Passionate Gilchrest follows his own path

'Mr. Smith': Moderate Republican has a solid record, but is veering off course.

Election 2000

September 18, 2000

WAYNE T. GILCHREST paddled his canoe with determination against the Sassafras River's currents near his Kennedyville home on a damp, cloudy morning.

He was returning from a trip into a nature wonderland, almost in his back yard, where water lilies bloom and blue heron nest.

He angled the canoe to buffer the vessel against the strong current and eventually guided in for a smooth landing.

Oncoming waves didn't bother Mr. Gilchrest, Maryland's 1st District congressman. Not one bit. The congressman is accustomed to paddling against the tide, whether it's in the rivers he fights to make pollution-free or turbulent political waters.

He's paddled especially hard this year in a perplexing, perhaps precedent-setting, brawl with the Maryland Port Administration.

In an unthinkable move, he's asking Congress to take back millions of dollars allotted to deepen two of the port of Baltimore's channels, projects the state insists are crucial to luring and retaining steamship lines that could find other ports more attractive.

Deauthorizing home state projects -- particularly those widely viewed as vital to the state's economy -- is virtually unheard of.

Mr. Gilchrest has created this storm and now he endures the currents of criticism from port officials and businessmen, his congressional colleagues and this newspaper -- all of whom have praised him in the past.

Yet he stays the misguided course: He honestly believes dredging projects that would bring more cargo to Baltimore are wasteful and environmentally disastrous.

Nobody questions his deep commitment to the environment. He says protecting the Chesapeake Bay and other preservation efforts consume one-third of his time and energy in Congress. The environment is his passion.

He's proud that Kent County farmers have learned to protect the Sassafras River by allowing a buffer strip of brush to grow between their crops and the river, protecting the waters from harmful nutrients. He's studied environmental issues issue well and deserves credit for his work.

But he ignores the realities of economic development.

"Wayne Gilchrest is such an environmentalist that he would not want to disturb anything on Earth," complained former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a fellow Republican who is legendary for her incessant work to improve the port of Baltimore. "He really does not understand the maritime picture."

Most troubling to Ms. Bentley is that Mr. Gilchrest's bid to deauthorize the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal deepening project would raise federal standards for approving dredging funds. But while other ports would use existing standards, only Baltimore would be hurt.

"In 1948, the port dug a 42-foot channel," Ms. Bentley said. "If Wayne Gilchrest had been around then, we wouldn't have done it. And if we hadn't done that, what do you think we would have today?"

The congressman thinks steamship companies are threatening ports like sports franchises -- dredge or we'll go elsewhere. He says he stands for tougher, national dredging standards. But he stands alone. His House colleagues -- even fellow Republicans -- haven't lined up behind him.

The congressman isn't exactly sure where his environmental fervor comes from. He grew up in northern New Jersey, which already was a mass of suburban sprawl. He surmises that the development of a wooded oasis near his Rahway home may have created the spark that turned into a conflagration.

Mr. Gilchrest, 54, isn't easy to figure out. He comes from a conservative background -- he says his father thinks Rush Limbaugh is too liberal -- but he's a staunch moderate. He fought Republican attempts to water down the Endangered Species Act, and he fought changes to dilute the Clean Water Act.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a fellow Maryland Republican who has strongly opposed Mr. Gilchrest on the dredging controversy, describes the Eastern Shore congressman as a mainstream conservative on military, spending and tax issues and a libertarian on social matters.

"Philosophically, he's probably a little more moderate than his district," Mr. Ehrlich said, adding that his colleague's "basic decency" is a strong asset.

In addition to the environment, Mr. Gilchrest says Medicare and health care are his major issues. But elderly citizens were upset with him during an appearance this year at a Berlin senior center because Eastern Shore seniors are struggling to pay for prescription drugs and want the Republican Congress to do better.

The American Conservative Union isn't crazy about the congressman, giving him a 63 lifetime rating and 52 score for 1999 -- low figures for a Republican. He's conservative on most fiscal matters and a social moderate.

The liberal Americans for Democratic Action ranks him among the House of Representatives' 21 moderate Republicans, along with New York senatorial candidate Rick Lazio and Delaware's Michael N. Castle. He belongs to Congress' Tuesday Group of moderates (which actually meets on Wednesdays).

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