat holes of bureaucracy."

Only two of the students in the class will be of voting age by the primary.

"He seems to care about the educational system," said Alicia Mills of Frederick, who will turn 18 next week.

"Him coming here makes me think at least he's trying," said Danielle Ashcroft, 18, of Frederick.

During his tour -- led by 16-year-old Matt Johnston of Frederick -- Downey talked with teachers disillusioned with the system.

"I guess I'm getting so bitter about this whole money thing," Pat Severn, a computer science teacher, said aftertelling Downey that computer equipment at the school is outdated.

"I like your idea about taking money out of the bureaucracy," she said.

After showing the candidate around his school for several hours, Johnston -- who still has two years to declare his party affiliation -- said he liked Downey's views, but couldn't say whether he wouldvote for him if he could.

"I'd have to sit down and think about it," he said. "I really hope he's that interested in education."

Health care also is a priority, Downey said. He is opposed to a national health-care plan, but would like to see insurance forms standardized to save money. Health-care costs should be tax-deductible, he said.

Bringing more jobs to Western Maryland is another issue that deserves attention, he said. Congress should help local leaders give companies incentives, such as new roads, tax breaks and subsidized electricity, to attract them to the area, he said.

He also supports tax credits for people starting new businesses and cutting the capital gains tax rate to 15 percent. He wants to allow American companies to write off research and development costs.

Andree Dumermuth, an associate at the Council on Competitiveness in Washington, has worked with Downey.

"He's a very hands-on kind of person," she said.

The council is a private group comprising 150 executives from industry, organized labor and academia, but not to be confused with the public-sector group led by Vice President Dan Quayle, Dumermuth said. The council works to make American companies more competitive, she said.

Downey said he works with the group on behalf of his client, Satellite Transmission Systems Inc. of Long Island, N.Y.

Dumermuth said Downey drafted a thoughtful, analytical position paper on trade issues that impressed council staff.

Downey and his wife, Rita, have eight children, five of whom

are his stepchildren.

His stepson, Donald Walter, 31, said he is helping behind the scenes with campaign strategy. Walter is research director for the Media Team, a company founded by Roger Ailes -- George Bush's media adviser in the 1988 presidential campaign.

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