DENTON -- Robert A. Thornton Jr., an earnest, 42-year-old lawyer, has a chance to put Caroline County on the map -- in the Maryland General Assembly.
For eight years Caroline has been the only Maryland county without a resident delegate in Annapolis.
Now, after a narrow victory in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary in the 37th District, Mr. Thornton is poised to capture the seat that Delegate John R. Hargreaves, Caroline's last legislator and then chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, lost in 1982.
All that stands between Mr. Thornton and a legislative seat is Talbot's last hope, the Republican candidacy of Kenneth D. Schisler, a college student, in the November general election.
But if Caroline voters care deeply about Bob Thornton's golden opportunity, it wasn't evident from the 37 percent voter turnout in the primary.
Nor does it surface in conversation with people in Denton (population 2,923), the tidy hub of the largely agricultural Eastern Shore county.
"I haven't seen anybody really excited except the candidates themselves," said Mark Madachik, druggist at the Edgehill Pharmacy on Market Street. "Getting a delegate in -- I don't think that excites people anymore."
Myrna Dill, a store clerk who didn't vote in the primary, said, "It'd be nice if they did recognize we were living," by giving Caroline a vote in Annapolis.
Will she vote in November? "Probably not," she said. "You know how it is, getting there. By the time you get off from work, you just want to go home."
All of which wouldn't surprise former Delegate Hargreaves, now 76 and retired.
"I think the Caroline people have been pretty much discouraged the last six or eight years," he said. "They got so discouraged I think a lot of them said what the hell is the use? You whip a dog enough you discourage him, and I think Caroline was the dog that got the whipping."
Redistricting in 1982 left four counties in the Mid-Shore's 37th District vying for only three delegate seats. Caroline, as the least populous, was the most vulnerable. Legislation sponsored since by the Eastern Shore delegation to redress the situation has fallen flat.
"Granted we have not always been our own best lobbyist," the Caroline County Times-Record said in a recent editorial. "Last year at a committee hearing on a proposal to require all counties to have resident delegates, only two people appeared in Annapolis to testify."
Despite his successful primary race, aided by a head-to-head battle between Talbot County Democrats who split their home-county vote, Mr. Thornton himself is at a loss to explain why Caroline residents aren't more eager to regain their place in Annapolis.
"I wish I knew the answer to that," he said. "I'm trying to spread the word that you don't have any right to complain unless you're willing to do your share and vote."
Mr. Thornton, a fiscal conservative who spent $10,000 of his savings and accepted no campaign contributions in the primary, hopes that a lively race for county commission and a hot 1st Congressional District contest between Democratic Representative Roy P. Dyson and Republican challenger Wayne Gilchrest will bring out the Caroline vote.
Denton Republican Kenneth Gelletly's challenge to 77-year-old Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., D-Dorchester, for the Senate seat the incumbent has held since 1951 may also spur interest.
Without a resident delegate, Caroline has had to depend primarily on the Talbot member of the House -- and on the Eastern Shore delegation as a whole -- to look after its needs.
"When it gets down to county projects, quite obviously the Talbot County delegate will work harder for his own county. That's what he's there for, and you can't fault him for that," said county administrator Edwin G. Richards.
BMarrying the interests of Talbot, whose per capita income is third highest in the state, and Caroline, whose per capita income is fourth lowest, is not easy, especially when it comes to issues such as equity in educational funding that pit rich jurisdictions against poor ones.
William Ecker, county schools superintendent, doesn't blame Caroline's being "dead last" in Maryland in per pupil spending -- $4,049 last year, compared with the state average of $5,047 -- on lack of representation in Annapolis. He said other Shore legislators have been strong advocates for education in Caroline.
But Mr. Ecker said it was a "crying shame" that the county didn't have its own delegate: "It hurts the morale of the county and allows us to use that as an excuse, that we don't have anybody fighting for us."
However, the idea that Caroline is getting shortchanged on education is widespread here.
"When it comes down to push and shove, legislators don't take care of Caroline County," said Brad Horsey, owner of a Denton hardware store.
R. Dale Palmer, a real estate agent, said the county desperately needs aid for education but won't get its fair share without a voice in Annapolis.
-! "To me, any Caroline countian
who's not really dedicated to getting a delegate in Annapolis hasn't been paying attention to what's gone on the past few years," he said.
In fact, some evidence suggests Caroline residents indeed have not paid as much attention since they lost their delegate.
In the 1982 primary, when Mr. Hargreaves was running for re-election, 53.5 percent of the eligible Caroline voters turned out. The candidacy of Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who grew up in Denton, may also have boosted participation.
In 1986, Caroline's primary turnout plunged to 34 percent. This year, despite statewide interest in the 1st Congressional District race, participation only inched up to 37 percent.
And the backhanded approval that Caroline Democrats gave to Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the primary may be another sign of voter malaise. Despite a stealth campaign
by challenger Frederick W. Griisser Jr., Mr. Schaefer only won Caroline by 976-912.
"Saddam Hussein would get votes on the Eastern Shore just for running against Schaefer," said Mr. Palmer, the real estate agent, who is a Schaefer supporter.
The governor's advocacy of handgun control in a 1988 referendum and the common view in Caroline that he is a globe-trotting "big spender" who doesn't care about this county apparently hurt him here.
Mr. Thornton, who backs the governor, called the gubernatorial results a "protest vote" to get Mr. Schaefer's attention, "to know we're here, to remember us and to be a little more careful with our money."
In the six weeks between now and Election Day, Mr. Thornton hopes to win over disaffected Caroline voters while campaigning actively in the 37th's other three counties.
He had his 1980 Mercury Zephyr station wagon, with 112,000 miles on the odometer, in the shop last week getting ready for the final push.
Mr. Thornton's message has already reached some Caroline residents, like Dallas Henry, a bank maintenance man in Denton who said he would vote for him.
"He's a wonderful person. He's been in the community a long time and knows the ins and outs," Mr. Henry said.
Others will be harder to win over.
"You have to think about the little people," said Doris Usilton, a Denton store clerk. "Three-quarters of the
people here don't. All they think about is people who have money. They just overlook the little people, and it makes me mad."
Rhonda Warner, who works for a non-profit agency finding housing subsidies for low-income people, said she doubted Mr. Thornton "would really be too interested in helping us."
And Roseann Kelly, a clerk at a dry cleaner's, said: "I don't even vote. I thought about it, but why is it at election time everybody starts calling everybody else liars and cheats?"
"They're going to put in who they want anyway," she said.