Md.'s Gilchrest cast lone GOP vote for D.C. statehood, boosting maverick image

November 23, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Out of 175 Republicans in the House of Representatives, only one voted Sunday for statehood for the District of Columbia: Maryland's Wayne T. Gilchrest.

The Eastern Shore congressman described his vote for D.C. statehood as a "symbolic . . . vote in principle for representative democracy."

But his support was a vivid reminder that 47-year-old Mr. Gilchrest, now in his third year on Capitol Hill, is a GOP maverick and a man who marches to the beat of his own drummer.

He muses occasionally that he "wouldn't miss this a bit" if he found himself out of Congress. And he said yesterday that he wouldn't even be here if a horse hadn't thrown him six years ago, breaking his jaw in two places, in the Idaho wilderness.

"I'd still be out there," he said. "I found my Nirvana" in a cabin without electricity, 80 miles from town, with the nearest neighbor "over the horizon -- and that's if you stood on top of the mountain."

Having "reached 40 sooner than I wanted to," Mr. Gilchrest quit his job as a high school history teacher in Kent County in 1986 and took his family to Idaho. A year later, after the horse threw him, he returned to Kennedyville and took up house painting to support his family.

He decided to run for Congress after reading that the GOP was having trouble finding a candidate to oppose incumbent Democrat Roy Dyson.

Nearly won in 1988

He nearly won in 1988 and two years later succeeded in unseating Mr. Dyson. While he is a conservative on fiscal policy and a liberal on environmental matters, predicting how he will vote on other issues is not so easy.

Last week, he voted for the Brady Bill, which establishes a five-day national waiting period to buy a handgun, saying it won't prevent legitimate buyers from acquiring handguns.

Despite the appeal of the National Rifle Association on the conservative Eastern Shore, he says he may vote for legislation passed by the Senate to ban 19 assault weapons.

Two years ago, Mr. Gilchrest opposed a ban on 13 types of assault weapons, saying the list included legitimate collector's items. If the list adopted last week by the Senate doesn't include such guns, he will vote for it, he said.

"I don't think people need to have street sweepers," he said, referring to one weapon on the Senate hit list.

Easy-going, slightly rumpled with his tie usually pulled down and his shirt collar open, the normally clean-shaven native of New Jersey grew a beard during his August vacation and, surprising some of his staff members, has not shaved it.

Yet somehow Mr. Gilchrest fits the rambling, diverse 1st District, which includes the rural Shore and a slice of Anne Arundel County that runs from tony neighborhoods in Annapolis to blue-collar Brooklyn Park. The district even includes a public housing project in South Baltimore.

Agreed with opponents

Mr. Gilchrest said he basically agreed with opponents of statehood for D.C. but found himself unable to argue against proponents, "especially when they talked about principle and dignity and the right to have elected representatives."

Mr. Gilchrest said he also voted for statehood to protest the "rushed" way that the bill was brought to a vote, with no chance of passage -- a "humiliation" to the people of the district.

And, he added, it was a vote in favor of Congress paying more attention to the problems of the district, which he described as a city with a history of corruption that has not offered "a shining example of home rule by any means."

He and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the liberal Baltimore Democrat, stood together on the House floor discussing the issue until the last minute before the two of them decided to vote for the bill.

Mr. Cardin, too, said his vote was a symbolic one cast with "mixed emotions."

District residents should enjoy the same voting rights other Americans have, he said, but he would have voted differently Sunday had the bill had a chance for passage because of unresolved fiscal issues.

Asked whether he, too, would have voted against the bill had there been a chance of passage, Mr. Gilchrest said, "I really don't know because the situation didn't come up."

Fellow Republicans surprised

He seemed surprised by the attention his vote on D.C. statehood brought him yesterday. His fellow Republicans were surprised, too, coming to him on the House floor during the roll call Sunday evening to see if he knew what he was doing.

He said he got two dozen telephone calls yesterday criticizing his vote, including a caller from Wisconsin who accused him of being a Communist. There were fewer calls praising his vote.

But word of the vote had not gotten around the district. Alan Tyler of Smith Island, who operates the boat that takes island children to school on the Eastern Shore each day, said he hadn't heard.

But, he added, Mr. Gilchrest "is doing a great job for us."

On the other hand, Rick Kollinger, a political cartoonist in Easton, said, tongue in cheek, "Apparently he was on drugs or something to vote for D.C. statehood."

Knee-jerk Republican

He described Mr. Gilchrest's voting record as a "generally knee-jerk Republican . . . record except on environmental things and then this bizarre D.C. vote."

He added: "Everybody thinks he's a nice guy -- and he is."

Mr. Gilchrest views himself as a moderate and worries that the moderates are not being heard.

"When you have an archconservative like Pat Buchanan speaking for the Republican Party, that's detrimental because the focus is too narrow. The Republican Party needs to do what it can to have moderates heard as well."

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