In 7th District race, a gaggle of unknowns Nine of the 32 candidates making 1st bid for office

Campaign 1996

March 01, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

When Kweisi Mfume announced in December he was leaving his 7th District congressional seat, the floodgates opened for would-be replacements, and in the end, a record 27 Democrats and five Republicans had filed for Tuesday's primary.

The largest group of those candidates was made up of complete unknowns -- that gaggle of dreamers who believe they have the right stuff to represent Maryland on Capitol Hill.

Consider this lineup, all Democrats: Vincent R. Cuffari, Ava Mae Herndon, Gregory P. McDonald, Wayne C. McLaughlin, E. Peter Melcavage II, Traci K. Miller, Craig Glenn Ring, Joseph E. Ward and Barney J. Wilson.

Another three Democrats who filed -- Mark J. Einstein, Dora Due Logue and Gregory T. Truitt -- have dropped out of the race, though their names still will appear on the ballot.

But jumping out of that generally anonymous pack was Ms. Miller, an ambitious 28-year-old city prosecutor in the juvenile system who took a leave of absence to run for office.

Ms. Miller, whose diminutive stature belies the power of her presence before an audience, has wowed the city's political establishment and charmed the folks she has encountered along the campaign trail.

Strangers embrace Ms. Miller, telling her, "You make me so proud." Other candidates smile fondly when she rises to speak at forums and applaud when she finishes.

"She is indeed our hope for the future," said Del. Clarence Davis, an East Baltimore legislator who's also running. "When you look at her -- she looks good, she's articulate -- she's like perfection in terms of what the African-American community wants the next generation to be."

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Northeast Baltimore legislator who is also in the race, agreed.

"She's a 5-foot-2 ball of fire," Mr. Montague said. "She truly has been the pleasant surprise of the campaign."

She has won other fans along the way.

Take Helen J. Richardson, 64, a retired waitress who is president of the Tenant Council at the Lakeview Towers public housing complex. After hearing Ms. Miller speak to residents there, she volunteered to work on her campaign.

"I just liked what she said and the way she said it," said Ms. Richardson, as she stuffed envelopes with campaign literature. "She reminds me a lot of my daughter."

Ms. Miller has worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide to Rep. Harold E. Ford, the Tennessee Democrat, and was a field organizer on the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's presidential campaign.

She may be a newcomer to politics as a candidate, but she is no political neophyte. Her contacts helped with a couple of endorsements -- including that of Julian Bond, the former Democratic congressman from Georgia.

"My campaign represents a new generation of new leadership," she said, repeating her campaign theme. "I am prepared to help usher the 7th Congressional District into the 21st century -- which means we have to be prepeared as a community, educationally, economically, technologically and socially."

Another candidate who has caught the attention of voters is Mr. Wilson, who is using his first name as a hook. He is trying to capitalize on the color purple and a logo similar to that of the cartoon dinosaur, Barney, for name recognition.

But there is nothing cartoonish about his campaign -- or message.

Offering himself as an alternative to the better-known candidates in the race, Mr. Wilson says, "True leadership is not going to come from the ministers; it's not going to come from career politicians; it's not going to come from the lawyers. It's going to come from someone who has a strange and unusual background -- like me."

Mr. Wilson, 37, resides in Reisterstown, owns a landscaping firm and is a full-time professor of business at the University of Baltimore. He also is the former regional director of the Small Business Development Center, a division of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and oversaw job creation and business loans in five Baltimore counties.

But as the campaign has worn on, he has clearly become more exasperated in his first brush with the political process.

"I'm frustrated with the people trying to buy their way into office, or being bought into office," he said. "We always say we want someone with certain skills but what people really want is a personality contest.

"All of this is very frustrating to me, especially when I see a district that's spiraling downwards," he said. "It just appears to me that people are asleep."

At one forum this week, he urged voters not to vote for the better-known candidates but for him -- or Ms. Miller.

"We keep electing the type of people, over and over again, even though they haven't done what they're supposed to have done at the level they are now," Mr. Wilson said, clearly referring to the five legislators in the race.

Mr. McLaughlin, 52, is an operations analyst for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on leave from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt to run for Congress.

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