Armed with a new poll that indicates Democratic Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist is politically vulnerable, Republican Del. Luiz Simmons said yesterday he will spend the next 10 days seeking campaign money and expects to announce his candidacy for Gilchrist's office within the next two weeks.
Simmons moved closer to the race this week when a poll he commissioned showed that if the election were held today, Gilchrist--despite a three-to-one edge in name recognition--would get 35 percent of the vote, compared to 21 percent for Simmons and 44 percent undecided.
"The poll is encouraging," Simmons said. "I think the results are clear in terms of Gilchrist being eminently beatable. The big question now is funding. I've never been in the Montgomery power structure so that makes it harder for me. If I can get minimal commitments I think I can make this a very good race."
Robert M. Politzer, director of Facts Inc., which did the poll for Simmons, said he found that Gilchrist has been hurt by the controversy over alleged abuses of the merit system within the county liquor board by his administration and could be defeated because of the large number of voters in the undecided category today.
"Basically this poll says that the county is looking for someone else but doesn't know who it is yet," said Politzer, who previously has done polling for Maryland Democrats.
The telephone poll of 400 registered county voters was done during the first two weeks of April. It showed that among voters polled, 30 percent hold a favorable opinion of Gilchrist, 30 percent hold an unfavorable opinion, 37 percent hold no opinion and 3 percent have never heard of him.
By comparison, Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Montgomery) received a favorable rating of 54 percent, 10 percent unfavorable, 31 percent no opinion, while 5 percent had not heard of him.
On Simmons, 10 percent reported a favorable opinion, 2 percent an unfavorable opinion, 22 percent had no opinion, and 66 percent had never heard of him.
Gilchrist said yesterday that the large difference in results between the Politzer poll and one he commissioned last December, which showed him with a favorable rating of close to two-to-one, made it impossible to draw conclusions. That poll, done by Gilchrist pollster Lanny Davis, showed him leading Simmons by 51 to 24 percent, with 25 percent undecided.
Politzer said that even those figures are unimpressive, because it is not a wide lead for an incumbent and the poll was taken before the release of a report charging the Gilchrist administration with abuse of the county merit hiring system.
The Politzer poll also showed that:
If the election were held today, among those voters who had heard of both candidates Gilchrist would win by a 33-28 margin with 39 percent undecided.
Given a choice between Gilchrist or "a new person" 26 percent said they would vote for Gilchrist, 33 percent said they would vote for a new person and 41 percent were undecided. Of those who said they would not vote for Gilchrist, 32 percent gave the merit board controversy as the reason. Another 14 percent said it was because they did not believe Gilchrist was honest.
Of the merit system dispute, 47 percent said Gilchrist acted improperly in his handling of the situation, 31 percent said he acted properly and 22 percent were undecided.
On the question of the job Gilchrist has done as executive, 3 percent rated him "excellent," 31 percent "good," 33 percent "only fair," 10 percent "poor" and 23 percent had no opinion.
"I think the poll makes it clear that Liquorgate (the merit system controversy) is still an issue in the minds of a lot of people," Simmons said. "But to me, it's a symptom of a more significant feeling people have, which is that the Gilchrist administration is in over its head. It has teetered on the brink of competency without ever reaching it."
Gilchrist said he expects the merit hiring issue to be part of the campaign. "I'm sure that's an issue we'll be discussing," he said. "I've always been willing to talk about it. I think we have an excellent merit system in the county right now."
Gilchrist has two Democratic opponents, Rockville businessman Wade Dunn and Athlyn B. Waller, a retired county employe.
Simmons will now find out if his poll's results will help him raise money among conservative Republican contributors. Viewed as a moderate, he has few conservative backers. He has opposed tax breaks for the many country clubs in the county, a position counter to that of many county Republicans.
Simmons has raised about $8,000 so far, compared with $45,000 Gilchrist has raised. In 1978, Gilchrist raised $125,000 for his successful campaign, and political observers say it should take at least that much to unseat him.