Incumbency aids congressman on five-day swing ON THE POLITICAL SCENE


September 04, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Staff Writer

BOONSBORO -- The congressman, rising to extend a hand of welcome, read aloud the constituent's lapel pin: "Hate is not a family value."

Across a table not nearly as wide as the ideological gap that

separated them, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett shook hands with David Koontz, co-chairman of the Western Maryland Gay and Lesbian Justice Campaign.

For Mr. Bartlett, a conservative Republican from Western Maryland, it was one of 53 individual meetings with constituents throughout Washington County on Wednesday -- and unusual in that it was one of the few with someone who disagreed with him.

For Mr. Koontz, it was a chance to tell the congressman whose election he had opposed that he was offended by the word "abhorrent" in a letter by Mr. Bartlett on gays in the military, and to ask to "open a dialogue that is on a friendly basis."

At 67, beyond the age when many Americans retire, Mr. Bartlett is serving his first year in the House. He seems to enjoy the political and ideological battle of a conservative minority bent on righting a nation gone wrong, while taking in stride the hectic schedule and long hours.

During the monthlong congressional recess that ends next week, Mr. Bartlett is spending five days -- last Monday through Thursday and next Tuesday -- working his district, from Friendsville in far western Garrett County to Eldersburg, a Baltimore suburb in eastern Carroll County.

For a man whose election was something of a fluke, coming after the entrenched Democratic incumbent, Beverly B. Byron, was upset in last year's primary, this was a politically important trip.

As he faces a tough re-election battle next year, the five-day swing gives Mr. Bartlett a chance to establish and solidify contacts with voters on a personal level, to listen to their opinions on national issues, and to promote the conservative agenda that enjoys wide support in the district.

It also gives him the chance to act personally as ombudsman for constituents, an important role that can be used to cement an incumbent's political base.

For a congressman putting together a district-wide swing, the advantages of incumbency are evident. Mr. Bartlett is visiting 19 cities and towns over the five days. In most cases, he is using a government building, 10 of them post offices, that might be unavailable to a challenger. In advance, according to an aide, Mr. Bartlett announced the sites and times of his visits by mailing 232,674 postcards, at a cost to taxpayers of $25,594.14.

He was accompanied each day by aides who kept the meetings flowing, took notes for follow-up staff work, and drove him from site to site. For example, in Washington County on Wednesday and Carroll County on Thursday, four aides -- all paid with federal tax dollars -- traveled with Mr. Bartlett.

During the four days this week, about 275 people showed up in what Mr. Bartlett found a heartening display of support.

In some places, there were so many people that he held a town hall discussion with the entire crowd, followed by individual meetings with those who sought them.

Only a handful of visitors disagreed with Mr. Bartlett's positions on national issues. Many said that they had come simply to thank him for visiting and to express their support. Many had requests for help or for information that will require staff follow-up.

A young woman wants assistance in getting her boyfriend a weekend pass from prison so they can get married. A Marine about to be booted out of the service after 15 years as a result of downsizing of the military is apprehensive about finding a job and worried that his wife, an accountant, will be unable to find work.

A contractor trying to support a family of six children and struggling to emerge from bankruptcy describes the frustrations facing small businessmen -- and breaks down in tears. A couple seek help in getting the woman, who has multiple sclerosis and )) must use a wheelchair, and who is a former student of Mr. Bartlett's, an experimental drug that had helped her when she was part of a formal test of the drug.

Many came to discuss national issues: opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, gun control legislation, statehood for the District of Columbia and "sin taxes," advocating a flat income tax, and saying that "the whole UFO business must be exposed."

The last comment, by a deeply conservative retired teacher, came late Thursday afternoon in Hampstead, many miles and many meetings from the beginning of the week in Garrett County. Mr. Bartlett appeared to enjoy the discussions and meetings. Despite four long days, he hid well whatever fatigue he felt.

For Mr. Koontz, the representative of the Western Maryland Gay and Lesbian Justice Campaign, the meeting with Mr. Bartlett was hardly satisfying. It was cordial, though brief, and, perhaps signifying underlying tension, conducted across a table as both men stood. Mr. Koontz brought along the July letter that had offended him.

"I find it abhorrent," Mr. Bartlett wrote, "that association with known homosexuals, presence at gay bars, possessing or reading of homosexual materials and marching in gay rights rallies no longer forms sufficient grounds to prompt discharge from the service or even an administrative investigation for improper military conduct.

"Unlike the president, I cannot condone a policy that countenances the expression of a homosexual lifestyle."

Mr. Koontz handed the letter to Mr. Bartlett. The congressman circled "abhorrent" in red and replied, "That's a pejorative word that shouldn't be there."

Talking to a reporter after the meeting, Mr. Bartlett seemed to shrug it off. On some issues, a congressman has more than one form letter, each stating his position in a different way.

Mr. Bartlett speculated that Mr. Koontz simply "got the wrong letter." That theory was shot down later by an aide, who said the same letters were sent to all who wrote to the congressman on the issue of gays in the military.

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