In Essex, where political campaign signs sprout like late-summer mums, Michael J. Collins sits in a back room of his campaign headquarters on gritty Eastern Avenue looking for a fight.
But he isn't likely to find one immediately.
The incumbent state senator from eastern Baltimore County's 6th District appears the odds-on favorite to lead his ticket to victory in the primary Sept. 13.
Republicans are fielding a sizable share of contenders, but in a district where Democrats hold a disproportionate share of registered voters, GOP chances are viewed as slim in November's general election.
Twenty-one men and women in both parties are jockeying for seats in the Maryland House and Senate in the 6th District, among them Alfred E. Clasing Jr. of the Back River Neck area. Mr. Clasing, a longtime Bethlehem Steel employee who has served on the county Planning Board and in several civic organizations, is considered as the likely Republican opponent for Mr. Collins in the Nov. 8 general election.
The 6th, a heavily blue-collar district that has lost thousands of industrial jobs through the years, was adjusted slightly northward in the Baltimore County portion after the 1990 Census. It runs from Sweet Air Road in the northeast part of the county down the east side to the Chesapeake Bay and now also includes a long sliver of Harford County along Little Gunpowder Falls.
Even though Mr. Collins and his running mates are considered favorites, the senator said he is campaigning actively. "I never take my opponents or a race for granted," said Mr. Collins, 54, a former high school teacher.
As testimony to that, he said, he's stationed nearly every morning and evening on strategic street corners waving to voters and attending crab feasts and bull roasts scattered around the Eastside.
On the ticket with Mr. Collins is the county's House delegation chairman, E. Farrell Maddox, an eight-year legislative veteran from White Marsh, and Michael H. Weir, a 20-year House veteran from Essex. Both are lifelong Eastside residents.
"For us, the primary won't be as difficult as the general," said Mr. Weir, 70. "People on the Eastside favor American Joe [Miedusiewski] on the Democratic side and Helen [Delich Bentley] on the Republican side as gubernatorial candidates. The coattail sometimes makes a difference. . . . There could be a crossover to Helen by Democrats in the general if Parris Glendening gets in."
The Collins-Maddox-Weir ticket could not agree on endorsing a candidate for the House seat being vacated by Leslie Hutchinson, who is not seeking re-election.
Diane DeCarlo of White Marsh, who finished fourth in the past two primaries, is considered a strong contender as is Nancy Hubers of Middle River, former chairwoman of the board of trustees of Baltimore County Community Colleges.
"I'm out there to win and I'm taking me to the public," said Ms. DeCarlo, owner of a Middle River cocktail lounge and president of the county Licensed Beverage Association.
"Some people say I haven't been an active campaigner because they don't see me in the Democratic clubs. Instead, I have put up hundreds of yard signs, I've been waving on corners, I'm going door to door, going to the people."
Other Democratic House candidates are Jean H. Eyer of Hyde Park near Back River, Jean S. Spotts, a lawyer from White Marsh, and Linda Woodard Hart of Chase.
On the Republican side, Kenneth Holt of Bradshaw, a Baltimore County Police Foundation official, and Stephen Xintas, a tavern owner from Essex and former county Licensed Beverage Association president, appear the strongest in a crowded field.
Other Republican House candidates include Nancy Hastings of Kingsville; L. Keith Roberts of Essex; Bruce A. Laing, a Essex restaurateur; Robert Chaney of Kingsville; Thomas J. Kuegler Jr. of Essex; and Michael J. Davis of Essex.
Alexander Page Jr., 67, of Essex, a retired Baltimore County Orphans Court judge, is the only Democrat opposing Mr. Collins in the Senate race. Mr. Page has been running campaign advertisements in community newspapers alleging a conflict-of-interest deal by Mr. Collins during the 1993 session of the General Assembly.
Mr. Page claimed the senator received $5,000 in campaign contributions from people who benefited from a vote by Mr. Collins as a member of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
"I don't want to stir up a can of worms," Mr. Page said. "But . . . we need to be able to believe in our elected officials."
The vote on legislation to stop construction on a soil reclamation facility in Rosedale was not singularly affected by Mr. Collins, however. The bill was defeated by the panel, 11-0, and the plant began operating this summer after county and state approval.
Mr. Collins denied Mr. Page's charge. "I wish I could control my committee to get an 11-0 vote," he said. "Our vote was sound environmentally."