Leon Billings could speak from experience.
"It takes a little bit of guts to run for Congress. It takes a little bit of guts to sit up here and take questions...," Billings observed as he finished moderating a recent debate of the five congressional hopefuls before the activists of the Montgomery County Democratic Party.
Billings was himself a candidate for the 8th Congressional District seat, losing out in the bloody 1986 primary that makes this year's contest seem more like a walk that a race, Inded, the standard political wisdom is that Del. Peter Franchot, the lone elected official in the race, will handily win March 8 to challenge Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella.
Franchot looks and acts like the primary front-runner the politicians say he is. He has paid staff, he has a campaign office, he has sophisticated, professionally done campaign material, and he managed to win the backing of most of the Democratic Party establishment, albeit a bit belatedly.
Much of the interst in the recent debate was attributable to the fact that it was the first opportunity for the party faithful to see how Franchot handles himself ("real good" to "impressive" was the snap verdict of the night).
Yet, although Franchot may be ahead, he is not alone. There are four other candidates in this race. Four others who talked their families ands friends into backing, or at least tolerating a race; four others who paid the $100 fee to get their names on the ballot; four others who face the questions-sometimes the sneers-of candidate nights.
It is an irony of this election that much of the attention has centered on people who aren't even in the race. People such as County Council member Rose Crenca and Del. Nancy Kopp, who declined to run, and Michael L. Gudis, a veteran council member who aborted his two-week candidacy. Even Ted Koppel, ABC's master of "Nightline," got some ink when a rumor made the rounds that he wanted a change in careers and was thinking about the 8th Congressional District.
Billings' remarks had the effect of bringing attention and giving some credit to those with the bit of guts to make the run.
"It makes our party stronger and it makes our country stronger, and we appreciate it," he said.
Who are the other hopefuls and why are they running when the experts give them little to no chance of winning? :: George Benns of Silver Spring is a retired carpenter who has run for Congress five times since 1976. Last time, he ran in the 5th District primary against incumbent Steny Hoyer.
Benns' main issue, argued with the vehemence of a personal crusade, is reform of the tax system.
He carries with him copies of a tax treatise he wrote in 1970, bound volumes of congressional testimony and a five-page handwritten summary that contains more numbers than verbs.
His rambling answers frequently provoke laughter from his listeners, but he argues back with a verve that is unwilted. Benns said he runs because his tax plan has never been given a fair airing. :: Rosemary Glynn of Bethesda is a lawyer who formerly worked in the antitrust division of the Justice Department and who in 1984 and 1985 commuted to Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was an assistant district attorney who helped investigate and prosecute street crime.
Both experiences, she said, gave her a shocking view of what has happened to parts of American life.
Glynn's focus is on what she calls the "crumbling infrastructure of America." A Democratic precinct chairman, Glynn said she has always been interested and active in politics. Originally from Chicago, she got involved in the good-government movement against that city's machine jpolitics and in 1972 was seated at the Democratic National Convention in the challenge delegation to the organization of Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Glynn argues that she represents the Democrats' best show against Morella because as a woman and a former federal worker, she can appeal to the constituencies that were so important to Morella's victory in 1986. A newcomer, Glynn has impressed some party activists but is seen as handicapped by her late start in the race and lack of financial and organizational resources. :: Ralph K. Shur of Germantown is a telemarketer for a publishing company who said he is in the race because he is tired of seeing the needs of people who work go unaddressed. He presents himself as a working-class candidate, arguing that past members of Congress have done well enough on how they vote but have not changed anything.
He argued that the 8th District should send to Congress "someone who has to wince every time he goes to the grocery store or decides to visit the doctor." Shur said he is paid about $20,000 a year, his wife $25,000, and "we aren't making it." His slogan is "health care, day care, we car." Shur has never before run for office and concedes that he is politically naive, but he says that honesty is part of his appeal. :: James Walker Jr. is a Bethesda education specialist who is in the race because of alarm over what he sees as the erosion of the nation's industrial base.
When President Reagan took office, Walker said, the United States was the world's largest creditor nation and now is the world's largest debtor nation. He blames Regan's laissez-faire policies, pronouncing them "lousy-faire." And he said he faults Morella for backing those policies.
Walker has little political experience, and he emphasized his academic record; he was a 4.0 scholar at the University of Maryland and a member of the Mensa High IQ Society. Intelligence and ideas, he said, are what the country needs in its lawmakers.
These four, along with Franchot; are the field for March 8. Shur joked that he feels like part of a roadshow because he knows the views and speeches of his opponents so well.
For those who want to catch the act, to feel what one Democrat at the close of last week's debate called "the fun of politics," here is the date of an upcoming forum: 8 p.m., Feb. 10 at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Ave. in Rockville.