Gilchrest flies to fore on wetlands issue Freshman legislator ruffles some feathers Maryland Newsmaker

December 13, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHESTERTOWN -- It was his most contentious day in Congress, and the scene reminded Wayne T. Gilchrest of Turners Creek near his Kent County home here, where birds swirl and dive toward the shallow water.

Lawmakers had swarmed into the House chamber Oct. 29, screeching and crowing about Mr. Gilchrest's amendment calling for a one-year scientific study to define "wetland" -- a seemingly benign term until it was seized by both landowners and environmentalists as their own. "We need a policy based on fact," the freshman Republican told his colleagues simply, "not a policy based on politics."

His small-town demeanor and civics-book optimism remind some observers of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the classic Jimmy Stewart film about a lanky idealist who arrives in the U.S. Senate and mounts a lone battle against cynicism and corruption.

The man who in 1990 wrested the 1st District congressional seat from Roy P. Dyson, a 10-year veteran plagued by ethics problems, seems like an amiable, wide-eyed science student on an extended field trip, keenly interested and at times amused by his visits to Capitol Hill.

But conservatives mounted a successful attack on Mr. Gilchrest's environmental proposal in October, saying it would delay Bush administration efforts toward more development of non-tidal wetlands.

"This is an end run trying to again have this Congress voice its support for the taking of lands that are privately owned," thundered Representative Don Young, R-Alaska. "It is a mischievous amendment."

At the same time, some environmentalists saw the Gilchrest amendment as the only way to save wetlands -- by returning the debate to impartial scientific review.

"We need a scientific judgment because we are losing our wetlands and, if the president has his way, we will lose even more," declared Representative Peter H. Kostmayer, D-Pa.

The amendment fell to defeat, 181-241, and the flock of $l legislators melted into the cloakrooms, but the freshman maverick from the Eastern Shore had made a name for himself.

"It established [Mr. Gilchrest] as a factor in the environmental movement," recalled Representative Arthur Ravenel Jr., R-S.C., a close friend. "We don't have many Republicans on the environmental side."

"It's clear Wayne Gilchrest is a friend of the nation's wetlands and the environment," said James Waltman of the National Audubon Society. "He really kind of put himself out on a limb on that."

One Capitol Hill staffer said he showed "chutzpah" in tackling an issue that has divided his district as well as Congress. Others chose the word "naive." "It doesn't seem bright for a freshman congressman to try and take on his party and his president," said one aide.

"It was fun actually, I had a good time," recalled the 45-year-old former high school teacher matter of factly, after he settled into a chair at his Chestertown office. "It was a learning experience, the whole year has been a learning experience."

His slightly wrinkled shirt, easy manner and wide grin lend an approachable air. The word "neat" at times strolls into his conversation, as he talks about Congress and the hope that his wetlands amendment will pass next year.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Gilchrest has forged a voting record that is conservative on spending issues and crime. He was the only member of the Maryland delegation to back failed amendments designed to slash social programs and transportation spending. "Some points occasionally need to be made for fiscal responsibility," he said.

On other issues he has taken a more liberal stance. The congressman backed a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns and split with the Bush administration when it prohibited federally funded clinics from discussing abortion. He was one of only 37 Republicans to back a successful proposal by a liberal Democrat that would cut U.S. troop strength in Europe to under 100,000 by 1995.

Committee staffers say Mr. Gilchrest is an attentive and active new member, unlike others who may either make a brief appearance or offer a canned statement. "You can tell he grapples with subjects," said one aide on the Merchant Marine Committee, "and asks questions that are not just scripted for him."

But his junior status with the minority party in Congress makes him a "non-player" in the fight for federal projects and money, noted one congressional staffer. "He's a junior Republican, which means he has virtually no power in the Congress," said another Capitol Hill aide.

Despite appearances, this "Mr. Smith" went to Washington to get along.

"The heart of being up there is being plugged into the right places," said the novice politician. He talks of putting together coalitions, building credibility and at times compromising on his positions.

The congressman voted against an assault weapons ban -- which he backed during the campaign -- with an eye toward his conservative constituents but mostly to show colleagues that "I'm not really a far-out nut," he said.

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