Md. congressional races run on a brand new track


FOR the past 11 years, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer has risen steadily to become the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. His re-election campaign is in trouble.

There's been a Byron in Congress from Western Maryland for as long as anyone can remember. But this year, the current Byron -- Beverly -- became the first incumbent member of Congress in the nation to drown in the early swell of anti-incumbency.

The fickle finger of redistricting shoved two incumbents -- Reps. Tom McMillen, D-4th, and Wayne Gilchrest, R-1st, into a single district and a mutual struggle for survival. One, of course, won't return to Congress in January.

In the newly cobbled 4th Congressional District, two blacks are clawing to become the first African-American member of Congress from the suburbs around Washington (and the third in Maryland, following Parren J. Mitchell and Kweisi Mfume in Baltimore City's 7th District).

And then there are the so-called "safe" seats. Quick, name the Democrat who's running against Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in the 2nd District. Or the Republicans challenging Rep. Benjamin Cardin in the 3rd and Mr. Mfume in the 7th. The Democrat who's running against Rep. Constance Morella in the 8th? Sorry, no multiple choices. You flunked if you failed to say Michael D. Hickey Jr. is running against Ms. Bentley, William Bricker against Mr. Cardin, Kenneth Kondner against Mr. Mfume and Edward Heffernan against Ms. Morella.

Maryland is a state of congressional commuters. And there's both a benefit and a risk to being so close to home. Constituents demand and expect more of their representatives because they're nearby and see them often. And members of Congress cozy up to their constituents because they're home virtually every night attending crab feasts and bull roasts and making the speech circuit of synagogues, churches and political clubs. It's a fair trade-off that often helps to increase longevity.

But this year congressional mapmakers rearranged the map in ways that undermined the Maryland delegation's clutchiness.

The 1st District is a jigsaw that includes Curtis Bay, part of Anne Arundel County and the Eastern Shore. The pity for Too-Tall Tom McMillen is that the numbers favor Mr. Gilchrest: The Eastern Shore comprises 57 percent of the district. Mr. McMillen is viewed on the Shore as an outsider and city slicker in fancy suits as compared with Mr. Gilchrest, an aw-shucks, down-home school teacher and occasional house painter. The two are duking it out with zinger TV commercials, Mr. Gilchrest bashing Mr. McMillen for his high living at government expense and Mr. McMillen trashing his opponent's voting record and his pocketing of the congressional pay raise he promised to donate to charity.

Vying in the newly created "minority district," the 4th, are Del. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's Democrat, and Michele Dyson, from the Montgomery side of the district where she owns a computer consulting firm in Silver Spring. Mr. Wynn is favored by dint of his strength on the Prince George's side of the boundary as an incumbent legislator.

In the 5th, it is one of those toothsome ironies of redistricting that is causing Mr. Hoyer so much grief. Mr. Hoyer was enormously popular among blacks. But to accommodate a new black district, he had to surrender large chunks of his turf. Mr. Hoyer is now running hard in the unfamiliar territory of Southern Maryland, and he's being challenged by Larry Hogan Jr., son of a former Prince George's county executive and member of Congress.

To Mr. Hoyer, pork is power. The more the better. He's campaigning to convince his new constituents that because he's head of the House Democratic Caucus and fourth in line to the speaker, he'll be in good position to promote their interests.

To the contrary, argues Mr. Hogan. Mr. Hoyer, he says, is just another tax-and-spend liberal, an issue that may stick in a district that's more conservative than Mr. Hoyer's accustomed to. Mr. Hogan, a real estate broker, ticks off the rote Republican agenda of balanced budget amendment, a line-item veto and cuts in capital-gains taxes.

In the 6th, Ms. Byron, of Frederick, was dean of Maryland's congressional delegation until she was defeated in the primary by Del. Tom Hattery of Mt. Airy. Ms. Byron was elected to succeed her husband, Goodloe, in 1978. Like an heirloom, the seat had been in the family for 50 years.

Ms. Byron blamed anti-incumbent sentiment for her loss. But after more than a dozen years in Congress, she had begun to take her position for granted and failed to organize a strong campaign. In addition, she is a staunch conservative who opposed abortion and increasing the minimum wage in a district that favors both.

In the only congressional district in Maryland where Republicans outnumber Democrats, Mr. Hattery, a farmer and publisher, faces Roscoe Bartlett, an engineer from Frederick. It's one of the most intense and flamboyant contests in the state, featuring stinging attack ads, credibility challenges on both sides and accusations that Mr. Hattery padded his expense account in Annapolis. (He's been cleared of the charge by the state's special prosecutor.)

With all of this and more in the Free State, who needs term limitations to sanitize Congress?

Frank A. DeFilippo writes fortnightly on Maryland politics.

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