One New District Has No Incumbent, One Has Two In the First District, What's a Cynic to Do?

March 01, 1992|By WILLIAM THOMPSON

EASTON — Easton. -- Voters in Maryland's 1st Congressional District who are disgruntled with Washington's "insider" political scene may wake up March 4 with a brain-cudgeling conundrum: How do you satisfy that anti-incumbent urge in the November general election when both the Democratic and the Republican congressional candidates are incumbents?

Of the eight congressional races in Maryland, only 1st District voters may face that unique question because only 1st District voters have the opportunity on the March 3 primary to pick two incumbents as party nominees for their seat in the House of Representatives.

And you can bet the farm -- non-tidal wetlands and all -- that this summer's campaign will witness a test of political derring-do between dueling incumbents.

Deciding how to vote can be puzzling, but it needn't be painful. Choosing between two congressmen in a general election offers the dump-'em-all voter a tantalizing, once-in-a-lifetime shot at exorcising the anti-incumbency urge.

But more on that later.

This likely election-day scenario had its start last fall when Gov. William Donald Schaefer's congressional mapmakers redrew the state's congressional bailiwicks. Parts of the 4th District, currently represented by Democrat Tom McMillen, were merged with the sprawling 1st District, represented by Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Mr. McMillen decided against running for re-election in the new 4th District, loosened his tie and set about telling the 1st District's mostly Eastern Shore voters that his politics are similar to theirs -- an amalgam of moderate issue positions and a conservatism that sometimes sounds faintly like the Dixiecrat catcalls of the Old South.

Despite his interloper status on the Shore, Mr. McMillen's acrobatic scramblings to build a political organization on the district's flatlands should provide two elements crucial to winning the Democratic primary. Districtwide, the former college and professional basketball player has more name recognition than any of his four competitors. He is the only Democrat with the resources to pay for television ads and for a private plane to fly from one campaign site to another. That the money is largely from political action committees is not likely to become a campaign issue until after the primary.

And by repeatedly visiting the Lower Shore, Mr. McMillen has forced his toughest opponent, favorite son candidate Samuel Q. Johnson III, to spend the little time he has for campaigning simply trying to make sure his back-home support is not eroding. Mr. Johnson, a Wicomico delegate to Annapolis, has a strong base on the Lower Shore, particularly in Dorchester County and neighboring Salisbury. It's probably strong enough to win him a state Senate seat in the future, but is too weak to send the affable Eastern Shore native to Washington. Neither John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel County delegate in the General Assembly, nor Mr. Johnson have had the money or the time to campaign thoroughly. To their credit, they have expended most of their energies on their legislative duties. But the early March 3 primary, coming as it does in the midst of the 1992 session, is an obstacle neither man can overcome.

Mr. Astle will get votes in the district's Western Shore portion, but the only way he moves onto the Shore is with a bay bridge ticket.

The two other Democratic hopefuls, Caroline County resident James Brown and Ocean City fixture Herbert Anthony "Tony" Mamet, will fight it out for the last two places in the party primary.

On the Republican side, Mr. Gilchrest can count on the patience and respect of most mainstream GOP voters to give him the party nomination. The former house painter and school teacher won his seat in 1990 by making Roy Dyson, the Democratic congressman, look like a Washington insider who had lost touch with the district's common folks.

Although it appears that in less than a two-year term he has grown remarkably attached to the office, Mr. Gilchrest couldn't smooth out his rumpled look if he tried -- which he doesn't want to do anyway.

Seen in the narrow statistical sense, his congressional voting record closely matches the wishes of President Bush. Yet his pro-choice and pro-environment stands make some conservative voters wonder why he isn't a Democrat. The total image is that while he may seem a bit confused at times, he is thoughtful and principled.

Mr. Gilchrest's detractors, led by GOP primary candidate Lisa G. Renshaw of Anne Arundel County, complain that when his campaign pledges are examined, the Kent County resident has flip-flopped more often than an out-of-season rock fish in a commercial fisherman's boat.

But the political carping could leave Ms. Renshaw in the backwash. In the words of one political pundit, the self-made parking garage mini-magnate sounds like "Attila the Hen."

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