Gilchrest, McMillen hug middle of new 1st District

September 27, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- From Maryland's new "mignon and muskrat" congressional district, so dubbed for the con-trasting urban and rural cultures within its sprawling geography, you get to Washington by staying in the middle of the road.

At least that's the route candidates Wayne T. Gilchrest and ToMcMillen are traveling through the redesigned 1st District, a political bailiwick that straddles the Chesapeake Bay.

As one of only a handful of races in which two incumbents are striving for a single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the 1st District contest is among the most unusual and uncertain re-election battles in the country.

Mr. Gilchrest, a Republican congressman from the former 1st District, and Mr. McMillen, a Democrat from the former 4th District, agree on more issues than they differ. So far, both have ++ been cautious not to antagonize voters.

And despite late summer attempts by their handlers to arouse interest in the race, the biggest differences between the two are in style and personality.

Even after two years in Congress, Mr. Gilchrest, a former public school teacher and house painter, is unassuming to the point of being shy. He is an occasionally rumpled, low-key campaigner who will spend two hours at a town meeting chatting with just two dozen voters.

Forty-six years old and the father of three, he clearly would prefer to spend nights with his family at their Kent County home. When he's in his congressional office, he often answers the phone himself without waiting for office staff to screen calls.

Mr. McMillen, in contrast, is a stylishly suited bachelor of 40 and well-known in Washington social circles. With the height of a professional basketball player -- which he was -- and his premature white hair, he is often compared to the late Rogers C. B. Morton, the stately 1st District congressman who went on to prominence in the Nixon White House.

Mr. McMillen seems tireless on the campaign trail, and his zip-trip schedule is so busy that he has been called "10-minute Tom" for the pace he keeps. He shakes lots of hands, but some voters say he never makes eye contact.

With less than five weeks remaining before the general election, neither man appears assured of victory.

The two incumbents are vying for approval in a huge district that still includes the entire Eastern Shore, or the "muskrat" side. (Neither man was born on the Shore, a fact that annoys some damn-the-rest-of-the-state native flatlanders.)

But where the district once spread across the Chesapeake to include Southern Maryland and part of, Harford County, its trans-Chesapeake reach now covers a splatter-like configuration of land in heavily populated northeastern Anne Arundel County. Even a tad of South Baltimore was added.

Thus, a small part of Mr. McMillen's old 4th -- the "mignon" areas of Annapolis and its nearby exclusive waterfront communities -- is in the new 1st.

Though hardly homogeneous, the old 1st was largely rural. Its Democratic majority routinely voted for conservatives, and four of the past five congressmen were Republicans.

What's the mood?

While the Democratic Party still has a majority -- about 58 percent of the new district's 260,000 registered voters -- the ideological mood of the district is less easy to assess.

Two years ago, Mr. Gilchrest, a political neophyte, defeated incumbent Roy P. Dyson in an intense outsider-vs.-insider race that raised questions about Mr. Dyson's association with political action committees and defense contractors.

Himself an incumbent now, Mr. Gilchrest is still running as an outsider. His campaign is trying to portray Mr. McMillen as another Roy Dyson -- well-connected in Washington, susceptible the influence of PACs and funded by contributors who live outside the state.

If Mr. Gilchrest's supporters claim that Mr. McMillen is aloof from the crowd -- as they like to allege -- it would be hard to prove by the Democrat's campaign schedule.

There's not a ZIP code in the 1st District that Mr. McMillen hasn't visited at least twice. Playing down his reputation as a man-about-Washington, Mr. McMillen likes to tell voters how he grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Mr. McMillen says the election is less about which candidate has closer ties to the Eastern Shore (Mr. Gilchrest is married to a Somerset County native) or who has lived longer in Maryland (Mr. McMillen moved to the state when he entered the University of Maryland).

"It's really about who can get the job done for the working families of this district," Mr. McMillen said.

Where they stand

Mr. McMillen's supporters say the two-term Democrat can better protect 1st District economic interests -- primarily within the defense and technological industries -- because he has more congressional seniority than his one-term opponent.

But Mr. Gilchrest says his major duty to constituents is to cut federal spending, even if it means voting against bills that would send taxpayer dollars to the tidewater region.

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