Man bites dog in Maryland: a friendship across party lines

April 23, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Everybody talks in politics about cooperation across the partisan divide, of cooperating for the greater good. All very nice - even smart - and yet almost nobody does it.

So photographs in the newspaper last week featuring Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and Democrat Rep. Elijah E. Cummings on a happy-talk tour of Maryland's Eastern Shore had a certain shock value.

One of the shots caught the Republican helping the Democrat into a pair of protective booties. They were about to start wading through manure on a Kent County dairy farm owned by Howard McHenry. If the Republican had been shoving the Democrat into the muck - or vice versa - there might have been no surprise at all.

But Mr. Cummings, a champion of inner-city causes, and Mr. Gilchrest, a Republican of determinedly independent ways, are actually friends. Imagine that.

The congressman from Baltimore was seeing some remarkable stuff. A pig farmer showed him a container of boar semen, not something you run into in Baltimore or on Capitol Hill.

The material is shipped via FedEx or UPS for use in the artificial insemination of sows. Mother Nature was getting a little boost from modern transportation systems. Mr. Cummings had recently taken a tour of one of the shipping operations, but who knew how vitally important it was to pig farming?

Mr. Cummings, an African-American, said it was his first trip to Kent County. That gap in his travel rM-isumM-i might have seemed remarkable for a Maryland politician who spent many years in the General Assembly just across the Bay Bridge.

But until relatively recent times, the Shore has been inhospitable to black people. Black families, if they ever ventured across the Chesapeake Bay, took lunch with them knowing they could not rely on finding restaurants that weren't segregated. Many just didn't think about making that trip.

That was then. Much has changed in the attitudes of people and in the political leadership of men such as Wayne Gilchrest.

There was much for the Baltimore visitor to learn.

Mr. Cummings could see up close and personal the pressure of tract housing development on land once devoted to farming. His other host, farmer McHenry, professed a desire to keep working the land, but the construction fever must have been palpable across a two-lane highway in Kennedyville.

After they visited a local school, Mr. Gilchrest took Mr. Cummings to a promontory overlooking the Sassafras River, a different sort of hill for these men who must sometimes feel trapped in the august marbled halls of Congress. Mr. Gilchrest called this part of the trip "political dialysis," a somewhat obscure allusion, apparently, to the deep cleansing properties he finds in nature's dramatic vistas.

The spot is part of the Sassafras River National Resource Management Area. Mr. Gilchrest, whose home is nearby, says an old lodge in the area needs an infusion of money for repairs. He told The Sun's Gywneth K. Shaw the structure may collapse before money is found to shore it up.

The two men are to tour Mr. Cumming's precincts in the future. There will be plenty of falling-down structures to see on that trip - and plenty of need to find repair funds.

Surely both men will come away from these trips with a better understanding of a colleague's district. They have their own local issues to worry about, but they are also congressmen from Maryland who should know every part of the state.

They might also be a little sick of the attack ethic in politics. Two determined people can start to change the atmosphere.

Skeptics may still wonder if some other agenda is driving these exchanges.

"Gilchrest for Senate," for example. Or "Cummings for Senate." Or both. If either man were to run for higher office, a little more statewide name recognition might be useful.

Men in this line of work are always aware of opportunities, and some of them are openly ambitious. In this case, it seems they were just trying to make themselves into better representatives of their state.

Imagine that.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. H is e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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