Lawyer ready to take on Bartlett

Rolle set to announce primary challenge, despite opposition from the GOP

November 11, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- A line has formed for the congressional seat held by 77-year-old Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, but an ambitious state's attorney from Frederick County has refused to take his place in the queue.

Scott L. Rolle, 42, is elbowing his way past other contenders who have been waiting patiently for the six-term incumbent to step aside. Instead, he is expected to announce tomorrow that he is a candidate for the 6th District in Western and Central Maryland, bucking the publicly stated desires of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other GOP leaders by entering the March primary against Bartlett.

It is an audacious intramural gambit by a hard-charging prosecutor considered an emerging talent in a party eager to build its bench.

With incessant energy and a media-friendly style that critics say crosses into self-promotion, Rolle is one of the few Republican politicians beyond Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele who has the potential to win statewide office, many party leaders contend.

But by entering the congressional race now, he is testing the loyalties of the governor and others who must choose between a party stalwart most likely in the twilight of his career and a fresher face who could be part of the Maryland political landscape for decades to come.

Some leaders worry that the Republican Party in Maryland is not yet strong enough to have its resources consumed by an internal fight in what is considered a safe seat for the GOP. Combined, the two candidates could raise and spend $1 million by spring -- contributions that might otherwise be used to help other Republicans.

"While I think Scott Rolle will one day make a great congressman, I think it is not the time for him to run," said John M. Kane, the state Republican Party chairman, adding that he would prefer Rolle be a candidate for attorney general in 2006. "Our elected officials are the ones we focus on getting elected, rather than having a challenge in the primary."

Ehrlich, too, is backing his former congressional colleague.

"The governor's staff met with Scott Rolle over the summer and made it clear he would not have the governor's support," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman.

But Rolle, whose short-cropped hair and lean, sharp features are reminiscent of actor Robert Patrick of Terminator 2 and X Files fame, heard something else in meetings with top partisans.

"I know how [Ehrlich] personally feels about this, which I can't go into further," Rolle said in an interview last week in the barren strip-mall office near Hood College in Frederick that will become his campaign headquarters. "He has to do what he has to do as governor."

For those who are urging Rolle to wait his turn, the prosecutor has a different message. The banner on the office wall bears his campaign slogan: "The Future is Now."

Rolle said his campaign will appeal to younger families flocking to the exurbs in Frederick, Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties, many of whom he hopes have few allegiances to the incumbent.

As redrawn by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the 6th District stretches nearly the length of the state from Garrett County to the Susquehanna River, and includes -- by design of Democrats -- as many Republican voters as possible this side of the Chesapeake Bay.

"We are on the cusp of becoming a viable party in Maryland," Rolle said. "One way is to attract people to the Republican Party. This candidacy can do that. People will look and say, `This guy is energetic, he's optimistic to a fault.'"

The campaign is unlikely to turn on the issues, because Rolle shares many of the same positions as Bartlett. Both oppose abortion rights and gun control, virtual necessities for a politician in Western Maryland, and issues that are of paramount importance to likely primary voters.

"Rolle is not gong to out-conservative us," said Jim Dornan, a consultant hired by Bartlett last week because of the primary challenge. Bartlett "votes just where the district wants him to be. When Roscoe decides he wants to leave Congress, he will. But he's not going to be pushed out by some guy who is just looking to climb up the ladder."

Still, Rolle sees some differences to exploit.

He points out that he supports the death penalty, while Bartlett opposes it. Bartlett voted for the Patriot Act but has since raised concerns about civil liberties infractions allowed by the law, the prosecutor said, while Rolle believes it is an effective anti-terrorism tool.

"If you get so far to the right, you end up left," he said.

Raised in Bethesda, Rolle (pronounced Rawl-ay) attended Catholic schools and the University of Dayton in Ohio. Early on, he thought he would go into radio, but instead entered law school after graduation, receiving his degree from Ohio Northern University.

His father, a public relations and advertising executive whom Rolle calls his closest adviser, said politics were an important part of his upbringing.

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