Democrats go looking for the common touch Down-home themes dominate 1st District

February 17, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau

EASTON -- Short of pulling on bib overalls and slapping their thighs, Democratic candidates in Maryland's 1st Congressional District are doing whatever it takes to convince rural voters that, shucks, one of them is the kind of down-to-earth fellow who should be in Congress.

In the state's only "gee-whiz" primary race, five Democratic candidates for the seat held by Republican incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest have demonstrated that there's more than one way to develop the common touch:

* John C. Astle, a cash-strapped helicopter pilot who represents part of Anne Arundel County in the state legislature, placed a job-wanted ad in a newspaper asking voters to send him to Congress. Mr. Astle grinned approvingly when he told how a General Assembly colleague called him "a redneck in a three-piece suit." The 48-year-old sometimes rides his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the State House.

* James Brown, a self-described "old-time Democrat" who lives in Caroline County, called large-scale campaign spending "disgusting" and pledged not to spend more than $5,000 on his race. Mr. Brown, 43, is a member of the National Rifle Association "and proud of it." He said he is a political "free agent" and is not counting on much support from party leaders. "I don't play the game," he said.

* Samuel Q. Johnson III, the only Eastern Shore-born candidate of the lot -- and the only one who could claim to have the legendary webbed toes of the true Shoreman -- actually likes eating muskrat in public. He represents his native Wicomico County in the General Assembly and is chairman of the Eastern Shore delegation. The 58-year-old former teacher and seed company owner said it's "neat" when people comment about his flat-top hair style,which is dubbed the "Q cut" on the Shore.

* Retired Ocean City auctioneer Herbert Anthony "Tony the Mouth" Mamet, 71, uses folksy anger to vent his frustrations at the economy and Washington's political establishment. Of the Democratic candidates, he is the least visible and has virtually no campaign funds. He said his New Deal-like programs to put people back to work will help the country spiritually. "There aren't enough smiling faces on the streets," he said.

* And Tom McMillen, the well-manicured bachelor congressman from Anne Arundel County, hardly ever buttons his double-breasted blazer on the campaign trial. The new dress-down look makes it easier for Mr. McMillen, a 39-year-old former college and professional basketball star, to shoot a few hoops with the local high school kids out in the newly redrawn district.

Like their four Republican counterparts, the Democrats have had to hustle to get name recognition in the sprawling district, which stretches from the Curtis Bay area of Baltimore, east across upper Anne Arundel County and over the entire Eastern Shore. Although it was reduced in geographical size last fall by a state redistricting panel, the 1st District remains one of the largest congressional bailiwicks east of the Mississippi River.

Crisscrossing candidates

With an early primary election set for March 3, the most serious candidates have been zipping over the district with the regularity of migratory waterfowl looking for food.

Nearly 60 percent of the district's 151,000 registered Democrats live in the Eastern Shore's nine counties, making it necessary for candidates to spend much of their campaign time on the region's flatlands.

Campaigning has been unusually tough for Mr. Astle and Mr. Johnson, who have few funds and must be in Annapolis much of the time because the General Assembly is in session.

On the other hand, Mr. McMillen has the resources -- more than $400,000 in campaign funds lets him charter a private plane whenever he pleases -- and has appeared so many times on the Eastern Shore that he is making return visits.

But wherever they stop for a fund-raiser, a forum or a chance to chat with voters, the message remains mostly the same: It's time for a down-home Democrat with conservative values to represent the district's 597,684 residents.

Almost to a man, the candidates say they want to limit the power the federal government has over local jurisdictions, they want to do away with restrictions that stifle free enterprise, they want to help provide more jobs, they believe the federal budget should be balanced, they oppose gun control, and they do not believe that lawmakers should interfere with a woman's decision to have an abortion.

Scorn for incumbents

Even though three of the candidates hold elected offices -- two at the state level and one at the federal level -- the anti-incumbent, anti-government rhetoric is standard.

"I think government ought to back off a little," Mr. Astle put it.

Mr. Johnson went a bit further, suggesting that businessmen and not lawmakers should have a hand in reining in the government's spending.

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