McMillen blames redistricting THE POLITICAL SCENE

'WE GAVE IT OUR BEST SHOT'

November 21, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It is a common scene on Capitol Hill these days.

Folded cardboard boxes lean against a wall. An aide places calls in hopes of finding a new job. Within the inner sanctum, a #F lawmaker offers a postmortem on defeat at the polls and prospects for the future.

In the end, says Rep. Tom McMillen, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, it was a redistricting map weighted toward Republican voters and the Eastern Shore that led to his loss at the hands of GOP Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Mr. McMillen, 40, a former pro basketball player and businessman, insists he is not bitter about the turn of events, calmly comparing his defeat to a sports career that became accustomed to victories and defeats. He seems like a man reviewing a tape of the big game. "We gave it our best shot," he says with a shrug, stretching his 6-foot-11 frame into a chair.

He is uncertain whether 1993 will find him as part of the business world or a member of the Clinton administration. He is talking with Clinton transition officials and private corporations about possible positions, although he would not elaborate.

The congressman says he has not ruled out seeking political office again. Asked about the possibility of a statewide run, he says, "I don't rule out anything as far as politics. I'm going to stay very active in Maryland politics."

In talking about his loss, Mr. McMillen is quick to point out that his state Democratic colleagues could suffer the same fate he did as a result of the redistricting map they approved.

"I think the dominoes of this could lead to a Republican governor," he says. "I think it was folly for a Democratic state to pass a Republican plan."

The redistricting measure, passed last fall by the state legislature and signed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, put Mr. McMillen in a GOP-dominated district. It also made the Western Maryland district more conservative, protected GOP Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County, and left Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Prince George's County Democrat, more vulnerable to Republican attack.

"I told Steny, 'You're the target of the GOP in the state of Maryland, because we as a party did not get together and figure out what was the best plan for our party,' " Mr. McMillen says. "If Clinton or the Democratic Party stumble, the GOP will be [targeting] other members who heretofore have been protected. today; someone tomorrow."

At the heart of the matter, Mr. McMillen says, was the governor's move to provide a favorable district for his friend Mrs. Bentley, whom Mr. McMillen and some other Democrats wanted to link in a district with Mr. Gilchrest. They also wanted to make sure each of the eight congressional districts had a strong Democratic base.

"The governor's decision to protect Helen will have great consequences for the Democratic Party in the state of Maryland," he says of Mr. Schaefer, who also backed President Bush in the election.

Maryland Democrats could have banded together and successfully fought the governor, argues Mr. McMillen. But the Democrats quickly fragmented. "What I found -- in a very interesting lesson -- is that personal careers and geography are higher on the list, much higher on the list, than your own party," he says.

The congressman did not appear ready to criticize anyone. But his aides have privately faulted Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore for helping draft the final map, which pitted Mr. McMillen against another incumbent -- one of five such matchups nationwide.

Some more Democratic turf in Baltimore City or Baltimore County could have helped Mr. McMillen, but political leaders there did not want to be linked to an Eastern Shore district. Similar concerns prevented Democratic portions of Montgomery County from being used to help cushion Mr. Hoyer's Southern Maryland district.

Although Mr. Hoyer was victorious, he faced a tough fight from GOP nominee Larry Hogan Jr., a candidate with little political experience who was outspent by Mr. Hoyer by about 6-to-1. Mr. Hogan still managed to capture 45 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, says Mr. McMillen, Democratic Rep. Beverly Byron of Frederick wanted more conservative areas to blunt a possible primary challenge from state Del. Tom Hattery. But Mr. Hattery defeated her -- only to lose the general election to conservative Republican Roscoe Bartlett.

The congressman says he did the best he could with the cards he was dealt, repeating over and over that no other candidate could have produced a better showing. (Mr. Gilchrest received 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Mr. McMillen.)

"I can tell you this: There is no one -- Ben Cardin or Steny or anybody -- who could have gone into that district and done any better than we did," he says.

From the start, the numbers were against him, he said. Fifty-seven percent of the district was located on the Eastern Shore, the home turf of his opponent, and only 43 percent of the district's voters tended to vote Democrat.

Polling figures showed a strong desire among Shore voters for a Shore candidate, says Mr. McMillen -- so much so that his pollster recommended he not run.

But, he says, "my hubris felt I could overcome those odds."

He outspent his opponent 5-to-1, buying TV ads and carpeting the district with fliers.

"We tried different strategies. We tried positive, negative," he says. "We mixed it up. It didn't matter."

"We fought the good fight," he says matter-of-factly. "It didn't work out."

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