Clinton tries to regain Gilchrest's support

August 17, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In the midst of a phone interview with a reporter yesterday, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland was interrupted by an aide.

President Clinton was on Line 3.

Since abruptly switching his vote and joining the majority of his Republican colleagues who voted to block the crime bill last week, the Eastern Shore congressman has been in a hot seat -- lobbied by an administration that hopes to win him back, applauded by some of his pro-gun constituents and attacked by others who can't understand why he would abandon the fight against crime.

In the past six days, he has writ10 Op-Ed pieces for local newspapers to explain and defend his vote -- perhaps most of all, to himself.

"I don't feel real good about my vote," Mr. Gilchrest, who voted in favor of the House version of the crime bill in April, acknowledged yesterday, "because the process got screwed up."

Mr. Gilchrest is among numerous House members who have been lobbied intensively by the White House to reverse their votes of last week and back consideration of the crime bill.

After talking with the president "for a long time, 10 or 15 minutes. Actually, I was getting a little tired of talking to him," Mr. Gilchrest said he would switch back in support of the bill if alterations are made.

"If the bill stays the same, I won't," the congressman said.

Mr. Gilchrest said that although he supported many of the major provisions of the bill -- such as money for more police and more prisons, tough new sentencing guidelines and a ban on many assault weapons -- he voted on "principle" last week to block the bill because of the manner in which it was handled.

"I realize that everything I say sounds like gridlock and partisanship," he said yesterday.

He said that his colleagues were not given enough time to read the bill and that it had been written in closed-door meetings without enough Republican input. The deciding factor, he said, was a provision included in the House and Senate versions but dropped from the compromise bill: It required that local police be notified when convicted child molesters are released into their community.

"When I finally read the bill, I saw that a lot of things were not in there," he said.

Mr. Gilchrest said the president told him the notification about sexual offenders would be put back into the bill.

Mr. Clinton, he said, is also considering taking out two relatively small but controversial elements of the $33 billion measure: $40 million for midnight basketball leagues and $10 million for the alma mater of House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas.

Mr. Gilchrest, who had been called twice by the president just before Thursday's vote, insists that he was not pressured to block the bill by the Republican leadership or by the National Rifle Association.

Since the vote, calls to his office and conversations with constituents have been mixed, he said.

"Most of the people I talked to over the weekend liked the vote because they thought the money was too much," Mr. Gilchrest said. "But there were also people who wanted me to explain my vote. They said, 'Were you pressured by the NRA?' I was never called by the NRA."

Mr. Gilchrest, who voted against an assault weapons ban in 1991, switched his vote on May 5 and supported the gun control measure.

Representing a district with hunters and gun enthusiasts, Mr. Gilchrest is unlikely to suffer any political damage and is not thought to be in danger of losing his House seat in November for helping stop the bill last week.

"I support his position," said Wicomico County Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms. "I'm strongly opposed to gun control, and I have strong concerns that the bill may not address crime as it is purported to do."

But in eastern Glen Burnie, Lola Hand, head of the local civic association, was furious. "I cannot believe it," she said of her representative's vote. "I'm very upset about it."

Ms. Hand said she is especially incensed in light of recent crime in nearby areas -- the kidnapping of a priest, a carjacking and the murder of an elderly Guilford couple.

"Isn't everyone concerned about crime?" she said.

Aside from Mr. Clinton's overtures to the Maryland congressman, Attorney General Janet Reno pressed the administration's case in calls to Mr. Gilchrest and to Eastern Shore newspapers this week.

To the Daily Times of Salisbury, Ms. Reno touted the benefits for the town of 22,000, saying it would likely get money for more police officers or crime-fighting equipment if Congress approves the crime bill.

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