3 vying in bid to challenge Gilchrest

Democrats undaunted by GOP incumbent's hold on 1st District

March 03, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

It's been nearly a decade since Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has been seriously challenged for his 1st District seat in Congress. This year, with no opposition in his own party, the five-term Republican is stumping for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid.

But a trio of Democrats -- undaunted by the long odds against knocking off an incumbent and unimpressed by Gilchrest's track record of attracting bipartisan support in the far-flung district -- is scrambling to be the nominee to take him on in the November general election.

State Del. Bennett Bozman, a veteran Annapolis insider from Worcester County who sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has been busy lining up lock-step support from Democratic leaders around the state who believe the affable pharmacist has a shot.

Two years after coming in a close second in the Democratic primary, retired Army paratrooper Michael J. Serabian Sr. has never really stopped campaigning. He's recruited a cadre of volunteers, raised more than $40,000 and put together an elaborate Web site touting his positions on everything from Medicare funding to education and the environment.

Annapolis computer salesman John Rea, 40, is making his fourth bid for the Democratic nomination. In the last 12 years, Rea has run for Annapolis mayor and council and in 1994 campaigned for Anne Arundel County Council. Over the years, Rea figures virtually every Democrat in Anne Arundel County (where 46 percent of the district's voters live) has received his direct-mail material or seen his newspaper ads.

A fourth candidate, Donald David Long, a purchasing agent from Wicomico County, will appear on the ballot Tuesday. Long, however, has not returned phone calls and apparently is no longer actively campaigning.

The challengers -- who all say they can do better than Irvin Pinder, a Queen Anne's County Democrat who lost to Gilchrest more than 2-to-1 in 1998 -- have spent little time attacking one another, focusing instead on Gilchrest.

Bozman, for instance, says Gilchrest is vulnerable because elderly voters are angry at the Republican-controlled Congress for cuts in Medicare that hit rural areas hard. All three Democrats say Medicare and Social Security are the key issues in the campaign.

The toughest battle for any of the challengers is garnering attention from voters in the sprawling district that covers more than 3,000 square miles from Curtis Bay to Pocomoke City.

Cobbled together by state lawmakers after the 1990 census, the district includes all nine Eastern Shore counties, a sliver of South Baltimore and a sizable chunk of Anne Arundel County, including Annapolis, Severna Park and Glen Burnie.

"Given its geography, with roughly half the population on the Shore and the other half across the bay, incumbency becomes even more important," said Harry Basehart, who heads the political science program at Salisbury State University.

"It's extremely difficult for any challenger because you're dealing with totally different media markets if you're going to reach everybody," Basehart said. "Even someone like Bennett Bozman, who's been in Annapolis a long time, won't have much name recognition outside his base on the Lower Shore."

Bozman supporters -- including party leaders such as Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Gov. Harry R. Hughes and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes -- say his efforts in recent months to build support in Anne Arundel County should pay off Tuesday.

Help from local officials like state Dels. Theodore J. Sophocleus and Michael E. Busch is crucial if Bozman is going to make a dent in areas where he is not well-known.

"Right now, I feel very good about the Western Shore," said Bozman, a 63-year-old former Worcester County commissioner who has served nine years in the State House. "I was worried about that, but we're getting good, solid support on that side of the bay."

Serabian, 45, whose lengthy record of community involvement in his home county is cataloged along with personal data and his military record in an impressive campaign Web site, is confident he can improve on his second-place 1998 primary showing. He believes Bozman's low-key style has not served him well.

"It's an absolute myth that Bozman is the front-runner, the better-known candidate," Serabian said. "He's an unknown from a county with 3 percent of the vote. He's out of his league on this one."

Conway Gregory, a political science professor at Chesapeake College, agrees with Serabian -- almost.

"Bennett Bozman is the only credible candidate, but he announced last fall and I don't see him running an aggressive campaign," said Gregory. "He's lost valuable time. Unless Gilchrest stumbles into some major scandal, he's a shoo-in. He could take 70 or 80 percent of the vote in November."

Political pollster and consultant Carol Arscott sees little chance that either Democrat could unseat Gilchrest, but she also sees few reasons they shouldn't try, particularly a state legislator like Bozman, who still has two years remaining in his House of Delegates term.

Bozman, she says, might also be hoping to position himself to take advantage of any changes made to congressional boundary lines after this year's census.

"There's really very little down side for a guy like Bennett Bozman," said Arscott. "He runs a good campaign for his party, he keeps his seat in Annapolis and he gets his name out there. Maybe lightning strikes."

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