Kostas Alexakis faces a few hurdles in his campaign for Maryland's 1st Congressional District seat.
The real estate investor and restaurateur is new not only to politics, but to the district as well. He's also running against Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Republican incumbent who has held the seat for more than 13 years.
But Alexakis's main problem might be that he didn't even win the Democratic primary.
After finishing second to Democratic activist Ann Tamlyn in the February primary, he was placed on the ballot by the party in May after she withdrew because of illness.
That has not given him a lot of time to organize a campaign in the state's largest congressional district, which covers all nine counties of Maryland's Eastern Shore plus Cecil County and slices of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.
The delay "took some of the steam out of it," Alexakis said.
Still, he said he believes voters are ready for a change, and throughout his truncated campaign he has challenged Gilchrest on the issue considered the incumbent's strength: the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Alexakis charges that the bay has steadily deteriorated since Gilchrest entered office and that it needs to be treated as "an environmental catastrophe" in order to get more federal resources. Specifically, he said, the government must do more in helping states to prevent runoff from overwhelmed sewage treatment plants.
He also accuses Gilchrest of perpetrating "a grand illusion of success to support his claim of being a successful steward of the bay."
"Who is the leader on the environment?" he said. "There is no leader."
The attack strikes Gilchrest as not only off base but odd. In the GOP primary, his opponent tried the opposite strategy, branding Gilchrest as a "radical environmentalist."
Gilchrest dismisses both charges, saying that as chairman of the House subcommittee on fisheries conservation, wildlife and oceans, he has struck a balance between protecting the bay, preserving open space and promoting agriculture and business.
"People making those accusations are either uninformed or are trying to fool the public for their own personal political gain," he said in an interview.
He pointed to his work to create a "conservation corridor" of open space on the Delmarva peninsula and to keep waste haulers from creating a dump there. He has also opposed a plan to explore for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His voting record on environmental issues earned him an endorsement from the League of Conservation Voters.
Considered among the House's most moderate Republicans, Gilchrest, 58, taught public school for eight years before entering Congress in 1991.
He has built a reputation as a soft-spoken, independent thinker whose legislative stances often defy party lines. He supports abortion rights, for example. And even though he's a member of the National Rifle Association, he often votes on gun control measures designed to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals.
His toughest challenges have come in the GOP primary, where he is often branded as a liberal. This year, he soundly defeated state Sen. Richard Colburn. In 2002, he fended off lawyer Dave Fischer, who was backed by the conservative Club for Growth, which help funnel thousands of dollars into his campaign.
Alexakis, 50, was born in a small town outside Sparta, Greece, and immigrated to the United States in 1967. He spent his teenage years in Arlington and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University. He's the president of an investment company and owns the Tex-Mex Grill and Big Bubba's Barbeque in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
He has clashed with Gilchrest on education as well, criticizing his vote against President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to meet performance goals on standardized tests. Alexakis supports the plan, saying, "It creates a minimum standard." He said he believes that teachers should have "autonomy" and that "principals should be held accountable."
"Experimentation in education is dangerous," he said, "because when it fails, it fails big."
Gilchrest said the law has created a "Pentagon bureaucracy of education" that inhibits creativity and turns "teachers into technicians." When he was a history teacher, he said, he used the Iranian hostage crisis to teach a couple of classes about Islam. Under the act, he said, he would not have had that freedom.
"Public schools should be the epicenter of intellectual thought," he said. "You can't do that if someone from Washington or Annapolis is telling you what to do."
Gilchrest has about $145,000 cash on hand, according to his campaign treasurer. Alexakis has about $8,500, according to a financial report filed earlier this week.
During the campaign, Alexakis has had to answer questions about his somewhat tangled residency. After moving from Baltimore to Kent Island on the Eastern Shore last December, Alexakis said he returned to Baltimore in May and then settled in Arnold in Anne Arundel County the next month.
Told that his campaign Web site says he and his family "recently moved to the Eastern Shore," Alexakis said it was outdated and he would change it. He rejected the widely held notion that someone who does not live on the bay's Eastern Shore cannot win the seat.
"It's a dated view," he said. "The people there are more open-minded than that."