Gilchrest amazes friends even as he rattles foes

His independence demonstrated again in dredging battle

July 23, 2000|By PAUL ADAMS | PAUL ADAMS,SUN STAFF

Lawmakers are usually in the business of getting money for their constituency. The more the better.

So when Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland took to the House floor recently and offered to give back millions already earmarked for two dredging projects in his home state, colleagues were stunned.

"When you even talk about deauthorizing [a project], it is the buzz of the Capitol," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who helped lead a successful effort to defeat Gilchrest's proposed amendment. "They're like, are you serious? If you don't want the money, give us the money."

The move, though, was classic Gilchrest. The former house painter and Kent County High School teacher has been a wild card in the Republican Party from the day he showed up in his painting cap and blue jeans to register as a candidate against an entrenched career politician in the 1st District.

Given the choice between protecting the Chesapeake Bay and sending more money to his home state, few doubted which side Gilchrest would come down on.

But this time he has taken on virtually all of his Maryland colleagues in the House, as well as the governor, the Maryland Port Administration and influential labor leaders and business interests in the port. Some have responded by denouncing Gilchrest as an extremist who has put into peril the port of Baltimore and the thousands of jobs it supports. Without federal money to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, proponents say, steamship lines will continue to leave the port in favor of those closer to the ocean.

"He's doing a tremendous amount of damage to the port," said S. A. "Skip" Brown III, president of Belt's Corp., a warehousing and distribution company that lost a major customer recently when a steamship line scaled back its service to Baltimore. "It's the Pearl Harbor of the port of Baltimore, in my opinion."

State transportation officials say Gilchrest's campaign against dredging is sending the wrong message to steamship lines at a time when the port is trying to attract new business.

"It's just part of a concentrated and concerted effort by Congressman Gilchrest to hurt the port of Baltimore and the statewide jobs it has generated," state Transportation Secretary John Procari said last week.

Gilchrest is unswayed. Though he once endorsed studying plans to deepen the C&D as part of efforts to bring the Maersk/Sea-Land shipping alliance to Baltimore, he has since concluded that the project would harm the fragile Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps more importantly, he argues, the economic benefits of the project are outweighed by the cost, originally estimated at more than $80 million.

In a matter of months, he says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release an economic analysis concluding that the project doesn't warrant federal funding. His amendment to kill funding for the study now will prevent further waste of taxpayer money, he argues.

"The corps has spent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars studying this issue," Gilchrest said in a speech on the House floor. "When do we say there is no benefit to taxpayers, no benefit to the port of Baltimore, and the study comes to an end?" The Sun's editorial pages, a frequent defender of the port, weighed in with some harsh criticism, claiming that Gilchrest has distorted the facts and threatened years of effort to reverse the port's declining container-cargo business.

Gilchrest's defenders say those charges won't stick in the House, where even his critics don't doubt his objectivity.

"It's a situation where you're arguing with someone that no one would believe has purposely twisted the facts," said one congressional staffer who agreed to be interviewed only with the promise of anonymity. "None of those kinds of arguments often heard around [the Capitol] have the slightest applicability with him."

Though his colleagues often disagree with him, Gilchrest has earned a reputation as a studied environmentalist and independent thinker with no political pretense. And, although few expect that he will succeed in overturning congressional approval for the canal-deepening project, they also don't dispute his credentials or sincerity.

"On environmental policy, he is as knowledgeable as anybody in this Congress today - House or Senate," said Rep. Michael Castle, a Delaware Republican, who said he relies on Gilchrest for advice on such issues. "And he approaches it almost always with a scientific point of view as opposed to any great political fixation."

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