It is 8 p.m. and Charlie Gilchrist, his Ivy League button-down shirt open at the collar, is discoursing on the political state of Montgomery County to Democratic precinct workers gathered around a conference table on the seventh floor of the County Office Building.
Somewhat ill at ease with large groups, Gilchrist performs with effect before a gathering this size. His subdued, personal tone seems well received by his listeners as they sip coffee from Styrofoam cups. They laugh at self-deprecating remarks about root canal work that has swollen his jaw, and listen carefully as he lets it be known that he will "probably" be running for reelection.
Thursday night meetings like this are one way the 44-year old county executive is attempting to repair the political damage his administration has suffered over the operation of the county liquor department. Nearly a year after the liquor controversy began, Gilchrist has rebounded from the low point of last fall and is busy shoring up the image of hard-working, if unglamorous, leadership that he apparently hopes will earn him another term in 1982.
Gerard Evans, the brash young aide who caused his boss much embarrassment in the liquor affair, has resigned. Ed Rovner, a one-time senior official in the administration of former governor Marvin Mandel and considered more politically adept, has joined the staff.
And most important of all, Gilchrist came through two major investigations of the Department of Liquor Control with good marks. Findings of a third probe are still pending.
Next month, Gilchrist plans to hold a $50-a-person fund-raiser, and a number of Democratic luminaries including Gov. Harry Hughes, former acting governor Blair Lee III, Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Rep. Michael Barnes are scheduled to attend. It is evidence, according to Gilchrist, of "what I consider to be pretty broad support."
Still, he is unable to shake the liquor issue. Even in the friendly forum with the precinct workers, questions on it kept coming up. One woman complained of seeing liquor truck drivers drinking their cargo in a parking lot. A man asked how liquor will affect the 1982 race.
"I don't get the sense that there's a pervasive public outcry" against it, Gilchrist replied somewhat defensively. Later, he professed to having become philosophical" about the whole thing.
To be sure, liquor is not Gilchrist's only political liability. During his two years in office, his stand against rent control has earned the ire of tenants groups. Many of the county's influential civic associations perceive him as a supporter of their sworn enemy, Normal Christeller, newly appointed head of the planning board. The police are upset with the end of their four-day work week.
Yet some of Gilchrist's staff don't disguise their anger over newspaper coverage of the liquor controversy, and they keep clippings with passages they contest underlined. "I don't think you give elephant guns to children," declared one official, who curtly dismissed some of Gilchrist's adversaries in the press as too young and inexperienced.
The two investigations are cited in Gilchrist's defense. Last month, a grand jury probe of alleged bribery of county officials announced that after seven months it had turned up nothing worthy of indictment. Earlier, an exhaustive audit by the private firm Touche Ross confirmed mismanagement but not favoritism in the department.
The hurdle Gilchrist still faces is the Montgomery County personnel board, which is currently looking into alleged tampering with the county's merit system. Gilchrist spent four hours with board investtigators recently. ycharles Buscher, a one-time liquor adviser and a prominent figure in the controversy, insisted his own deposition be taken in public.
Friends of Gilchrist concede privately that he could face censure from the board, whose probe is believed to center on the department's deputy director, Frank Orifici, who is related by marriage to Buscher; and on jobs allegedly offered to liquor consultant Leonard Colodny.
But unlike the grand jury and Touche Ross, the board is not dealing with questions of criminal or civil wrongdoing. Its power would be limited to scolding the executive for actions it interprets as violating the county's complex personnel regulations, and perhaps to removing someone hired improperly.
In that event, Gilchrist probably will respond with arguments he outlined recently in a position paper on hiring. He made the case that it is not in the county's interests to forbid executives from encouraging qualified people to enter county government. His aides have maintained that discussing a merit job with someone and suggesting he or she apply is not the same as "offering" it.
For the present, there are no opinion polls to reveal how seriously voters take these concerns. But Gilchrist's opponents suggest they will try their best to use liquor as a symbol of his administration's shortcomings. Even though Gilchrist embrced most of the Touche Ross findings, the fact remains that it found serious mismanagement that he could have corrected.
Two months ago, Allan Levey, chairman of the state Republican Party, called a press conference to accuse gilchrist of covering up trnasgressions in the liquor department. Republican state delegate Luiz Simmons, now giving signals that he will seek the post in 1984, is expected to make liquor an issue.
Among a few fellow Democrats there are off-the-record murmurings that the controversy, together with his performance on other issues, could render Gilchrist an ineffectual candidate in 1982. There are no firmly declared alternative candidates among the Democrats, though council members Esther Gelman and Scott Fosler and David Scull of the powerful Lee family are mentioned.
Other political observers see little chance the party would drop Gilchrist unless the liquor affair boils over again. New voter registrations are slowly eroding the Democrats' two-to-one advantage in numbers over Republicans. The county went for Ronald Reagan last year. It would be foolish to drop an incumbent at a time like this, these analysts feel.