Little-known challenger focuses on Gilchrest, bay

First Congressional District

Election 2004

October 27, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

In his first bid for public office, Democrat Kostas Alexakis knows the odds don't generally favor little-known candidates who take on seven-term incumbents like Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

He also knows that Democratic voters in the far-flung 1st Congressional District frequently cross party lines to support Gilchrest.

Alexakis, 50, is challenging the veteran lawmaker on the one issue that has defined Gilchrest's public career -- the environment, and the Chesapeake Bay in particular.

The story's simple, says Alexakis, whose family emigrated from Greece when he was 13. Despite federal scrutiny and spending, the health of the bay has deteriorated during Gilchrest's 14 years in Congress. The government, Alexakis says, needs to treat the bay as a disaster and fund cleanup programs accordingly.

"Wayne Gilchrest has made his stand as the guardian of the bay, and he has perpetuated a grand illusion of success," Alexakis says. "Gilchrest's support has always come from Democrats who vote for him because they have bought the image that he's been a successful environmentalist."

Gilchrest -- who weathered two primary fights with conservative Republican rivals who called him an "environmental radical" -- seems to wear his nonchalance as comfortably as the flannel shirts and jeans he prefers to a coat and tie.

About three weeks before the election that will determine whether he wins an eighth term, he was busy moving furniture in Maine.

The heavy lifting came as Gilchrest, 58, pitched in to help store the belongings of his daughter, 22-year-old Katie, who is spending a semester abroad. While he was in the state, he was chairing a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans.

Gilchrest shrugs off questions about the timing of his trip north, along with Alexakis' assertions about a lack of progress on the bay.

"I think the point is that after so many years, we are still fighting," he says. "We're working right now to understand how the whole bay system works, not just isolated parts of it. We're working with the federal and state agencies and with local governments that control land-use decisions that have such impact."

Gilchrest has won high marks from state and national environmental groups, especially for helping create a conservation corridor to preserve forest, farms and other open spaces. He has frequently broken party ranks on environmental issues, such as drilling for oil and natural gas in Alaska.

"The reality is that Gilchrest is a leader on the environment," says Mary Marsh, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Anne Arundel County chapter. "I don't really see how anyone could challenge that."

The 1st Congressional District is Maryland's largest, covering the Eastern Shore and slivers of Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

Alexakis was placed on the Democratic ticket by party officials after Ann Tamlyn, the primary winner, withdrew because of illness.

He drew notice when news reports revealed he didn't live in the district. Now settled in the Anne Arundel community of Arnold, Alexakis calls the publicity "a blessing in disguise" that got his name before voters.

He is a real estate investor who owns two restaurants at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Another company he owns produces financial software for local governments. A native of a small town near Sparta, Greece, he has a degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

Alexakis is critical of Gilchrest's vote against President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, legislation that Gilchrest says takes decision-making away from principals and teachers.

Gilchrest also is at odds with his party on the war in Iraq. A former Marine Corps sergeant who won a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Navy Commendation Medal in Vietnam, he questions whether there are enough troops in Iraq. He says the United States must win support from former allies who are "stunned at America's ignorance of the ageless complexity of the Middle East."

"We need the world to deal with international terrorism," he says.

Alexakis agrees and says the United States has an obligation to restore order in Iraq. "We should not have done what we did, but a civil society needs authority. Somehow, we have to rebuild that."

An avid boater, Alexakis says his love of the bay bolstered his decision to run for Congress from the district. He volunteered in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's gubernatorial campaign and worked Greek-American neighborhoods in Florida and New Hampshire for Al Gore's presidential bid.

The United Auto Workers of Maryland is one of several labor organizations endorsing Alexakis. Members like the combination of his immigrant roots and his success in business, says Darren Petty, the UAW's state political director.

"We appreciate Gilchrest, and we realize he's pretty much set in stone, especially on the Eastern Shore," Petty says. "But Alexakis is a solid Democrat. He's a businessman with a blue-collar prospective."

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