McMillen drew the short stick Redistricting hurt his chances

November 04, 1992|By William Thompson and Tom Bowman | William Thompson and Tom Bowman,Staff Writers

A week before yesterday's election, Maryland Congressman Tom McMillen was seated in his car outside a Baltimore television station. Calling two reporters over to chat, the former professional basketball player joked about how the campaign was going.

"Maybe I can get back into playing ball," he said. "It's not too late."

He had cause to be nervous. Last night, the three-term Democrat from Anne Arundel County lost the bitterly fought 1st District congressional race to his Republican opponent from the Eastern Shore, Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest. The contest was one of only five nationally in which two incumbents were pitted against each other.

Mr. McMillen, who has represented the 4th District, was placed in the unenviable position of trying to wrest a colleague's seat because of last fall's redistricting plan. To comply with federal law, state officials had to design a majority-black district in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Creating that district meant that two sitting representatives would have to double up.

Mr. McMillen and some Democratic leaders hoped they would be two Republicans: Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County and Mr. Gilchrest. But with help from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mrs. Bentley was able to scrap that plan.

When the smoke cleared, Mr. McMillen was the loser, cast into a largely conservative area and unknown Eastern Shore territory.

It was a tough break for a lawmaker who some say had -- and still may have -- visions of one day entering the U.S. Senate. Comparisons were made to his friend Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Democrat who, like Mr. McMillen, is a former Rhodes scholar and pro-basketball player.

Fresh from the locker room, Mr. McMillen -- who had been called "Senator" by his teammates -- won his first political race in 1986 against GOP nominee Robert R. Neall by 428 votes.

His slim margin over Mr. Neall led to the nickname "Landslide McMillen," a jest he was able to put behind him only after winning the 1988 and 1990 elections with a considerable majority.

In his first years on Capitol Hill, some political observers felt Mr. McMillen never really found a niche. He was a fixture on the fund-raising circuit but not a legislator of substance, a careful moderate skilled at boosting his campaign war chest, they said.

That appeared to change somewhat two years ago when he won a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, among the most powerful on the Hill.

Mr. McMillen successfully pushed legislation that will create five federal "tele-work" centers, including one on the Eastern Shore. The satellite work centers will be electronically linked to Washington-based offices, allowing federal workers to live in outlying areas and avoid daily trips to Washington.

The 40-year-old lawmaker spent more than $1 million on his bid for the 1st District seat, portraying himself as "the independent congressman," who could do more for the district than a more junior Republican.

He was assured by campaign strategists that Mr. Gilchrest, the rumpled former teacher and house painter, won the 1990 race only because then Democratic incumbent Roy Dyson had been driven from office under a cloud of scandal.

But when polls still showed the two neck-and-neck, Mr. McMillen lashed out at Mr. Gilchrest with hard-hitting ads, one calling the GOP candidate a "famous liar" for not keeping a campaign promise to turn over his $35,000 congressional pay raise to charity.

The negative ads may have backfired with voters. And questions about Mr. McMillen's independence were raised when it was reported that much of his campaign funding came from special interest groups and individuals outside the state.

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