In the low-key style that has become his political trademark, Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist yesterday launched his reelection campaign from the lawn of his Victorian home in Rockville, promising an "agenda for stability" for county residents.
Gilchrist, faced with an array of opponents who have brought his leadership into question on topics ranging from the Laytonsville landfill to the liquor department controversy, said it would be his policy to run on issues rather than against personalities.
"We've done things pretty well . . . I have no regrets," said Gilchrist, 45, who four years ago became the first Democratic executive of the suburban Maryland county. "The issues might not be exciting, but that is what this campaign will be based upon."
In 1978, it was Gilchrist's "good ole Charlie" image as the personable candidate and careful listener that helped distinguish him from a large field of Democratic primary candidates and propelled him to more than 60 percent of the vote in the general election against Republican Richmond Keeney.
Facing no strong opposition in the September primary and a field of three potential Republican opponents, Gilchrist spoke of the accomplishments of his administration in a speech that mentioned none of his political rivals.
"We have maintained Montgomery's tradition of good public services while we held our budget below the inflation rate evey year," Gilchrist told a small crowd of supporters that included U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes and State Sen. Margaret Schweinhaut. "Balanced progress and innovation has been our approach -- and it will continue."
Gilchrist said his administration has protected the county with the largest police force in its history -- 785 officers -- despite tight budgets. He added, in reference to the controversial Laytonsville landfill that opened last week: "We have completed the long and painful task of establishing an environmentally sound landfill."
Gilchrist added that it would be his goal to increase cooperation between local government and the private sector, citing programs to train the county's working poor and an arrangement with the county's bar association to offset cutbacks in federal legal aid programs.
Gilchrist will face Rockville businessman Wade Dunn and retired county employe Athlyn B. Waller in the September primary, but political observers say the real test will be in November, when he will face Del. Luiz Simmons, businessman Joseph C. McGrath, or former Democrat John P. Hewitt.
One veteran Gilchrist supporter said that the same reserved style that makes him palatable to some voters could backfire with others. "He has a warm, but not hot following. He arouses lukewarm emotions," said the supporter. "They like him but they don't love him. A negative campaign could hurt him."
Blair Lee III, former acting governor of Maryland, agreed in part, but said that none of Gilchrist's potential Republican opponents would be strong enough to unseat him. "(Gilchrist) has been doing a reasonably good job," Lee said. "You know what he is, where he is and how he thinks."
Sarbanes said that "with all the pressures beating in on local government these days, Gilchrist has handled the situation with enormous confidence and skill."
Recent polls show that Gilchrist has not significantly increased the level of strength he demonstrated in a Democratic poll last fall that showed him beating a number of candidates by 2-to-1 margins. A poll by Simmons released last month showed Simmons trailing Gilchrist, 35 percent to 21 percent, with 44 percent undecided.
Simmons, the frontrunner in the Republican primary, said a major facet of his campaign will be "integrity in government." In criticizing Gilchrist, he often cites the county's liquor department controversy involving the appointment of Frank Orifici as deputy director of the Department of Liquor Control. Spurned job applicants charged that the job had been rigged for Orifici and the personnel board concluded that "when all of the circumstances and evidence are considered in their entirety . . . any reasonable person would reach the same conclusion we did -- that the merit system was abused by county officials."
Stanton Gildenhorn, chairman of the county's Democratic party, said that Simmons' strident approach would not work in Montgomery County. "Charley is not strident, not given to showmanship. That's an advantage in Montgomery County politics," said Gildenhorn.