CAMBRIDGE -- Sen. Phil Gramm's recent remarks about the quality of labor on the Eastern Shore hasn't endeared him to builders in the vicinity of his vacation home in Dorchester County.
"What's going to happen if he has to get some repair work done with his house?" asked Glenn L. Bramble, president of Dorchester Service Associates in Cambridge. "Is he going to get the guy from Texas up here?"
The senator's comments came in reply to questions about his dealings with Dallas businessman Jerry D. Stiles, a homebuilder who worked on Mr. Gramm's vacation house and who later turned to the senator for help when his three Texas savings and loans failed. Mr. Gramm is a Republican member of the Senate Banking Committee who helped develop a government bailout program for struggling S&Ls.
Trying to explain why he employed out-of-state labor to finish the interior of his getaway house on the Honga River, the Texan said he had been told Eastern Shore contractors and laborers were unreliable.
Mr. Gramm and his wife, Wendy, bought nearly 36 acres of waterfront property in the fall of 1986 and hired Mr. Stiles and a crew of Texas builders to shape up a three-bedroom, two-bath frame house.
The rustic, two-story house sits alone off a dirt road not far from Hell Hook Marsh and Worlds End Creek. The marshy, heavily wooded area serves as a mostly unspoiled habitat for waterfowl, deer and mosquitoes.
The senator paid Mr. Stiles about $63,500 for the work, although he eventually was billed a total of $117,000. Mr. Gramm said a Senate ethics committee, looking into the matter at his request, ruled that he did not owe the balance because the builder agreed that cost overruns were not the senator's responsibility.
Mr. Gramm's comment about Eastern Shore builders touched off a squall of criticism from area residents, much as Gov. William Donald Schaefer did several years ago when he likened the Shore to an outhouse.
The governor apologized for his remark, but not until after a caravan of angry Eastern Shore residents circled the State House in Annapolis.
L This week Shore builders were fuming about the Gramm remark.
Mr. Bramble, who said half of his homebuilding business comes from newcomers, said he took the senator's comment as "a personal insult."
John Riggin, a building inspector for Delmarva Power and a spokesman for the Eastern Shore Builders Association, said there is no better workmanship available anywhere.
"I do a lot of inspections," he said, "and without a doubt, we have some of the best building in the United States right here on the Eastern Shore."
Larry Neal, Mr. Gramm's press secretary, said the senator was just heeding the advice of Shore residents.
"He was told by people on the Eastern Shore to be careful, that Eastern Shore contractors are not reliable," Mr. Neal said. "It's not his view. It was a view imparted to him several years ago."
Since then, Mr. Neal continued, the senator has gotten to know the Shore and its builders better.
"I think his own opinion would be markedly different now," he said.
Richard F. Colburn, a former state delegate who befriended the senator soon after he bought the river-front property, said he remembers hearing Mr. Gramm express concern about getting his house ready for weekend retreats.
L "He said he wanted it to be built and built right," he said.
Mr. Colburn, who has called upon Mr. Gramm to help raise money for his 1994 Maryland Senate race, said he does not hold the Texan's remarks against him.
"They certainly were poorly chosen comments," he said. "It shows that anyone can make a mistake. I'd still like to have him at a fund-raiser."