Joe Bish rode a $518 campaign to Cloud Nine

September 22, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Nobody much remembers Joe Bish anymore. When last seen, an entire week ago, his name was listed among the also-rans in the race for Helen Bentley's vacated congressional seat. Everybody in the world knew he never had a chance. Everybody, except . . .

Except, late into Tuesday night, with the returns coming in from Harford County, eastern Baltimore County and northern Anne Arundel County, the numbers revealed the stunning fact that the guy nobody knew was somehow leading the pack of six 2nd District Democratic candidates.

The expected leaders, Gerry Brewster and Connie DeJuliis, were state delegates who practice politics for a living, and saw a seat in the U.S. Congress as the next logical step in their careers.

Joe Bish's glamorous career consists of the following: At 37, he has worked in a bakery owned by his uncle and aunt, and he now works for Westinghouse as a computer program analyst.

"Where did he come from?" Connie DeJuliis asked yesterday. "God knows, 'cause we sure don't."

And now nobody thinks much about Bish anymore because, when the voting was completed, the final count was:

Brewster: 26,335.

DeJuliis: 24,525.

Bish: 13,157.

But there's another figure that matters, and makes Bish's finish remarkable to all, and a warning to many.

Brewster spent more than $200,000 on his campaign, and expects to spend at least that much in the general election.

DeJuliis spent about $150,000.

Joe Bish spent $518.

"That's right," he was saying yesterday, savoring the moment and already plotting the future. "Not bad for $518, huh?"

And not all of it was his own money, either. There was $150 in local campaign contributions, and $50 from somebody in Boston who saw his name in a magazine and decided to help out.

With $518, he was able to take out an ad in Harford County's Aegis, and another in the Dundalk Eagle. He purchased $92 worth of hats. Then he blew the rest of his dough on lawn signs.

And not entirely his own lawn signs, either. Bish went to trash dumps in Dundalk and Harford County, found wooden stakes from other people's political lawn signs left over from various 1992 campaigns, grabbed them up and thus saved a few more bucks.

TV ads? You gotta be kidding. Walk-around money? No shot.

Bish tried this visionary, seldom-used political tactic, in which he told voters what he thought, whether they agreed with him or not.

Though polls show a statewide desire to keep abortion legal, Bish is anti-choice. Though Maryland has been a national leader in fighting the National Rifle Association, Bish is pro-gun. Also, he's pro-business, which some consider code for anti-union.

All of this will be duly noted by supporters of Ellen Sauerbrey, who's running for governor and has been hoping not too many people would notice she's against abortion and gun control.

"My feeling was, 'Tell 'em where you stand,' " says Bish. "When I told this to my friends, they said, 'Are you crazy? You'll be lucky to get a hundred votes.' So everybody knew where I stood, and all the political technicians can't figure it out, because I wound up with more votes than 26 of the 33 congressional candidates around the state.

"Listen, I'm trying to be a leader, not wait to see which way the wind's blowing. I got my message out by going to meetings, talking to people on the street. My opponents had $250,000 to spend. If I'd had $25,000, I'd have beaten them. Hell, maybe $2,500."

In fact, says Connie DeJuliis, Bish was able to run with other people's money. In the last five days of the campaign, she says, there was a flood of mail, "40,000 pieces of literature" sent across the district by anti-abortion forces, noting Bish's position, plus "the Sunday before the election, preaching in churches across Harford County about abortion, and how Bish was against it. And there's a strong conservative streak in a lot of those voters."

Bish swept Harford County, nearly doubling the votes of Brewster and DeJuliis. He says he'll run again in two years. This time, he won't be shy about asking for money. And nobody will wonder: Where did this guy come from?

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