Veteran legislator faces man with no record



WARREN, Mich. -- Democratic Rep. Sander Levin, seeking his seventh term in the House, is a frustrated but determined man. He considers himself a hard-working and often successful congressman faced with defending his record amid an electorate brimful of cynicism that is fanned by a Republican opponent with no elective record at all.

That opponent, retired Army Col. John Pappageorge, lost to Levin in 1992 by only 53 percent to 46 percent in his first try, in Michigan's new 12th Congressional District. This time he is back with a small army of volunteers and a throw-the-rascals-out public mood. He speaks in generalities about controlling "the quality of our lives" through less government and more individual responsibility, sounding often like Ross Perot.

Pappageorge's literature -- his campaign is based largely on direct mail, not television advertising -- even uses Perotisms. "Sander Levin voted against the people of this area," one piece says. "Again and again. John Pappageorge won't. It is that simple."

But Levin argues vigorously that it is not that simple. In debate after debate here, he defends his votes, particularly the one supporting President Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction package. He points to government statistics indicating the deficit has dropped for two straight years and will continue to fall for a third. As a result, he says, the economy of the district, the state and the nation has recovered.

Levin is finding, however, what other Democratic incumbents are finding around the country -- that voters in their cynicism don't seem to believe such news, or that it benefits them.

Pappageorge continues to insist that the deficit is growing as a result of liberal Democratic tax-and-spend policies, and that view squares with today's dominant impression that Congress is incapable of doing anything constructive.

Levin correctly observed in one debate that far from being a runaway tax-and-spend body, the Democratic Congress appropriated less money than President Ronald Reagan asked for during his eight-year tenure. Pappageorge simply ignored the comment.

Defending the crime bill that he supported is another frustration for Levin, especially with Pappageorge clamoring for more local say in such matters. Levin exploded in one debate when his opponent called the bill "a sham" laden with social welfare "pork." Levin said he had worked with local police chiefs in helping to shape the bill and included such things as "midnight basketball" -- a pet Republican target -- at their urging. But Pappageorge stuck to his guns. "We need a crime bill," he insisted, "not a welfare bill."

Part of Levin's frustration is that his opponent has no legislative record for him to criticize. In the absence of one, Levin like many other Democratic candidates takes aim at the "Contract With America" that several hundred Republican House candidates including Pappageorge signed on the steps of the Capitol.

The contract is a list of longtime Republican objectives including a balanced-budget amendment, the line-item veto, more prisons and stiffer sentences for criminals, welfare reform, tax cuts, more defense spending, rolling back government regulations and congressional term limits. The signers pledged that all these matters would be brought to a vote in the first 100 days of a GOP-controlled House.

Levin charges that the fiscal aspects of this package are a throwback to the 1980s' policies that mushroomed the deficit by $3.5 trillion. He says Pappageorge in signing the contract put himself in the hands of Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, who would move up to Senate majority leader and House speaker in a Republican Congress.

Levin insists that his only masters are his constituents and warns them: "Beware of those who contract with Washington instead of you." It is incumbent Levin, however, who is "Washington" in this race.

In the end, Levin's retention of his House seat will depend on whether the voters see his record as a worthy one, or see him, as Pappageorge insists, as just part of the problem in Washington.

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