GOP presents challenge in district Democratic 6th still independent in electoral choices

October 12, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the sunlit swirl of the Essex Day festival, Joseph A. DiCara's booth stood festooned with campaign colors of blue and white, a lonely Republican outpost in the overwhelmingly Democratic stronghold of Baltimore County's east side.

"How do you feel with both of your parents running for the House of Delegates in the 6th District?" a festivalgoer asked DiCara's son, Tony, who was working the campaign station with his mother, Sheila.

Stunned, the younger DiCara explained that his mother was being confused with incumbent Diane DeCarlo, the Essex Democrat and saloon proprietor battling his father for one of three district House seats in the Nov. 3 general election.

Such confusion might be the cocktail party buzz in more genteel political contests. But in the county's rough-and-tumble eastern quarter, the DiCara-DeCarlo issue is just part of a festive atmosphere in a district characterized by machine politics, intrigue and eccentricities.

While a major shift in the predominantly Democratic district is unlikely this year, the 6th could produce some surprises because of continuing fallout from the Clinton scandal and a growing number of more independent-thinking voters.

"The machine is being tested," says William Wright, a political worker in Middle River and a former unionist in Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s mills. "From the days of [former Baltimore County Executive] Dale Anderson, the east side has been a district with occasional surprises but always with the powerful machine working in the background."

In the key race of the district -- which stretches from revitalized waterfront communities to a sliver of southern Harford County -- Sen. Michael J. Collins, a lifelong Democrat, faces a strong challenge from Republican Del. Kenneth Holt, a House freshman.

Observers say Holt, strong in the northern reaches of the district, such as Kingsville, could draw a number of swing votes in Essex and Middle River and unseat Collins, who earned prominence this year as co-chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee that recommended expelling West Baltimore Sen. Larry Young.

After prominent Democratic County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo lost in the neighboring 7th District's primary, Republicans are energized and smelling blood, leaving Democrats to wonder how many voters might defect to the GOP.

"Political parties are mattering less and less in Baltimore County and nationwide," said Doris J. Suter, election administrator since 1980.

William Sears, a citizen activist from the Back River Neck area, says that as the 6th District changes, old school politics will disappear.

"For instance, you have in Essex the old union people who are staunch Democrats in spite of the fact they are not totally familiar with the voting records of people they support," said Sears. "We have voters who are on welfare rolls to corporate CEOs in our district, representing all areas of the political spectrum and viewpoints."

He added, "Some bare-knuckle politics might still be around, but it's changing. It has to."

Besides DeCarlo, the Democratic candidates for the House are Nancy Hubers, an activist and businesswoman, and Del. Michael H. Weir, seeking his seventh term.

In addition to DiCara, Republicans running for the House are Michael J. Davis, a retired Essex engineer, and Timothy P. Knepp, a lawyer from Chase. Knepp, like DiCara, converted from the Democratic Party to the GOP.

Since the 1960s, Republican affiliation has meant almost certain political death in the eastern part of the county, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about four to one. But that dominance could be fading.

"A couple Republicans could win this time because people aren't worried as much about party loyalty anymore. They are going for the person they see as the best candidate," said Al Clasing, an activist on Back River Neck Peninsula.

But Hubers predicts that the Collins-Holt race will galvanize Democratic voters in the 6th. "The real test for Holt will be one on one, and he won't do as well as he did four years ago [when there were] lots of people in the race," said Hubers.

In 1994, Holt won the GOP primary handily in a field of eight candidates.

Holt, a Bradshaw resident, bristles at characterizations from one Essex resident, John Klutz III, who called him a "missionary coming down from his country farm to tell us how to take care of ourselves."

"That person has not seen the hard work we've put in for the people of the 6th District," Holt said. "My race with Senator Collins is about the issues and work performance, nothing else."

In the House race, DeCarlo angered the Democratic leadership all the way to Towson when she filed a police report in August accusing two Collins campaign workers of stealing her political signs. Some observers believe that DeCarlo -- who has been endorsed by C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the powerful Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association -- will lose points among her fellow Democrats.

DeCarlo and Collins have been the victims of political hate mail.

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