Door-knock contest in 4th District

October 25, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

For months, Democrat Bill D. Burlison has systematically knocked on every one of the approximately 12,000 doors in West County's 4th District, then followed up the visits with handwritten postcards as he has campaigned for the County Council.

It's a system he honed in his years as a congressman from Missouri and in two unsuccessful runs for the Maryland House of Delegates. "I do systematic and sophisticated follow-up to remind people that you were the one who was by to see them," he said.

But for all that work, the people in the district still don't know the man, countered Bert L. Rice, his Republican opponent.

"I feel like Mr. Burlison, he is a very slick campaigner," said Mr. Rice, 56, a retired Army colonel. "But they do not know the person . . . other than [he's the one] writing a cute note to them saying he was glad to see them and they have a nice cat or dog."

It isn't that Mr. Rice hasn't knocked on doors in this campaign. "It's a very effective campaign tool," he said, estimating that he will have been to about 6,000 homes by election day, Nov. 8. "But I ask you, how well do they know this person? Because he has a marred background."

He was referring to controversies in the late 1970s and 1980 that may have contributed to his loss in 1980 of the congressional seat he had held for 12 years.

In September 1978, Mr. Burlison, 63, was accused of improperly interceding for a woman who had been suspended from her job as postmaster of Malden, Mo., after $2,000 in stamp money was found missing. She was reinstated to a job in the St. Louis post office.

Later that month, Missouri newspapers reported that Mr. Burlison was having breakfast at the home of the woman, who he described as an old school friend, when her estranged husband arrived and a scuffle ensued. Mr. Burlison said at the time that he was there on constituent business and with his wife's knowledge.

In 1980, another controversy erupted when Mr. Burlison mailed $12 checks to several constituents asking for their help in his re-election campaign and offering the money to compensate them for their time and expenses. No charges were filed against Mr. Burlison in either incident.

"It's a character thing. The whole thing, it's just bad judgment," Mr. Rice said. "People today have just accepted that as a way of doing business."

But those charges are "15 to 20 years old," Mr. Burlison replied.

"They had no merit and no substance at that time," he said. "It's just a last-minute desperation on the part of Mr. Rice. He realizes he's lost the race."

And he argues that the Ronald Reagan landslide that carried his Republican opponent into office in 1980 had more to do with his defeat than claims of impropriety.

When it comes to swaying 4th District voters, each candidate points to his experience.

Mr. Burlison said his extensive political background, which includes terms as a county school board president and state's attorney in Missouri in addition to his stint in Congress, is the most important asset he would bring to the council.

"I've had much more training and much more experience in government than Mr. Rice," he said. "I think that's important, particularly in the context of tight budgets and [property] tax caps."

Mr. Rice said his extensive involvement in the community, which includes serving on the committee planning the Odenton Town Center and as president of his community association, gives him an edge on Mr. Burlison.

"I think it comes down basically to familiarity with the issues, working those issues at the grass-roots level alongside the community associations," Mr. Rice said. "He hasn't been involved in things here in District 4."

Mr. Rice noted that his opponent has lived in the district for only two years, since he moved from Crofton to Odenton.

But Mr. Burlison, who moved to Crofton from Prince George's County in 1984, argued that because his law office was in the 4th District, he knows the issues well.

Growth is big issue

"I've always been in District 4, but I slept five or six hours a night in my legal residence," he said. "So I'm not exactly a carpetbagger."

Although they may squabble over qualifications, they agree that the most important issue facing West County is the rapid increase in growth and development. It is a sensitive issue among residents in the district, which includes Piney Orchard, Russett and Seven Oaks, three of the county's five largest new subdivisions.

"It's going to be a very fast-growing area of the county," said county demographer Alexander Speer.

Hostility toward growth has focused on the Washington Redskins' plans to build a 78,600-seat NFL stadium near Laurel. Both candidates oppose the project, a popular stance among many residents. But Mr. Burlison is fond of reminding voters of his early opposition.

"I instantly opposed it upon its announcement," he said last week at a candidate's forum. "I was the first candidate or public official in the county to take a public position in opposition to the stadium."

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