Did Byron take seat for granted?

March 05, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A teary-eyed Rep. Beverly B. Byron focused on her primary defeat yesterday, bitterly blaming a negative campaign and a stubborn anti-incumbent mood she predicted will end the careers of other congressmen this year.

But others -- including Byron supporters -- said the anti-incumbent mood was only a partial reason for her defeat. The congresswoman seemed to take the seat for granted, failed to raise money, mount an aggressive campaign or answer the charges from her Democratic opponent, they said.

The seven-term conservative Democrat from the Western Maryland-based 6th District became the first member of Congress this year to be ousted.

She lost by a decisive 56 percent-44 percent margin to Del. Tom Hattery, a Mount Airy farmer who mounted a blistering attack on her acceptance of a $35,000 congressional pay raise and on her willingness to take taxpayer-financed foreign trips. He beat her in all of the district's six counties.

"I'm the first one. . . . I'm the tip of the iceberg," said Mrs. Byron, noting that other House members have told her they are scared that they will be next.

"Every one of us is saying it could be us," said Rep. Richard Ray, D-Ga., who faces two primary opponents in July. "I'm going to take a good look at Mrs. Byron's race."

"People are troubled, they're questioning, they're demanding answers," said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee. "Incumbents who don't realize that are going to find themselves with problems."

Mrs. Byron, 59, the fourth member of her family to hold the seat, criticized Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., for not supporting her and Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow for siding with Mr. Hattery.

But some people said Mrs. Byron also had herself to blame for her defeat.

"The consensus about Beverly Byron is that she just didn't pay attention to the race," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington newsletter. "It's obviously a warning to all incumbents."

But Mrs. Byron dismissed such talk and said she had worked hard to win the primary. When asked if she would she have done anything differently in the campaign, she shook her head slowly, offering a barely audible "No."

John T. Willis, a Democratic activist who teaches at Western Maryland College, said the congresswoman's right-wing stands, including opposition to abortion and to an increase in the minimum wage, didn't match the views of most Democratic primary voters, especially new voters in Howard County who came into the district through reapportionment.

"The 6th District's changing. People moving in are willing to vote for a change," said Ron L. Sundergill, president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners. "Beverly Byron represented the old guard in this community. But there's a new base of voters willing to vote for reformers."

Other voters said that they thought she had served long enough and that she didn't have the answers to deal with a sour economy.

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