WASHINGTON – Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R- Kennedyville, was only a few months into his fourth term in Congress when C. Irving Pinder began plotting to unseat him.
“I’ve put 66,000 miles on my car in the past 19 months,” said Pinder, who has crisscrossed the sprawling 1st District in his campaign.
Pinder, who won a three-way Democratic primary with 48 percent of the vote, said he feels as if he’s been running a marathon for the past 19 months.
He has used all his leave from his job as special assistant to the state secretary of health and mental hygiene. Now, with the finish line in sight, Pinder is campaigning for the last two weeks of the election without pay.
It still may not be enough to unseat Gilchrest, who has won each of his past two elections with more than 60 percent of the vote, said Harry Basehart, chairman of Salisbury State University’s political science department.
“He’s a credible candidate … but nobody knows him,” Basehart said of Pinder. He added that campaign coverage in newspapers in the district has focused on the governor’s race.
“It’s as if there is no congressional race,” said Basehart.
But an upset by an underfunded challenger is not unheard of in the 1st District: That’s how Gilchrest won the seat in 1990.
“I knew going in it would be an uphill battle,” Pinder said. “If we don’t make it, it won’t be because we haven’t worked our tails off.”
In terms of congressional campaigning, neither man has raised much: Gilchrest had $117,993 on hand as of Sept. 30 and Pinder had $4,692.
Both candidates’ campaigns are heavy on hand-shaking stops rather than TV and radio adds, although Gilchrest said he might try to do some broadcast advertising.
Pinder, 48, has focused his campaign on public education, health care and Social Security.
“My campaign is about working families,” said Pinder, a father of two. He wants to work for safer schools, cut classroom size down to about 18 students, equip each classroom with modern technology and hire more first-rate teachers.
A self-described “fiscal conservative with compassion,” he admits his ideas are “going to take money,” but he thinks people will be willing to foot the bill because “education is the No. 1 priority.”
He called it “inexcusable” that in a country as wealthy as the United States there are about 43 million people without health insurance. The former Queenstown commissioner said he would fight in Congress for a patient protection act that provides more consumer protection and gives more authority to doctors and patients than to an insurance company.
Pinder, who has worked with senior citizens for 20 years, also said the Social Security system must be protected. He accused the Republican-led Congress of playing “on the greed of people” by talking about tax cuts before the Social Security trust fund has been repaid.
Gilchrest, 52, said Pinder is just trying make political points with an issue he does not fully understand.
“Social Security becomes a political football during a campaign,” said Gilchrest, who said Democrats accuse Republicans every election cycle of trying to give tax breaks to the rich on the backs of seniors.
He said Social Security is strong now, with a $70 billion surplus, leaving Congress to decide for the first time ever what to do with the extra money.
Gilchrest supported a plan that would have put 90 percent of the surplus aside for future Social Security payments and used the rest for a tax cut. Putting all the money aside, he said, would force Congress to “either raise taxes or drastically decrease government spending.”
Aside from health care and Social Security, many of the issues Gilchrest cites in this campaign have been issues he has worked on in his first four terms.
The former teacher and house-painter said he is most proud of his work to save coastal fisheries and in developing legislation that led to an international agreement to save dolphins. He has also worked to keep out-of-state trash out of Maryland and to reform the dredging process.
His Earth-conscious voting record earned Gilchrest a rating of 62 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, 15 points higher than the national average.
Although it does not agree with Gilchrest all the time, “he is one of the people that is usually a considerate and thoughtful vote for conservation measures,” said Betsy Loyless, political director for the league.
“His is the kind of moderate pro- conservation vote that we want coming into this Congress,” she said.
Gilchrest also scored favorably with business groups: the National Federation of Independent Businesses gave him a 71 percent approval rating and the Chamber of Commerce gave him a score of 90 percent.
Gilchrest, who has been known to cross party lines on issues, earned a 44 percent approval rating from the American Civil Liberties Union. The AFL-CIO, however, only gave Gilchrest a score between 13 and 17 percent. It has endorsed Pinder.
But Pinder, a lifelong resident of the Eastern Shore, says his inability to match Gilchrest’s campaign funding will probably keep him from being elected.
Voter registration in the district, which encompasses all of the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and the southern tip of Baltimore, is 57 percent Democratic. And Pinder has strong party credentials: He served eight years as chairman of the Queen Anne’s County Democratic Central Committee and another five as chairman of an Eastern Shore association of central committees.
But the Democratic edge may not help Pinder. Basehart called him a candidate who “people just don’t know.”
Pinder maintains, despite odds that seem to be stacked against him, “if I can reach enough people, I can win this race.”
Gilchrest beat an entrenched incumbent in 1990 on his second try, as a little-known challenger with little money.
When he first filed to run for office in 1988, Gilchrest did not even have enough money with him to pay the $100 filing fee, putting $25 down and promising to pay the rest before the election.
Gilchrest says now that if he had to do it all over again, he probably would not run. Campaigning is very time-consuming and he missed out on a lot of time with his family because of it, he said. He is still in office because he takes his job seriously and he believes he can do a lot of good for his district.
Pinder agrees that months of campaigning have taken a toll on his family. His 12-year- old son, Matt, supports his campaign, Pinder said, but wants his dad to wait until he is in college before running again, should he not be elected this time.
If he does not win, Pinder at least hopes to come closer than Gilchrest’s last two challengers, who took 32 percent and 38 percent of the vote, respectively.
“I’ll be disappointed if this race isn’t closer than the last two,” said Pinder.
He said he is proud of the work he, his family and his supporters have done to get his name out.
But if he can’t do better than the last two challengers, he said, “I won’t waste the time of myself, the Democratic Party and the voters” with another campaign.