Eastern Shore Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest opened his Anne Arundel County congressional office Saturday, promising a campaign paid for by average people instead of corporations and their special-interest money.
Speaking to a small crowd of volunteers and campaign workers at his new office on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, the incumbent congressman said he would "not go to Washington with a PAC ball and chain wrapped around my neck or my ankles."
"I'd rather get my money from the grass roots rather than have a leash around my neck," Gilchrest said, criticizing political action committees. "We are few in number here, but we are going to make an impact like nobody has expected for a number of years."
Gilchrest, running in the new 1st Congressional district that combines the Eastern Shore with a chunk of Anne Arundel County that includes Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Curtis Bay, said he is confident he can beat his rival, Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom McMillen.
McMillen, who until redistricting last year represented all of Anne Arundel County in Maryland's 4th Congressional District, now finds himself in a two-incumbent race. Both politicians have crisscrossed the Chesapeake Bay trying to get known by new voters.
Gilchrest devoted much of his time Saturday to talking about local issues, but he also touched on the "riots and racial despair" in Los Angeles following the acquittals in the Rodney King trial.
He said America is different today than in 1965, when rioting erupted in Watts, a community near south central Los Angeles. "The people are different. We need not only to reach across the country, we need to reach across and grab someone until we have a solution."
In an interview after his speech, Gilchrest said the police beating of King was inexcusable and called the acquittal of four white officers "ludicrous. I don't care what he did prior to the videotape," he said.
But the congressman said that today the country is in a better position to deal with the aftermath of the violence than it was 30 years ago. "It is a terrible tragedy, but we have come further since 1965," he said. "We have a foundation, which was not there 30 years ago, to make changes."
Gilchrest said leaders must end political rhetoric and take tangible steps, not only to avoid further incidents such as those in Los Angeles, but also to balance the budget and make the country fiscally responsible.
"We all are concerned about education. We all are concerned about crime," he said. "The only thing the people want is good, quality leadership."
And Gilchrest said that is eroding because politicians finance their campaigns with contributions from special-interest groups.
"Ultimately, the best campaign reform you can give is only taking money from people who can vote for you," he said, adding that even personal contributions should be limited to $250.
But Gilchrest said he must accept some PAC contributions in this race to keep up with McMillen, who in a six-week period ending last month raised more than $106,000 -- $80,000 from special-interest groups. Gilchrest raised more than $27,000, with $11,000 from PACs.
He said he will need to raise at least $200,000 for an effective campaign. "We have to be competitive," he said, adding that he voted against the latest campaign-reform bill in Congress because it only limited PAC contributions to $200,000 total.
"That's no reform. The average congressman who takes PAC money gets $213,000. The bill would have only chopped $13,000 out," he said.
"If you have $200,000 in PAC money, can you imagine the diverse number of interest groups that are giving you money? What's your voting record going to look like?"