Is fight of a lifetime in Gilchrest's future?

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September 24, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

DON'T THREATEN Congressman Wayne Gilchrest.

I'm warning you.

He'll leave for No Man's Land if you vote him out of office.

He has left civilization before. Packed up and moved to the Idaho wilderness, where he had to cross several mountains to reach his closest neighbor.

Mr. Gilchrest has represented much of Anne Arundel County, the entire Eastern Shore and a sliver of Baltimore for the past eight years, but he isn't that comfortable in the big city of Washington anyhow.

In Congress, he has got to shave and wear a tie. He can't admire the farms or the woods. And legislating takes away time from canoeing and horseback riding.

He'll take horses over elephants and donkeys any day.

But he could stay in Congress forever, if he wants to. The institution treats incumbents like 100-year-old oaks, so the Republican lawmaker would seem a clear favorite to win re-election against Democrat Bennett Bozman, a state delegate from Berlin, in the general election six weeks from now.

He could lose, however, because of his bitter battle to prevent the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal from being dredged. Congress has authorized money for the dredging project, but Mr. Gilchrest has taken the extraordinary step of trying to give the money back.

Mr. Gilchrest fiercely contends that dredging will hurt the Chesapeake Bay because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can't determine for sure which way the canal flows. He also contends, just as fiercely, that dredging would not provide the economic benefits that the Maryland Port Administration promises.

He could have accepted, as 434 other House of Representatives members have, the army corps' environmental and cost-benefit analyses on his home port. But he maintains the studies were flawed.

Mr. Gilchrest is as rare a breed as the bald eagle that flies near his Kennedyville home -- he loves the environment as much as any Republican since Theodore Roosevelt.

Also, he doesn't have a "get along, go along" attitude -- not when rivers and wildlife are threatened.

That's why he sounds absolutely sincere when he says he'd rather lose his congressional seat than abandon the cause in which he deeply believes.

"Do I look like I want to spend the rest of my life in Washington?" he asked me rhetorically after stepping off his canoe, unshaven.

Well, he looks like he'd rather spend time with the Clampetts.

Mr. Gilchrest was less than a mile from the modest house he shares with his wife, Barbara, who still hangs her laundry on the backyard clothesline instead of using that environmentally hostile clothes dryer.

The congressman, who has been a house painter and high school social studies teacher, once took a sabbatical to spend time in the Idaho wilderness. He seems isolated in Kennedyville, a tiny Kent County community, but it's not hard to imagine his going even deeper into obscurity.

"What does Washington have for me?" he continued. "Or do I want to spend the rest of my life on the Peace River in British Columbia? Or in a cabin in Alaska?"

The answer seems obvious when you look at him, his home, his Sassafras River.

He swears he won't change or compromise. He thinks fellow environmentalist Vice President Al Gore has compromised too many of his positions, just to keep the boss happy. (Keep in mind, however, that although he's a moderate Republican, he's still a partisan. So his criticisms of Mr. Gore seem unfair when he refuses to criticize Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whose slender environmental record could fit on a blade of clipped grass.)

If Mr. Gilchrest loses to Mr. Bozman, he'll go down fighting.

His wife has come to terms with that, with the critics.

"You can't please everyone because not everyone thinks like you," Barbara Gilchrest said.

The congressman is emboldened by a Washington Post series that criticized the army corps, essentially backing his position on dredging the port of Baltimore.

The danger, however, is that because Mr. Gilchrest is the only congressman fighting to deauthorize a hometown project, the port of Baltimore would be the only port to refuse federal funds. If he succeeds, Baltimore's port would be held to high standards while the nation's other ports would not.

But Mr. Gilchrest would rather leave than switch.

Perhaps there's a third option. What he might need is a higher profile. If he wants higher standards, fine. But give him a national stage. Let him take his environmental message to every port in the nation. Let all the boats rise together. If a higher standard is the goal, let all of them reach it together. This is one case in which Baltimore doesn't have to lead.

If Mr. Gilchrest accomplishes that, he could eventually retire to Idaho, Canada or Alaska with an even greater victory.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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