Gilchrest challenged by 5 in GOP vote House seat called safe

7 Democrats in race

Campaign 1996

February 29, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

There is choice and then some for whatever percentage of the 316,381 registered voters of Maryland's 1st Congressional District turns out for Tuesday's primary. Six Republicans, one of them the incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, and seven Democrats are in the race -- a surprising amount of opposition for a congressman in a seat many consider relatively safe.

In the spirit of Maryland's record number of candidates in congressional races this year, the contest has drawn an unusually high number of hopefuls from a range of backgrounds. There are two poultry farmers, an accountant, a bed-and-breakfast owner, a computer salesman, a furniture store manager and an anesthesiologist.

But Mr. Gilchrest is unlikely to lose his seat to any of them, say political observers.

"People perceive him as doing a good job," says Michael O'Loughlin, an associate professor of political science at Salisbury State University. "Politically, he seems to be secure."

"I don't think he's that vulnerable," agrees James G. Gimpel, an assistant professor of government at the University of Maryland College Park. "Gilchrest is perhaps being hit by these conservatives who think that he has not toed the line enough. I could see where some could try to get to the right of him."

Indeed, at least eight of those opposing him are doing just that, hoping to win the support of the historically conservative 1st District, which includes the entire Eastern Shore of Maryland and stretches across the Chesapeake Bay to slice into part of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Its voters have supported Republicans in the past two presidential elections. And the five Republicans opposing Mr. Gilchrest all say they are more conservative than he is.

Mr. Gilchrest's explanation for why a dozen people chose to run against him is even simpler and characteristically wry.

"I always encourage people to participate in the political process," says the congressman who is seeking a fourth term. "I guess maybe they're taking advantage of my suggestion."

Mr. Gilchrest, who says he will focus on constituent service and economic development if he wins re-election, has demonstrated an independence on several issues that has ruffled some feathers on both Eastern and Western shores.

"When he speaks before the Congress of the United States, he should be speaking for the voters, and I don't think he is," says James Plack. Mr. Plack, a 46-year-old furniture store manager from McDaniel, is one of the five Republican candidates opposing Mr. Gilchrest in the primary.

fTC Mr. Plack points to votes on gun control and environmental regulations as examples of the lawmaker's losing touch with conservative constituents.

Mr. Gilchrest, who voted against an assault weapons ban in 1991, supported a gun control measure in 1994. He also has been an advocate of strong measures to protect and preserve the Chesapeake Bay. That support, say opponents, has come at the expense of individual property rights.

"I suggest environmental integrity, not environmental terrorism," says Bradlyn McClanahan III, another GOP hopeful. Mr. McClanahan, 45, is the president of Disabilities Resources Inc., an Annapolis firm that provides assistance to the disabled.

The other three GOP candidates -- poultry farmers Thomas Anderson, 52, of Berlin and James Timothy King, 40, of Pocomoke City, and Robert Gawthrop, 31, a high school teacher Baltimore -- are equally conservative and critical of Mr. Gilchrest's record.

On the Democratic side, seven candidates are seeking the nomination.

Ralph Gies, an accountant who lives in Gambrills, is making his third attempt to represent the 1st District.

"I ran in 1994 and I did win the Democratic nomination, despite the fact that the central committee thought I was too conservative," he says. In 1992, he ran as a write-in candidate.

Also on the Democratic ballot are two others who have previously sought the seat, James Brown and Steve Eastaugh, as well as Michael Maloney, Nancy Centofante, Janice Lynn Graham and John Rea.

"My motivation is that Democrats have not selected a nominee in tune with the 1st District -- they're a bit too liberal for the folks here," says James Brown, 47, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor who lives in Denton.

Ms. Centofante, a Chestertown anesthesiologist, says that the politicization of medicine was a strong factor in her decision to run.

"Medicine has become a political issue and I know more about it at the down-home, practical level," says the 41-year-old candidate. "I thought it was time to introduce some common sense into the debate."

A variety of motives put the remaining four Democrats into the primary race.

For Mr. Maloney, Dorchester County state's attorney, crime and economic development were critical issues.

"They're critical. Unless we can control our crime a little better, the other issues like job development and education and health care are going to take a back seat," says Mr. Maloney, who is also a former police officer.

Steve Eastaugh, who is making his second attempt to win the congressional seat, says he is concerned with jobs, education, health care and the environment.

"I think our priorities are all wrong," he says. He describes himself as a fiscally responsible Democrat "who believes in the Jimmy Stewart philosophy of here's looking out for the other guy."

For Janice Lynn Graham, party issues were a factor in the decision to run.

"He gets a lot of good Democratic votes," Ms. Graham says of the incumbent. She wants to provide a moderate alternative for Democratic voters.

And John Rea, 35, an Annapolis computer salesman, says he is concerned about getting the 1st District its share of jobs and economic development.

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