Gilchrest comes clean of face for his backers

THE POLITICAL GAME

May 18, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

KENNEDYVILLE -- It was his 12-year-old daughter, Katie -- and not the callers and letter writers from Maryland's 1st District -- who persuaded the congressman to get rid of his whiskers.

"We got letters that said unless you shave that, you lost my vote," says Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Kent County Republican whose penchant for letting his beard grow and for voting all over the political spectrum has some of his conservative supporters wondering if they'll ever really understand the man.

Mr. Gilchrest, who plans to announce his candidacy Friday for a third term in Congress, says he has been growing -- and then shaving -- his beard since he was 19 or 20. The first time he let the whiskers sprout was when he was in the Marines and playing war games in a swamp.

Later, during summer recess as a public school teacher, he sometimes let the beard grow just because it was more convenient than shaving. The hirsute look showed up now and then after he took office in 1990, qualifying him for membership with a dozen others in the U.S. House of Representatives' "bearded caucus."

Critical comments

Without fail, as soon as the whiskers reappear, the critical calls and notes trickle in from around the district. The hairy face, the loosened tie and the wrinkled shirt -- trademarks of the congressman whose middle name might as well be "Rumpled" -- sometimes get to voters.

Almost wistfully, Mr. Gilchrest, 48, says he prefers constituents to stick to issues more important than his appearance. There are some aspects, he says, about living in the public light that he has never grown used to.

Beard or no beard, Mr. Gilchrest has managed to stay in the public eye lately, largely through his controversial votes on bills that were veritable GOP litmus tests.

He voted in favor of legislation that would have granted statehood to the District of Columbia. Predictably, the measure failed. But as the sole Republican siding with the bill's Democratic sponsors, Mr. Gilchrest was criticized back home. He says he knew the bill would die and used his vote as a symbolic gesture to D.C. residents.

"My vote was a vote for dignity," he says.

On the Clinton administration's bill to ban 19 types of assault weapons, Mr. Gilchrest rebuked the conservative position and voted in favor of it. To the folks back in his district, he sent a statement recalling the moment he was wounded in Vietnam by an enemy soldier firing an AK-47.

"I didn't really want to use a lot of that Vietnam stuff," he says later. "But it's clearly, in my mind, related to this situation about what assault weapons do and the massive accumulation of high-tech weaponry in the United States."

Asked if his votes won't jeopardize his re-election in a mostly conservative 1st District, which covers the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel County, Mr. Gilchrest replies with his own queries: "Am I here to get re-elected? Should I worry about criticism? Do I gauge my vote on a re-election, or do I gauge my vote on my best judgment and the information that I have?"

Partisans and critics alike, it appears, believe Mr. Gilchrest is a shoo-in this year. After defeating two high-profile Democratic incumbents -- Roy Dyson in 1990 and Tom McMillen in the redrawn district's 1992 race -- Mr. Gilchrest is facing an all-but-vacant election landscape.

"It's awful quiet, isn't it?" notes Del. Samuel Q. Johnson III, a Democrat from Wicomico County who is seeking the Senate seat about to be vacated by retiring state Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., a Dorchester Democrat.

"You would assume if someone were real serious," Mr. Johnson adds, "they would have been out working months ago."

Only two people have said publicly that they want Mr. Gilchrest's seat. But neither man -- Republican Scott Meredith of Queen Anne's County and Democrat Steven Eastaugh, who lives in Washington and has a house in Berlin -- has a political base.

Mr. Johnson said he and most 1st District lawmakers who might be expected to consider the congressional seat decided it was more prudent -- and cheaper -- to stay in the General Assembly.

Dr. Edward J. H. Weissman, a political science professor at Washington College and an unpaid Gilchrest campaign strategist, says Mr. Gilchrest's broad base of support on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay makes him nearly unbeatable.

"Most people in the district agree with Wayne about 75 or 80 percent of the time," he says. "What makes it fascinating is that it's not always the same people or the same 75 or 80 percent."

Dr. Weissman says Mr. Gilchrest and most 1st District residents are representative of what could emerge as "the 21st century coalition" -- voters who are fiscally conservative but liberal on environmental issues.

More about that beard

In an interview in the Gilchrest kitchen, the congressman reveals how his latest crop of whiskers came to be shorn. Mr. Gilchrest, eating a Swiss cheese and dark-bread sandwich, says he was home the day before Valentine's Day. His wife, Barbara, was in town shopping. It was cold outside, and the Gilchrests' two sons and daughter were in the living room.

The sons were watching sports on TV, and Katie seemed to be bored. Mr. Gilchrest knew she wasn't wild about the beard, so he suggested to her that it might be fun to watch him shave.

She agreed.

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