The right aims to make might in 1st District

The Political Game

Election: Moderate Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest faces a challenge from a conservative in the race for his long-held seat.

July 02, 2002|By Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn | Michael Dresser and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

REP. WAYNE T. Gilchrest, a moderate Eastern Shore Republican who has represented Maryland's 1st District since 1990, is facing what could be a credible challenge from the right as he seeks his seventh term in Congress.

David W. Fischer, a Timonium lawyer who claims close ties to national conservative activists, filed last week to challenge Gilchrest in the September GOP primary. He vows to spend more than $200,000 of his own money in the race.

"I expect major backing from powerful organizations, both inside and outside of the state," he said.

Gilchrest, who has coasted to victory in every election since a 1992 contest against Democratic Rep. Tom McMillen, is an ardent environmentalist who has strayed from Republican orthodoxy in defense of the Chesapeake Bay. He also was one of the few elected Maryland Republicans to back the 2000 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Fischer, 32, described himself as "a Reagan-George W. Bush Republican." He said he would run on a platform of lower taxes, gun rights and opposition to abortion.

The challenger said he had no intention of running for Congress until he learned that redistricting had put him in the 1st District, which now sprawls from the Eastern Shore to parts of Harford and Baltimore counties.

Upon looking up Gilchrest's record, Fischer said, "I literally fell out of my chair."

"I believe Congressman Gilchrest's liberal voting record does not reflect the beliefs of his new district," Fischer said. "A safe Republican seat deserves a congressman who will vote like a Republican."

The 1st District has been regarded as an Eastern Shore seat, but Fischer said redistricting has added about 44,000 new Republicans - mostly staunch conservatives - from Harford and Baltimore counties.

Tony Caliguiri, Gilchrest's chief of staff, said he knows little about Fischer except that he's a wealthy lawyer.

"I've heard murmuring that he's got some financiers in New York who are going to funnel some money into his campaign," Caligiuri said. Gilchrest - never a high-powered fund-raiser - has taken in about $150,000, the aide said.

The Gilchrest aide said his boss has the support of the Maryland Republican Party, the White House and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is Fischer's backyard neighbor.

"I don't think there is much dissent among Republicans to exploit," he said.

Gilchrest has defeated challengers from the right before, but moderate Republican officeholders in Maryland can't be too careful. For a cautionary lesson, he need look no further than the 1998 primary, in which little-known conservative insurgents toppled state Sens. F. Vernon Boozer and John W. Derr.

Disgruntled Democrats look to unseat Mitchell

It appears that the state Democratic Party is looking for a candidate in the 44th District to unseat state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, whose loyalty is being questioned by party leaders.

Mitchell, a Democrat, endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ehrlich for governor over Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the leading Democratic candidate. Mitchell has accused Democrats of taking African-American voters for granted in politics, in business and in other issues.

The senator's endorsement isn't going over well in his party.

"When you're judging a person's character, things like loyalty and teamwork mean a great deal in public life," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "We've not seen much loyalty or teamwork there."

Del. Verna L. Jones said she wants to challenge Mitchell and has been urged to do so by Democratic leaders, but she has not decided whether she will.

One of Jones' campaign staff members sent a news release shortly before her fund-raiser last week stating, "Delegate Verna L. Jones may run for State Senate in the 44th District!" and "The announcement may be made at 7 p.m."

But there was no announcement. "I'm still very seriously considering a run for the Senate," Jones said at the event.

Some political observers say Mitchell is vulnerable, having backed a Republican for governor in a resoundingly Democratic city.

Moreover, Mitchell has been troubled by revelations about his financial dealings, which include a questionable $10,000 loan he received in a deal with three Baltimore businessmen. The loan was not properly disclosed and resulted in a public reprimand by the General Assembly's ethics committee.

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