Rep. McMillen more and more on the defensive


One day last week, as Congress was stalemated over budget negotiations, Rep. Tom McMillen slipped out of his Capitol Hill office to attend a campaign forum at a synagogue in Annapolis.

McMillen, 38, has spent most of the waning weeks of the campaign to retain his congressional 4th District seat shuttling back and forth between Washington and his home district. Unlike most in Congress, he has been able to take advantage of being close to home during an election year.

But this election year, McMillen may have some disadvantages, principally, his large campaign fund, his ties to savings and loan institutions and the national mood against incumbents.

Political experts are warning that an anti-incumbency mood among voters, fueled by a souring economy and concerns over budget deficits and S&L; bailouts, could shift the political landscape this year.

So McMillen, 6 feet, 11 inches tall and a former professional basketball player, finds himself increasingly on the defensive as he seeks a third term in Congress.

His challenger, Republican Robert Duckworth, 50, has labeled "obscene" the approximately $675,000 in campaign funds McMillen has raised thus far. Duckworth has raised about $30,000 -- $25,000 of which he said is his own money.

Most recently, he has attacked what he calls the "Trojan-horse budget," supported by McMillen, that Democrats claim will raise taxes on the rich but, as Duckworth insists, "raises taxes for everybody."

Duckworth, former president of the Crofton Civic Association, says that while campaigning in the district, which includes all of Anne Arundel and parts of Howard and Prince George's counties, feelings expressed to him about incumbents have become increasingly hostile.

"It looks like there's a feeling across the country and I don't know how that will translate at the ballot box," Duckworth says. "But as far as McMillen is concerned, if we don't change Congress, nothing will change."

McMillen admits more negative feelings are being expressed about incumbents this year, but he insists he will win on his record of accomplishments at home. He includes among them his support for Chesapeake Bay restoration legislation and the transfer of a large chunk of surplus land at Fort Meade to the Department of Interior for use as a wildlife preserve rather than for development.

McMillen has taken a harsher approach in response to Duckworth, questioning his challenger's former ties as an employee with the scandal-ridden U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Duckworth has cried foul over the accusation. While he worked for HUD for 20 years, he says he was a midlevel manager involved in urban planning, far removed from the controversy.

Duckworth has targeted some of his strongest criticism at the Democrats' insistence on higher taxes for the wealthy, calling it a smoke screen for across-the-board tax increases.

On the tax issue, Duckworth also is at odds with his party's standard bearer -- President Bush -- who altered his "no new taxes" stance this fall. He maintains that Bush "gave away the store" on the tax issue. His concern is that new taxes will take money out of the economy at a time when its most needed.

"We need to get off of who's being taxed the most," Duckworth says, adding that most voters accept the notion of working hard to achieve the "American Dream."

"Hitting the wealthy attacks the American Dream message," he says.

McMillen, however, says that changes in the way the wealthy are taxed are necessary. "Those who have more in America, should give more," he says.

Both candidates have called for limits on campaign financing.

McMillen says he supported legislation to place a $500,000 cap on congressional fund-raising. But the measure failed, he contends, because Republicans wanted no part of a bill that would limit contributions from wealthy supporters.

McMillen appeared reluctant to talk about how much he has spent thus far in the campaign, but an aide said the total is about $278,000.

When asked whether he would voluntarily limit his fundraising, McMillen says no, adding that to do so would make him vulnerable in future campaigns against challengers who might have more money.

"If I voted for a 60-mile-an-hour speed limit and it failed, I wouldn't go out and drive 60 miles per hour," he reasons. "I play by the rules, whatever they are."

Duckworth, who calls his a "shoe-leather campaign," scoffs at the good intentions expressed by McMillen.

"I'm all for fairness, too," says Duckworth, who has proposed a cap of $250 in individual donations from outside a congressional district and $1,000 on individual donations from within a district.

"What I see in this campaign, though, is that there is no fairness," Duckworth says. "What he [McMillen] is spending is obscene. We're going through some rough times in this country, and that kind of money could be spent on other things. It's just not necessary."

Part of Duckworth's criticism is that McMillen has accepted too many contributions from S&Ls; while sitting on the House Banking Committee, which failed to provide oversight that would have avoided the problems of the thrift industry.

McMillen counters that the amount of support he has received from thrifts amounts to no more than 1 percent of his campaign funding. And he rejected the notion that all S&Ls; are bad.

Few believe that McMillen could actually lose this year. Observers say it takes years to unseat an incumbent, but McMillen faces an uncertain future in 1992 because of redistricting and the nation's economic uncertainty.

Duckworth, who announced his candidacy in July, concedes to having entered the race too late. "I just haven't had enough time," he said. "My objective was to get my name and my face out there to as many places and households as possible. I would have been able to do that if I had given myself a year."

While leaving the door open to a run in 1992, Duckworth insists he is in striking distance even now. Says the challenger, "I intend to win."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad