Republicans wage a bitter battle in 1st District

Wayne T. Gilchrest

Nine-term congressman fighting to keep his seat

Election 2008

February 10, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

By now, it is a familiar script for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest: Every two years, as if on cue, fellow Republicans lambaste the 61-year-old former social studies teacher as too liberal.

The label never sticks. The decorated former Marine Corps platoon leader has rarely broken a sweat as he ambles through GOP primaries in the 1st Congressional District.

But this year, the chorus of opposition has been much louder - and better financed - than usual. Faced with challenges in Tuesday's primary from well-known state Sens. Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin, the nine-term incumbent is getting hammered in television ads and direct mail for his stances on immigration, the Iraq war and taxes.

That means the pickup-driving environmentalist finds himself forced to do something unusual: campaign.

"We're countering all that with ads of our own," said Gilchrest, who acknowledged accepting PAC contributions for the first time in years to keep pace with Pipkin and Harris. "I've stepped up the personal appearances, getting out in the district."

Supporters say that Gilchrest's strength has been his environmental record and his penchant for bucking party leaders - traits that have stood him in good stead with Democratic voters, who have traditionally crossed party lines for him in general elections.

Gilchrest, a New Jersey native who appears more at ease in a flannel work shirt than a coat and tie, commutes nearly two hours to Congress from his home in rural Kennedyville near Chestertown.

He usually parks his Ford Ranger pickup in the driveway of Tony Caligiuri, his chief political aide, and Caligiuri drives them to Washington. When legislative sessions run long, Gilchrest occasionally sleeps on the couch in his congressional office.

Every chance he gets, Gilchrest is out canoeing or kayaking on the Sassafras River.

David Fischer, an Anne Arundel lawyer who took on Gilchrest in 2002, says Gilchrest's rumpled nonchalance belies an intense drive to win.

"I was severely criticized for going after an incumbent," Fischer said. "When I ran, everything in the party was `Kumbaya, let's all hold hands.' This year, it seems like the conservative core of the party wants to take a hard look at incumbents."

This year, conservatives have found several reasons to criticize Gilchrest, starting with his vote in favor of setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

He has faced intense criticism from opponents over immigration - they accuse him of supporting blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, which he says isn't true. He has backed legislation to expand existing temporary-visa programs that would help provide workers for agriculture and the seafood and tourist industries.

In an effort to take control of the issue, Gilchrest mailed out a "report on illegal immigration" from his congressional office last summer.

He recently sponsored a seminar for local government officials and federal immigration and customs experts to learn about illegal immigration.

Despite the conservative critics, Gilchrest has endorsements from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bush.

Ann Granados, a GOP activist who has backed Gilchrest for nearly 20 years, said she wonders whether voters will resent negative advertising that has permeated the race.

"Whatever is said about Gilchrest, he's a moderate, which to my mind means straight down the middle," said Granados, retired property manager who has lived in Ocean City for 32 years.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, a longtime ally, said Gilchrest's reputation as an environmentalist - bolstered by endorsements from the likes of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters - will matter to 1st District voters.

"Wayne is a green Republican, and quality of life and environmental quality are important to a lot of voters on the Shore," Craig said. "They won't forget."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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