1st District Democratic hopeful battles obscurity Bipartisan support for incumbent also challenges Eastaugh

September 03, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- It's a rainy Friday night, and 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate Steven R. Eastaugh is campaigning hard at the Queen Anne's County 4-H Fair.

He makes his way through the agriculture tent, where corn and tomatoes are stacked tall and wide, past booths for pellet wood stoves, the Chesapeake Ruritan Clubs, the Queen Anne's Holstein Association, and stops at an educational booth to introduce himself.

"You're taking on Wayne Gilchrest?" asks Kathy Terry, a Queen Anne's resident working in the booth. When he says yes, adding that he's been endorsed by the Maryland State Teachers Association, she nods thoughtfully but says nothing.

He moves to other booths in the tent, and Terry tells a reporter that she's a registered Democrat but should be described as undecided in this race.

"I've never heard of this gentleman," she says of Eastaugh. "And I've been a very political person all my life." Asked about Eastaugh's opponent, Republican incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest, she says approvingly: "I think he functions on common sense. Mr. Gilchrest is a very good gentleman."

Terry's comments illuminate two obstacles -- the strong bipartisan support Gilchrest has earned during six years in Congress and Eastaugh's obscurity as a political figure -- faced by Eastaugh in an uphill contest.

Eastaugh characterizes the race as a "David and Goliath" battle. Other political observers say the chances of a biblical-style upset in November are almost nonexistent.

"My last listing was 115 to 120 top races -- what I consider races where the out party has a reasonable chance," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes a Washington-based newsletter on congressional elections. Of the contest in the 1st District -- which includes the Eastern Shore, much of Anne Arundel County and a sliver of Baltimore City -- he says flatly, "It's not even on my radar screen."

It has the feel of a race that is not necessarily on the voters' radar screen either, at least not yet.

Although both candidates have raised respectable amounts of money -- as of June 30, Eastaugh had reported $141,187 in net receipts to the Federal Election Commission and Gilchrest $174,501 -- the campaign battle has not been joined.

That could change when the candidates begin a series of six debates on the Shore and in Anne Arundel County.

Gilchrest says his priorities for a fourth term are economic development and the Chesapeake Bay. The issues are linked, and both need a regional approach, rather than counties working alone to lure jobs and protect the bay.

"They're intimately involved," he says of the bay and economic development. "It not only means economic development in the job sense of the word, but it means to get 10 counties [in the district] together -- the school systems, the county commissions, the business community. You say, 'How do we regionalize our approach?' In a free-market economy, you have to work as a team."

Gilchrest says he would like to have regular regional meetings involving leaders from each county to develop a unified approach to attracting business. Most important in attracting and keeping business, he says, is quality of life -- clean air, clean water, planned development.

The congressman says he will look for ways to find regional solutions to district problems; Eastaugh has taken a wider and less specific view. He is offering the Democrats' national programs and initiatives to ease such problems as teen pregnancy, health care and affordable health insurance.

"The key issue for me is jobs and child-only health care," says Eastaugh, who is promoting a children-only health insurance plan that would allow low-income families to buy insurance policies for their children.

He wants to strengthen Medicare. "Medicare works -- let's keep it," he says.

He also supports welfare reform and a tax deduction for tuition payments.

Although the two candidates agree that jobs are important, they differ widely in nearly everything else, including campaign styles.

Eastaugh, a professor of public health at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, has been aggressive in attacking Gilchrest politically, portraying himself as one soldier in the Democratic battle against the Republican national agenda.

"This is the only chance that voters in the 1st District have to register a vote on [Newt] Gingrich's performance," says Eastaugh's campaign manager, Steve Fogleman.

Eastaugh calls his agenda "Families First," sounding the Democratic themes of educational opportunity, federal assistance on health care and corporate responsibility in his literature and news conferences.

Gilchrest, a soft-spoken Kennedyville resident who was a schoolteacher and a house painter before he won the seat in 1990, has run a low-key campaign. He supports Bob Dole but historically has been willing to diverge from the GOP national agenda to carve out his priorities, particularly on environmental issues.

He discusses the issues -- jobs and the environment -- in thoughtful, measured statements with few references to party politics.

"He's sort of an environmental, moderate Republican," says Rothenberg, the political observer who publishes a newsletter on congressional races.

The 1st District voter registration suggests a Democratic advantage. Figures as of February provided by the State Administrative Board of Election Laws show 166,722 registered Democrats and 119,584 Republicans. The population of the district, according to 1990 census figures, was 597,684.

But the key factor in the race may be the district's political nature, not its numbers.

"I regard that district as tilting Republican. There's a lot of Southern flavor there," Rothenberg says.

"Even the Democrats are conservative out here," says Joe Gannon, a Queen Anne's Democrat active in county and state politics.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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