Dhillon fund-raising causes stir

February 07, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A 31-year-old former congressional aide has raised nearly a quarter-million dollars, virtually all of it from out of state, in his bid to unseat Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.

Neil S. Dhillon raised $242,000 between July and December, more than 10 times the amount that Mr. Bartlett, the freshman Republican, raised in the same period, according to a copy of a campaign finance report the Cumberland Democrat sent to the Federal Election Commission.

Mr. Dhillon's fund raising, far outstripping that of other candidates, has become the talk of 6th District politics.

Though he has never run for public office, Mr. Dhillon is expected to be a major factor in the September Democratic primary. Some rivals are already charging that he is trying to buy the congressional seat.

"It makes him a force to be reckoned with," said Thomas G. Slater, chairman of the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee. "But, he's also a force to be reckoned with because he's got a good record and is a presentable candidate."

In contrast to Mr. Dhillon, Mr. Bartlett raised only $22,600 and had $6,200 in his treasury at the end of the year, a meager sum for an incumbent.

Moreover, his campaign is still $61,000 in debt -- all owed to Mr. Bartlett -- from the 1992 contest. For all of 1993, Mr. Bartlett raised $54,000.

Mr. Bartlett, who spent about $300,000 in his 1992 race, would not comment on Mr. Dhillon's fund-raising, other than to note that most of the funds came from outside Maryland.

The GOP conservative denied that he is having trouble raising money, saying campaigns are too long and too expensive and that he doesn't plan to begin his re-election effort until later in the year.

Meantime, he is maintaining a busy schedule of appearances in Western Maryland that, while billed as congressional activities, are part of an incumbent's effort to stay in office.

The only other candidate who has filed a campaign finance report is Democrat Donald McC. DeArmon, of Frederick, an aide to a North Carolina congressman, who said he raised $5,400 in the last six months of 1993 -- and a total of $16,700 for the entire year. He ended the year with a little under $10,000 in cash.

Mr. Dhillon, whose parents were born in India, relied heavily on the Indian community in the United States for donations.

Mr. Dhillon's contributions included $11,600 from special-interest political committees and nearly $231,000 from individual contributions. Of the individual contributions, $76,000 was from donors who were not identified because they gave $200 or less. Of the other $154,000, less than $5,000 came from 6th District residents, and less than $20,000 came from Marylanders.

Mr. Dhillon said he plans to raise $600,000 for the campaign, the same amount that state Del. Thomas Hattery spent in 1992 when he defeated Rep. Beverly B. Byron in the primary. He lost the general election to Mr. Bartlett.

Virtually unknown in the 6th District, which stretches from Ellicott City to the West Virginia border, Mr. Dhillon has amazed Western Maryland politicians with his fund raising.

"This makes him a player" in the campaign, said one Western Maryland elected official who refused to be identified.

On the other hand, the money has opened him to criticism.

"I have an aversion to this 'I'm going to buy the seat' attitude," said Galen R. Clagett, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination. Mr. Clagett, a former Frederick County commissioner, said he has not yet raised or spent $5,000, the threshold at which candidates for Congress are required to register with the Federal Election Commission and periodically file campaign spending reports.

"I don't intend to raise or spend that kind of money," he added. "It's almost obscene."

Mr. Dhillon was born in 1962 in London, where his parents lived for 10 years before emigrating to the United States. They settled in Cumberland, where they still live, when Mr. Dhillon was 6 years old.

Mr. Dhillon left Cumberland in 1982 to attend American University in Washington and began working on Capitol Hill while in college.

He has served on four congressional staffs, including two years working for Mrs. Byron. Mr. Dhillon spent his last four years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to Rep. Robert T. Matsui of California, treasurer of the Democratic Party.

He said he left a job as deputy assistant secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration to run against Mr. Bartlett.

He moved back to Cumberland last July, when he registered his candidacy with the FEC.

Mr. Dhillon said he is running because the district deserves effective representation, and Mr. Bartlett has failed to provide it. He cited the London Fog closure of a factory in Boonsboro last month that threw 300 people out of work. Mrs. Byron had steered Defense Department work to the plant, saving its jobs, when he worked for her, Mr. Dhillon said.

He has spent much of his time in the last six months on the road, holding fund-raisers in California, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas.

"I'm very proud of the support I've received from my family and friends," he said yesterday.

He is spending a lot of time making the rounds of Democratic Party organizations in Western Maryland. Rick Hemphill, vice chairman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, said Mr. Dhillon "by and large made a good impression" last Tuesday on the committee.

"He seems to be a very credible candidate."

Mr. Hemphill said it is too early to tell what impact Mr. Dhillon's large campaign treasury will have on the race. "Elections are won by votes cast, and money alone won't get that," he said.

"You can tell he comes from Washington and knows the campaign process," said Mr. Hemphill.

But, he added, "You can be too professional in this district. You can be too slick."

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