Voters' bitterness over Byron's pay-raise vote threatens a political dynasty

March 01, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

In a region of Maryland where an average year's pay is only half the $35,000 increase Congress gave itself, the standard-bearer of a Maryland political dynasty finds herself under siege.

For seven-term Rep. Beverly B. Byron, the congressional pay-raise issue never goes away. In her 6th District, which stretches from Western Maryland to Carroll County and dips down into Howard County, the question has two discomfiting parts.

"How could you vote yourself a $35,000 raise and then vote against increasing the minimum wage?" she was asked during a recent candidates debate.

The 59-year-old Democratic congresswoman says the economy was much stronger two years ago when she cast the vote for the pay raise.

Why not refuse to accept the raise, asks her opponent in the coming primary, Del. Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, a dairy farmer and publisher.

Mrs. Byron doggedly sticks by her decision to keep the money. She has chosen to give some of it to various charities, she says, including a soup kitchen in Frederick where she makes a monthly contribution. She declines to say how much of the $35,000 she's doling out and how much she's keeping.

The congresswoman goes on to explain how the raise was passed in exchange for an agreement by the members of the House to forgo speaking fees from special interests.

But Mr. Hattery calls that trading ethics for money, "an amazing affront."

As for her vote against an increase in the minimum wage, Mrs. Byron says she did it because businesses in the district were against it.

A bad economy and a lingering anti-incumbency mood -- coupled with the pay raise issue -- seem to have the incumbent on the run. Public officials and others in touch with 6th District politics say an upset is possible in Tuesday's primary -- though most of them doubt it will occur.

"The pay raise is a big issue," says Del. Peter G. Callas, D-Washington. "It went over well among the voters back home when members of the General Assembly from Western Maryland gave theirs back."

Mr. Hattery -- whose moderate-to-liberal positions earn him the big spender's label in some quarters here -- never tires of pointing out that he was one of those who did not accept the $2,000 increase.

Mr. Hattery also charges his opponent with being a big traveler. One of Mr. Hattery's advertisements features a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" soundtrack and hammers Mrs. Byron for traveling widely at government expense.

Mr. Callas, a Byron supporter, says he thinks the race will be close "because people are saying, 'Let's have a change.' " The anti-incumbency mood of 1990 lingers, he said.

For Mrs. Byron, incumbency is a family matter. She is seeking an eighth term in the seat held formerly by her late husband, Goodloe E. Byron, and by Mr. Byron's mother and father before that.

Del. Kevin Kelly, another Byron supporter, agrees with those who say the Western Maryland region in particular is sour. "They are unhappy little campers," the Allegany County Democrat says.

This year, after the 1990 census, Maryland's 6th District lost the posh developments of Potomac in Montgomery County and gained parts of Columbia and suburban Howard County. The district runs from near Baltimore to the westernmost counties, parts of the state that tune in to Pittsburgh TV stations.

If Mrs. Byron is in trouble, Mr. Hattery says it's because she has frequently voted with President Bush. Her district is conservative, but in the Democratic primary the voters are far less so and even more likely to be upset with the policies of a Republican White House.

Nevertheless, Mr. Callas says he thinks Mrs. Byron will win on the abortion issue: She's against it except in cases where the life of the mother is at stake.

Mr. Hattery is for a woman's right to choose. "I trust the women of America more than I trust the government," he said.

The two also disagree on the advisability of a tax cut for middle Americans. "Forty-five cents a day won't jump-start the economy," said Mrs. Byron of one tax cut proposal.

Mr. Hattery says he is "absolutely" for the cut. The middle class, he says, has been "squeezed too much."

Coming from an area of hunters and hunting, both candidates oppose gun control. Both oppose the seven-day waiting period called for in the so-called Brady Bill, arguing that it would do little to suppress crime.

During a recent encounter in the studios of a Martinsburg, W.Va., television station, Mrs. Byron was asked what she would do to restore a healthy foreign trading climate for the United States.

"I think we have got to be competitive on a worldwide basis," she said.

Mr. Hattery said he thinks government has to do more for small business. He favors venture capital funds and loan guarantees for businesses.

As matters stand now, he said, American ideas are often developed into marketable products overseas. The jobs that might have been created around a product and the profits earned from it are lost to the American marketplace, he said.

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