Democrats go looking for the common touch Down-home themes dominate 1st District


EASTON -- Short of pulling on bib overalls and slapping their thighs, Democratic candidates in Maryland's 1st Congressional District are doing whatever it takes to convince rural voters that, shucks, one of them is the kind of down-to-earth fellow who should be in Congress.

In the state's only "gee-whiz" primary race, five Democratic candidates for the seat held by Republican incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest have demonstrated that there's more than one way to develop the common touch:

* John C. Astle, a cash-strapped helicopter pilot who represents part of Anne Arundel County in the state legislature, placed a job-wanted ad in a newspaper asking voters to send him to Congress. Mr. Astle grinned approvingly when he told how a General Assembly colleague called him "a redneck in a three-piece suit." The 48-year-old sometimes rides his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the State House.

* James Brown, a self-described "old-time Democrat" who lives in Caroline County, called large-scale campaign spending "disgusting" and pledged not to spend more than $5,000 on his race. Mr. Brown, 43, is a member of the National Rifle Association "and proud of it." He said he is a political "free agent" and is not counting on much support from party leaders. "I don't play the game," he said.

* Samuel Q. Johnson III, the only Eastern Shore-born candidate of the lot -- and the only one who could claim to have the legendary webbed toes of the true Shoreman -- actually likes eating muskrat in public. He represents his native Wicomico County in the General Assembly and is chairman of the Eastern Shore delegation. The 58-year-old former teacher and seed company owner said it's "neat" when people comment about his flat-top hair style,which is dubbed the "Q cut" on the Shore.

* Retired Ocean City auctioneer Herbert Anthony "Tony the Mouth" Mamet, 71, uses folksy anger to vent his frustrations at the economy and Washington's political establishment. Of the Democratic candidates, he is the least visible and has virtually no campaign funds. He said his New Deal-like programs to put people back to work will help the country spiritually. "There aren't enough smiling faces on the streets," he said.

* And Tom McMillen, the well-manicured bachelor congressman from Anne Arundel County, hardly ever buttons his double-breasted blazer on the campaign trial. The new dress-down look makes it easier for Mr. McMillen, a 39-year-old former college and professional basketball star, to shoot a few hoops with the local high school kids out in the newly redrawn district.

Like their four Republican counterparts, the Democrats have had to hustle to get name recognition in the sprawling district, which stretches from the Curtis Bay area of Baltimore, east across upper Anne Arundel County and over the entire Eastern Shore. Although it was reduced in geographical size last fall by a state redistricting panel, the 1st District remains one of the largest congressional bailiwicks east of the Mississippi River.

Crisscrossing candidates

With an early primary election set for March 3, the most serious candidates have been zipping over the district with the regularity of migratory waterfowl looking for food.

Nearly 60 percent of the district's 151,000 registered Democrats live in the Eastern Shore's nine counties, making it necessary for candidates to spend much of their campaign time on the region's flatlands.

Campaigning has been unusually tough for Mr. Astle and Mr. Johnson, who have few funds and must be in Annapolis much of the time because the General Assembly is in session.

On the other hand, Mr. McMillen has the resources -- more than $400,000 in campaign funds lets him charter a private plane whenever he pleases -- and has appeared so many times on the Eastern Shore that he is making return visits.

But wherever they stop for a fund-raiser, a forum or a chance to chat with voters, the message remains mostly the same: It's time for a down-home Democrat with conservative values to represent the district's 597,684 residents.

Almost to a man, the candidates say they want to limit the power the federal government has over local jurisdictions, they want to do away with restrictions that stifle free enterprise, they want to help provide more jobs, they believe the federal budget should be balanced, they oppose gun control, and they do not believe that lawmakers should interfere with a woman's decision to have an abortion.

Scorn for incumbents

Even though three of the candidates hold elected offices -- two at the state level and one at the federal level -- the anti-incumbent, anti-government rhetoric is standard.

"I think government ought to back off a little," Mr. Astle put it.

Mr. Johnson went a bit further, suggesting that businessmen and not lawmakers should have a hand in reining in the government's spending.

"The best thing that could happen is that we send all those people home for six months and put Frank Perdue in there," he added, referring to the poultry magnate whose firm is one of the Lower Eastern Shore's biggest employers.

Even Mr. McMillen, who has been in Congress since 1987, is taking pains to distance himself from the Washington crowd. His campaign literature doesn't even note that he's in Congress. He bills himself as an "independent" Democrat, a claim that is true if for no other reason than because his party colleagues in the state's congressional delegation stood by while a redistricting panel wiped out his current 4th District.

If all this campaign talk isn't exactly farm fresh, it is designed to appeal to 1st District Democrats whose traditional conservatism often benefits Republican candidates.

Smarting since 1990

Many Democrats are still chafing over the 1990 loss of the congressional seat held by Roy P. Dyson, whose popularity plunged after questions were raised about his acceptance of campaign funds from defense contractors and the suicide of his top aide.

Some Democrats say that Mr. Gilchrest, a former teacher and house painter, has been unable to match the constituent services of Mr. Dyson and lacks the clout in Washington to help the district in economically troubled times.

It is for that reason that Queen Anne's County Commissioner Oscar A. "Sonny" Schulz told a recent gathering of local residents that they must send a 1st District Democrat to Congress.

"We want to put the house painter back to house painting," he said. Mr. Schulz, a party mainstay in Queen Anne's County, surprised some when he said he would back Mr. McMillen's bid even though he and his fellow Shoreman, Mr. Johnson, are longtime friends.

Mr. Schulz's announcement could be a sign that Mr. Johnson's stronghold in the district is relegated to the Lower Eastern Shore.

With Mr. McMillen and Mr. Astle appearing to have the most name recognition and support in the district's Western Shore precincts, the campaign battle has been to win backers in Cecil County and in Salisbury, the two most populated areas on the Shore.

Mr. Johnson has the support of legislative colleagues up and down the Shore. But when Cecil County Commissioner Marie Cleek, a Republican, said she would abandon Mr. Gilchrist's re-election bid this year, she endorsed Mr. McMillen.

Both Mr. McMillen and Mr. Johnson said they are trying to tap into the dormant network of volunteers who once worked tirelessly for Mr. Dyson before he was unseated. Both men claim to be making inroads into the valuable volunteer pool, but Mr. Johnson's popularity on the Lower Shore may hold out against Mr. McMillen's efforts to woo support.

"I'd say Tom, being an outsider, has campaigned well," said Kirk G. Simpkins, who chairs the Somerset County Democratic Central Committee. "But I think Q has the edge down here."

Mr. McMillen's campaign treasury, which holds more money than those of all the other Democratic and Republican candidates combined, could prove to be a curse and a blessing, according to political observers.

Source of the money

More than half his money comes from political action committees, a campaign aspect that caused trouble for Mr. Dyson because many voters suspected that special interest groups from outside the district held too much influence.

Yet Mr. McMillen may have to rely upon his riches to pay for billboards and other ads to boost his name recognition, particularly around the Shore, where Mr. Johnson is better known.

Also, there is no guarantee that PAC money leads to high vote counts, according to Edward J. Weissman, a political science instructor at Washington College in Chestertown.

"Q's' money is more significant than McMillen's money because local contributions are more likely to be followed up with votes," said Mr. Weissman.

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