On the opposite ends of a congressional divide Bartlett, Cummings represent polarization

February 09, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland look out their windows each morning, they see two very different Americas.

Bartlett, a conservative Republican, gazes over his peaceful, 145-acre farm outside of Frederick, where he has spent more than three decades tending sheep and goats.

Cummings, a liberal Democrat, looks down from his West Baltimore rowhouse onto a street where dealers stash their drugs in planters and two men once robbed him at gunpoint.

It is no surprise that they have come to Washington with divergent visions for the country. Bartlett seeks less government and a more self-reliant citizenry. Cummings wants government to give his people access to opportunity and help them lift themselves out of poverty.

Divided by race, geography and a generation, the men personify many of the political divisions in the nation. Whether the problem is gun violence, welfare dependency or failing schools, they offer starkly different solutions.

As Congress becomes increasingly split along ideological lines, a look at their lives brings a human dimension to conflicts so often defined by the demonizing rhetoric that pervades Capitol Hill. It also helps explain why it is so difficult to reach consensus on contentious issues.

Maryland calls itself "America in Miniature." Its diverse landscape, which includes affluent suburbs, mountain towns and major city, often reflects broader political trends such as the nation's current polarization.

"The state is almost as divided as the country," says George H. Callcott, a professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park.

Cummings represents Maryland's 7th District, a heavily

Democratic, largely black, urban area that stretches from East Baltimore through the center city and to the western edge of Baltimore County. Bartlett represents the state's 6th District, a rural Republican area that includes Carroll County, most of Howard County and all of Western Maryland.

Although they live about an hour's drive from one another and their districts share a border, the two men have little in common.

Cummings, 46, is a baby boomer. His earliest experience with politics, he says, came at age 8, when he was stoned by whites as a member of a group trying to integrate a public swimming pool in South Baltimore.

Bartlett, 70, is a child of the Depression who has lived his entire life on a farm. His greatest influence was his father, Roscoe Sr., who thought that the New Deal made people dependent.

Bartlett, one of the most conservative members of the House, opposes abortion, gun control and affirmative action; he supports welfare reform. In 1995, the National Journal, a political weekly, gave his voting record the same rating as that of former California Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the right-wing firebrand.

Cummings is the most liberal of Maryland's eight House members. A champion of gun control, he supports affirmative action and abortion rights and was the only Marylander to vote against welfare reform.

"It's stunning how different they are," says Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "You're talking about a tremendous cultural, social, economic and political divide."

A typical day

Spend a day with each man, and it is easy to see why they disagree on so much.

Bartlett often begins his mornings before dawn, feeding his 50 goats and 120 sheep. Clad in blue overalls, a worn red cap and work boots, he wades into a pen one December morning with a 5-gallon bucket filled with corn, barley, salt and molasses.

"Oh, my goodness," he says, thigh-high in an undulating sea of bleating fleece. "A mob scene."

Bartlett -- whose land is worth at least $2 million, according to financial disclosure reports -- is a retired research scientist with a doctorate in physiology and more than 20 patents. He keeps the animals as a hobby and perhaps as a reminder of his roots in rural Western Pennsylvania.

When Bartlett moved to Frederick in the 1960s, his property was surrounded by countryside. Today, it is hemmed in by industry. A sprawling warehouse sits next door.

Bartlett would like to see the nation return to its rural roots and a more disciplined, moral and self-sufficient lifestyle. "It would be nice to have an agrarian society today," he says, "but it's not going to happen."

A week later and about 50 miles away, Cummings' day begins much differently. A little before 1 a.m., he awakens and looks out of his red brick rowhouse to check on his 1991 Acura Legend.

Besieged by drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves, residents of this West Baltimore neighborhood of African-American professionals glance out their windows at all hours to check for trouble.

This morning, someone has shattered the passenger window of Cummings' car and stolen his car phone -- the fourth time in a year. Many people would move out, but Cummings says he has %% important reasons to stay.

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