WASHINGTON – Kostas Alexakis has been a restaurateur, a lawyer, president of a software consulting firm and a real estate developer.
Now the 50-year-old son of Greek farmers, who immigrated to Virginia as a teen, wants to add congressman to his resume.
Few give the Democratic newcomer a chance of unseating seven-term incumbent Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the 1st District — where Alexakis moved only recently and where he won the nomination by default. But Alexakis believes in the power of democracy.
“It’s not an insurmountable battle,” he says in an accent that betrays his Mediterranean roots.
From an office that used to be a Kent Island shoe store, a confident Alexakis is campaigning full-time, after taking a leave of absence from his job as chief executive officer of a software company called Public-Sector Solutions.
He seems an unlikely candidate for the Eastern Shore district. Tall with a dark complexion, black fuzzy caterpillar mustache and undeniably Greek features, he enjoys boating on the Chesapeake Bay, but did not even move to the 1st District until he received his party’s nomination.
He’s a Democrat running against a Republican in a somewhat conservative district. He’s campaigning on an environmental platform, even though the Sierra Club has endorsed his opponent.
But Alexakis presses on. A businessman who points and clasps his hands while he addresses people, he is holding a dozen town hall meetings, talking to local businesses, organizing fund-raisers and just trying to get people to pronounce his name correctly (COAST-as a-lex-AH-keys).
Still, many people are not sure what the Greek man with an electrical engineering degree is doing in their district.
“I had never heard of him before tonight,” said Brian Demmler, 29, after a town hall meeting in Elkton on a cool October Wednesday. Demmler considers himself a Republican, but had not decided between Alexakis and Gilchrest.
It has been difficult attracting people to the town hall meetings. At the one in Elkton, Alexakis expected 50 to 100 people. About 10 showed up.
Even at that meeting, Alexakis lost the floor after about 45 minutes when everyone started talking local politics and attention turned to a Republican running for county commissioner. While attendees strained to think of questions to ask Alexakis, everyone wanted to know what the local guy would do about development.
Alexakis just wants more people to listen to his message.
Despite Gilchrest’s environmental group endorsements, Alexakis says the Republican has not done enough for the bay. Alexakis would declare the bay a “catastrophe” and dedicate federal funds equivalent to the disaster relief for areas recently struck by hurricanes.
Alexakis supports the No Child Left Behind Act, which Gilchrest, a former history teacher, has called a “terrible piece of legislation” that takes local control out of schools and prevents teachers from being creative. Alexakis said he will also work hard for affordable prescription drugs.
But the campaign appears to have drawn scant attention from voters — or from Gilchrest himself.
“I just don’t think about it,” Gilchrest said recently, stretched out in his congressional office with his feet on a coffee table. He said he has been attending weekend events and campaigning sporadically during the week, but is otherwise spending his time in Congress, serving his constituents.
Gilchrest campaigned more aggressively in the primary, when Republican state Sen. Richard Colburn painted Gilchrest as far too liberal for the 1st District. With Alexakis saying Gilchrest is too conservative, Democrats and independents are getting the compounded message that he is fair and bipartisan, said Gilchrest’s chief of staff, Tony Caligiuri.
“Basically our primary opponent has run our general election for us,” Caligiuri said.
And Larry Harris of Mason Dixon Pollsters said that people seem to be happy with Gilchrest. “He’s short, bald-headed and dresses in a frumpy fashion, but he really is a wonderful human being and I think that’s the general public opinion of him,” Harris said.
But Alexakis, in an expensive-looking suit that seemed out of place in his still-unpainted office, argued that after 14 years in Congress, Gilchrest has lost his zeal.
“I just think a voice in Congress is too much to waste,” Alexakis said. “He’s been there 14 years. He’s just doing it as a job now.”
Alexakis points out that Gilchrest co-sponsored a bill in 1993 that would have limited representatives to three consecutive four-year terms — a proposal that would have forced Gilchrest from office two years ago had it passed.
Gilchrest did not immediately remember supporting the amendment, but said he has since learned that it is easier for experienced congressmen to get things done on Capitol Hill. He said his tenure has allowed him to successfully balance environmental and agricultural issues.
Although he is known as an advocate for the bay, Gilchrest does not always get perfect marks from groups like the League of Conservation voters, which gave him a score of 55 (out of 100) in 2003. Still, the league endorsed Gilchrest during the primary, before it even knew who his Democratic challenger would be.
“We don’t see eye-to-eye with Wayne Gilchrest all the time, but we think, given the nature of his district and given his experience on resource committee issues and his commitment to protecting the bay, that he’s a good member of Congress for Maryland,” said the league’s Betsy Loyless.
There’s one other thing, she said: Viability. Something many people say Alexakis does not have.
He finished second in the Democratic primary to Ann Tamlyn, but was tapped by the party in May when she withdrew for health reasons.
Despite the late start, Alexakis had raised $68,200 by Sept. 30, according to a filing Friday with the Federal Election Commission. He reported having $8,479 on hand and said he expects to spend about $100,000 on his campaign.
Gilchrest’s most recent campaign report had not been posted by Friday afternoon, but Caligiuri said that the campaign has raised more than $500,000 and had about $146,000 on hand as of Sept. 30.
Despite the odds, Alexakis remains confident that he will add congressman to his resume come November. He said he just needs some more exposure to people living in the 1st District.
“I’m pretty pleased with myself and I’m efficiently moving forward,” he said.
If he does not win this time, Alexakis said he would be up for another election. If that happened to be against Gilchrest, it would be a repeat of what both men have called a cordial campaign.
“The day after the election I’ll buy Alexis a cup of coffee,” Gilchrest said.
By that time, maybe Gilchrest will have a better handle on his opponent’s name.
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