'Unusual' typifies Melvin Perkins's campaign

The Armistead is a hotel just off The Block where winos, prostitutes and poor old people without homes can get a cheap bed and a roof over their heads.

It is not the kind of setting in which you'd expect to find a Republican candidate for Congress, much less a candidate for Congress from a bucolic Western Maryland district.

But the Armistead Hotel is the place Melvin C. Perkins calls home, and Melvin C. Perkins is the official Republican nominee for the Western Maryland seat held by the late Congressman Goodloe E. Byron, Jr., until his unexpected death while jogging October 11.

When Mr. Perkins filed for the seat, he was the only person in the state willing to run against the popular Mr. Byron. Now the race is against Beverly Butcher Byron, the late congressman's widow, but the filing deadline has passed for the more conventional Republican candidates who might have opposed Mrs. Byron.

So the Republicans are left with Mr. Perkins, who is not your average, run-of-the-mill congressional candidate.

A 55-year-old one-time merchant seaman who's been in and out of jail numerous times and in a mental institution at least once, Mr. Perkins has run unsuccessfully for office many times.

He is a familiar face at public meetings here and in Annapolis and is well-known for the countless legal suits he has filed against a wide variety of officials and acquaintances.

A Chaplinesque figure who shaves infrequently and says he is "too busy to take a shower," Mr. Perkins often is seen carrying brown paper bags filled with crumpleed legal documents and newspaper clippings.

When his eccentricity finally brought him national prominence in Newsweek last week, the magazine described him as the "GOP hobo" and "skidrow candidate."

Holding court in the Armistead Hotel's dingy bar one morning last week over a bottle of beer which was his breakfast, Mr. Perkins says he resents the labels used by the newsmagazine.

But that's only a small part of his troubles. It's been a rough couple of weeks for Melvin C. Perkins.

To begin with, Mr. Perkins was fined $100 and spent 10 days in jail for assaulting a female bus driver October 3, who told him to stop eating on an MTA bus. It was not his first assault conviction.

"We've had plenty of congressmen who ended up in jai;," he said. "What's wrong with a congressman who started out in jail?"

Mr. Perkins was also busy literally chasing Mayor Schaefer around City Hall to protest the planned demolitioon of the Armistead.

Then, unexpectedly, Congressman Byron died, leaving Mr. Perkins, who is denounced by both the Republican and Democratic parties, briefly unopposed for Western Martyland's Sixth Congressional seat.

That remarkable situation was remedied the next day by the Democratic State Central Committee's hasty nomination of Mrs. Byron to replace her late husband as the Democratic candidate in the rural congressional district.

But the tragic turn of events was enough suddenly to thrust Melvin C. Perkins into the limelight and leave many wondering, "What if?"

Mr. Perkins was quick to realize that lightning had struck, and he is not he kind to lose any time at a moment like this.

The day before the late congressman was buried, he set off for Western Maryland to campaign against Mrs. Byron. Mr. Perkins said he planned to hitchhike through the large district "to meet the people."

"I mean, I could have conducted the campaign from the Armistead bar, but I wanted people to realize I'm serious this time," Mr. Perkins explained the other day, at the Armistead bar.

Mr. Perkins' first stop was the funeral parlor in Frederick, where he said he was roughed up and thrown out by Mr. Byron's sons. A spokesman for the late congressman's family said Mr. Perkins was allowed to pay his respects and then asked to leave, which the spokesman said he did, peacefully.

Mr. Perkins now says he believes Mr. Byron is alive and well and living in New York City. "He's not really dead," Mr. Perkins said. "That's why they wouldn't let me see the coffin."

In any case, Mr. Perkins moved on to Hagerstown, where he planned to campaign. But he says he got lost in the fog.

"I left my friends in a tavern," he explained, "and went out to shake some hands, but then I got lost in the fog. I didn't know where I was, and I walked all night, from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., looking for a bus station.

"That's never happened to me before. I was out there in the fog walking in the streets waiting for the Byron boys to come and get me. They said they would. then somebody tried to shoot me with a rifle, and I had to call the police, but when the police got there, they all took off and hid, and the police couldn't search their car and with all this going on I didn't get to shake too many hands. the few people who were out said, 'I didn't know you campaign all night.' But that's the kind of campaign I'm conducting. Finally I had to ask the police to help me find the bus station. I don't know Hagerstown too good."

Hagerstown police said yesterday they haven't had a report of any kind of gunfire in the last week, and they say it was not particularly foggy the morning of October 14.

The Hagerstown misadventure is not the only Perkins tale that proves hard to verify from other sources:

-- Mr. Perkins says he is a graduate of the University of Virginia and the University of Virginia Law School,. Both schools said they have no record of a Melvin C. Perkins ever attending.

-- Mr. Perkins says he visited Representative Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Jr. (D-Mass.), the speaker of the House, last week and was told Mrs. Byron's nomination by the State Central Committee was illegal. A spokeman for Mr. O'Neill said the congressman never spoke to Mr. Perkins.

-- Mr. Perkins said he is going to appear on nationwide television next week on an NBC variety show. A spokesman for the network said Mr. Perkins was contacted as a possible guest for the show, but was rejected following a telephone interview.

Mr. Perkins has had a certain rebellious streak since his childhood in the Pimlico area of Baltimore.

State Senator Harry J. McGuirk (D., 17th, Baltimore), who grew up next door to the Perkins family, says that when Melvin was about 10 years old, the child swore that he would not speak a word to anyone for a whole year. Senator McGuirk said young Melvin stuck to his promise, remaining silent the entire time.

"Through the years he's been an unusual kid," Mr. McGuirk said, diplomatically. "At times he shows signs of genius, but he obviously has some problems, too."

He said that occasionally Mr. Perkins's lawsuits and his attendance at public meetings and hearings have accomplished something worthwhile. The only specific example he could think of was a Perkins suit that established the right of paupers to file for elective office in Maryland without paying the usual filing fee.

Mr. Perkins used his right to file as a pauper for the Western Maryland congressional seat. The candidate, who has filed for other offices as a Democrat, was unopposed in the Republican primary.

"We couldn't force anyone to run against Byron. He was too well-liked, and no respectable Republican wanted to run and lose," J. Glenn Beall, Jr., the Repubican gubernatorial nominee, explained.

"I wouldn't vote for Perkins," Mr. Beall added. "I have him thrown out of my office whenever he comes in."

Mr. Perkins went to Annapolis last week to file as a write-in candidate for governor, but he was told he couldn't be a gubernatorial and congressional candidate at the same time.

Undeterred, Mr. Perkins filed the name of his friend and fellow Armistead Hotel lodger, Joan Marie Smith, as a write-in candidate, not for governor, but for the same congressional seat he is seeking.

"That way, if one of us drops dead like Byron did, there'll srtill be the other one to go to Washington," Mr. Perkins explained.

Ms. Smith, a 41-year-old unemployed secretary, said, "Melvin is real nice. I just feel sorry for him, and I wish he could just get in there and really make something of himself. I wish he could get some nice clothes and clean himself up."

Mr. Perkins said that one of the many people he uis suing now is Elsa Perkins, his 80-year-old mother. Mr. perkins said his mother has not given him his fair share of some money left by his late father, who once was active in Pimlico-area politics.

Mrs. Perkins, who now lives in a nursing home, said, "I don't even want to talk about Melvin. I don't think somone like him who's not qualified should run for office."

"And I think there's been more than enough crap written about him already," the octogenarian added.

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