Campaign trail meals draw a bipartisan veto Food: Raising money and winning votes call for lots of social eating. Politicians reveal tricks for preserving their waistlines, digestions and public images.


Congealed scrambled eggs. Gentile bagels. Twice-cooked chicken, hotel style. And melon balls, melon balls, melon balls.

Call it campaign trail mix.

"I will eat almost anything, but I never eat at a banquet," said New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman at a recent fund-raiser in Maryland.

"Campaigning, it's fast food in your lap and eating too fast. Those are bad habits and tough to break."

Politicians walk a dangerous food line during the political season. Eat and suffer. Don't eat and offend.

"If it's a campaign stop, you can say 'thanks' and pass," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "But at an ethnic festival, you have to take a couple of bites."

Said U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the 2nd District Republican, "I'll take it one step further. Not only do you have to eat, you have to take food with you."

The most unappetizing food that Duncan, a robust 6-foot-4 Democrat, ever had to swallow?

"I ate some noodle thing once," he said, shaking his head at the thought.

"It wasn't noodles."

Being forced to eat on the go means making certain decisions, politicians say. Steer clear of foods that will leave you with offensive breath. Avoid sauces that can plop on a tie. Don't reach for something you'll regret much later.

"You have to walk away from the Swedish meatballs," warned Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary. "They're like lead, and they feel like it hours later."

But, noted Charles I. Ecker, Howard County executive and Republican gubernatorial candidate, there are fates worse than fund-raiser food.

"I didn't get into politics until 1990," said the former educator at a breakfast this week. "Of course I had school lunches instead."

Ecker, who confesses he practically "inhales" his food, has further honed his survival skills: "I always eat dessert first. You never know what's going to happen."

Most of the time, politicians' biggest beef is, well, fowl.

"It astounds me how many different ways they can serve chicken," said Gary. "When I walk into an event I wonder, 'Are we having chicken or are they really going to feed us tonight?' "

If chicken is the ultimate gastronomic nightmare for politicians, Gail Ewing has the worst bedtime story.

"I went to events at [a local country club] three times in one day and I had the same chicken at brunch, lunch and dinner," recalled the Montgomery County Council member.

"That's not easy to do. For variety, I ate the salad at one and at the other I didn't. At least they did have different desserts."

The executive vice president of one of the region's largest caterers said stand-up receptions are replacing the sit-down dinner at many of her political functions.

"We're carving a lot of tenderloins and smoked turkey and setting up pasta stations," said Susan Lacz Gersten, of Ridgewells, based in Bethesda. "I don't even know what rubber chicken is."

Chicken doesn't bother Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey "so long as it's not cooked to a fare-thee-well."

Still, Sauerbrey wonders about the cumulative effect.

"It's the most unhealthy thing we do. It's one chicken wing, one meatball, one crab cake," she said.

Whitman, who met with Sauerbrey supporters at a Rockville hotel last week, agreed.

"I don't let myself eat hors d'oeuvres," said the two-term governor, who, true to her word, passed up the mini roast beef sandwiches, tortellini in cream sauce and cheese quesadillas.

Sauerbrey said she had a healthier lifestyle as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

"When I ran for delegate, I walked door to door. Now I spend a lot of time being driven around," she said.

But Gary, a colleague in the House of Delegates, said the Annapolis lifestyle had its own problems. "There are so many people who want to meet with you. It's constant receptions and dinners," he said.

"During the session, I could recite the Loew's Corinthian menu to you. It doesn't do any good to change restaurants because they all serve about the same thing."

In a perfect post-political world, where Sterno is forbidden and nothing tastes like chicken, what would elected officials fill their plates with?

"Lamb chops and a baked potato," said Whitman. "And buffalo wings, they're bad for me."

"Tuna casserole," said Duncan. "Don't ask me why."

"Pizza with the woiks," said Sauerbrey with a twinkle in her eye. "My husband asked me where I wanted to have our anniversary.

"I didn't want a candlelight dinner, I wanted to go to the local pizza shop and have one with everything on it."

Pub Date: 6/20/98

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