It has sometimes been said of Victor Crawford that he has the look and the manner of a riverboat gambler. The sharp-featured, quick-witted Maryland state senator from Silver Spring has certainly flipped his ante into enough political poker games over the years, but he has usually stepped back when the odds appeared against him.
In the last three alone, Crawford has three times gone out in search of higher stakes - first for a U.S. Senate seat, then for the U.S. attorney's post, then for the Eighth Congressional District seat. In each instance his bids were tentative, unofficial and quickly withdrawn as he returned to the safer environs of the Maryland General Assembly.
This year, after deciding against a race for Congress. Crawford is back in his home territory, the urbanized and heavily Democratic 20th legislative district in eastern Montgomery County, placing what he considers to be a safe bet that he can be reelected to a third term.
But there, across the table from Crawford in the Democratic primary, sits a young man named Frank Pichini, a new riverboat gambler. Pichini looks and talks like the incumbent he is trying to beat, as well he should. He spent two years at Crawford's side, first as a legislative assistant, then as his campaign manager in the abortive U.S. Senate effort, before deciding to run againt him this year.
The game the seasoned veteran and his one-time aide have been playing over the last few weeks has been anything but friendly.
For seven months before he officially entered the race, Pichini combed through the voting records in Annapolis, marking down what Crawford did or did not do on every bill the Senate considered over the last four years. The results of that laborious effort can now be found in an eight-page tabloid that Pichini has distributed around the district.
One section of the tabloid is entitled: "The Truth and Victor Crawford. Did Your Present Senator Take a Walk?" It lists some 80 bills, ranging from massage parlors to Leatrile, on which Crawford was recorded as not voting.
Even in Montgomery County, with its long history of Democratic blood-letting, the negative tone of the Pichini tabloid has been received as being unusually strong. "It's the most negative propaganda sheet I've seen around here." said one party worker from Takoma Park.
Pichini, who does not underestimate Crawford's strength in the well organized district, said the tabloid will have served its purpose if it can make the voters think twice about Crawford. "I think," he said, "that I have managed to plant a seed of doubt in people's minds about him."
Crawford, for his part, has attempted to dismiss Pichini's campaign tactic as an act of desperation. "I'm going to ignore Mr. pichini completley," he said. "There's nothing I can do about it. He's got this smear campaign, saying I took a walk on all these bills. It's ridiculous. For instance, he says I tried to avoid th issue of the child pronography bill. It was my bill!"
Many of Crawford's Senate colleagues say that he is not always around to vote on every measure. "Vic is better than some and worse than some (about voting on bills", said one senator from Baltimore. "But none of us vote on all 4,000 or so bills. That's not the way things work in Annapolis.
Pichini, a recent graduate of Georgetown University Law School, says, "There's not a dime's worth of difference in the issues. Everyone wants to lower the property taxes and everyone is for consumer legislation. My issue has to be that the people have not been afforded an opportunity to know what their senator is doing."
As bitter as the Crawford-Pichini contest has been, most seasoned observers in the 20th district, a boot-shaped region that encompasses Takoma Park and much of Silver SPring up to Fandolph Road, believe that the closer race will be in the Democratic primary for the House of Delegates.
It is that race that has produced a serious split among the traditional allies in the party - labor and liberals. The split developed when Del. Alexander Bell, a social conservative with strong labor credentials, was dumped from the party organization salte that Crawford heads.
The leader of the dump-Bell movement was not Crawford or the two other incumbent delegates - lda Ruben and Sheila Hizson - but the influential leader of the 20th district caucus. Phyllis Goldberg. She and Bell had had ideological differences over the years, but the last straw came, she said, when Bell opposed a bill that would force trucks to cover their open loads with tarpaulins, a bill that Goldberg has a keen interest in after her car was hit by a crate that fell off a passing truck.
Goldberg successfully prevented Bell from getting the endorsement of the countywide group known as Montgomery Democrats, which instead gave its support to challenger Steward Bainum. She also managed to alienate county labor leader.
Michael Gildea, chairman of the county AFLCLO's Committee on Political Education, said his group was so upset by the treatment of their favorite son, Bell, that it would not work for the other incumbents in the district.
"These people are part of the hierarchy and they should have helped to keep Bell on the slate," fumed Gildea. "When they don't give our candidate - a union man - support, were not going to give them support."
Bainum, a liberal businessman is considered Bell's major threat in the Democratic delegat primary. Other candidates include Melvin Forbes, a black systems analyst who is on a slate with Pichini. Dane Kirchenbauer and Walter E. Carson, all of whom are considered longshots.