Gilchrest a tough target in 1st

Corwin seeks to link GOP foe to Bush policies

Maryland Votes 2006

21 Days Until Nov. 7

October 17, 2006|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

Easton -- For Jim Corwin, the dozen or so residents who gathered in an upscale retirement village here on the Eastern Shore were just his kind of crowd: smart, informed, worried about the Iraq war and eager to talk issues.

Trouble was that Corwin, a little-known Democrat making his first bid for public office, had expected to talk politics with as many as 100 retirees in his quest to unseat eight-term Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Corwin chatted for an hour anyway, then headed for the next stop in the far-flung 1st Congressional District - which includes the entire Eastern Shore and chunks of Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties.

In contrast, Gilchrest has maintained a low profile in recent weeks, the campaign style of an incumbent with overwhelming name recognition, a history of attracting voters from both parties and a record of winning by 60 percent or more. He cruised unopposed through last month's primary election.

Corwin, a 49-year-old physician from Severna Park, left his job as medical director of the Baltimore Medical System to run. He has been crisscrossing the district since last spring, knocking on doors, shaking hands in shopping center parking lots, and holding signs and waving in rush-hour traffic.

"It's really a matter of being out there and getting your message to people," Corwin said. "The country's going in the wrong direction. Gilchrest has been a part of that for 16 of the 20 years I've lived in the district. I intend to tie him to George Bush because he agrees with the president more often than he disagrees."

Corwin says that if he's elected, he hopes to use his experience as a health care administrator to push for an overhaul of the nation's health care, merging Medicare, Medicaid and employer-sponsored insurance plans into a single financing system.

Gilchrest, who some supporters say has the familiar quality of "an old shoe" for 1st District voters, has made a limited number of public appearances, events he describes as "just doing my job."

In the last two elections, he handily defeated conservative challengers from his own party who branded him as a "radical environmentalist." Gilchrest this time has built a campaign fund of nearly $300,000, a cash reserve that dwarfs the $16,000 Corwin has raised.

Gilchrest, 60, is a folksy former history teacher with a reputation for saying what he thinks - especially about the environment, even if he clashes with GOP congressional leaders or the White House.

"I think that Wayne has become the guy next door, your neighbor down the street," said Fran Kane, a Salisbury University political science professor. "I haven't seen anybody able to shake that base. He's been able to be an independent Republican, especially on the environment and the war. People think he's a guy who speaks his mind."

A decorated Vietnam veteran who served as a Marine Corps platoon leader, Gilchrest has bucked the Bush administration on its policy in Iraq and its relations with the rest of the world.

"I've disagreed often with the administration and the House leadership," he said. "If we want a stable Middle East, we need direct talks with the players. We should not fear direct talks with our adversaries. There are layers of cultural complexity, and we need a dialogue. We need a voice of reason, a voice of calm."

Corwin argues that while Gilchrest has cultivated a moderate image, when push comes to shove he often sides with his party. The Democrat contends that Gilchrest's reputation as a maverick is overstated, based largely on his signature issue, the environment.

"Gilchrest talks the talk, but where are the results?" Corwin said. "The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, our largest estuary. I don't see the results. Things are getting worse, not better. The health of the bay has to be a national issue."

Environmentalists such as Dru Schmidt-Perkins, who heads 1000 Friends of Maryland, credit Gilchrest with helping to keep the health of the bay a focal point for a region where growth and development increasingly threaten the estuary.

"Just having a person at that level who is a consistent advocate has tremendous value," Schmidt-Perkins said. "And I've seen Gilchrest reach across the aisle to Democrats many times."

The district, says Art Helton, who heads the 600-member New Harford Democratic Club, is doubly difficult for any challenger. It's the state's largest, and Gilchrest has always done well with moderates - Republicans or Democrats.

"It's a difficult run for any Democrat," said Helton, a former state senator whose wife, Ann, is running for Harford County executive. "Unfortunately, Gilchrest stands with the president too much. And as far as controlling the House, who knows? Four or five Gilchrests could tip control of the House."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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