MIDDLETOWN — Even some Democrats out here call this rolling country "Bartlett Territory," a respectful nod to the deeply conservative longtime congressman who routinely rolls up 20-point electoral margins in the most reliably Republican region of the state.
But now the son of Western Maryland's favorite son is in trouble, facing questions from reporters, political challengers and some Republican colleagues about using more than $30,000 in taxpayer money to pay rent to his girlfriend in Annapolis.
Under state rules for lawmakers, Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, the son of and possible successor to nine-term Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, is entitled to a stipend for lodging in the capital during the three-month legislative session. And he cleared the arrangement with the legislature's ethics attorney.
But that has not quieted the criticism.
"It raised a lot of eyebrows, and it raised my eyebrows," GOP state Sen. David Brinkley of Frederick said of the arrangement, which was first reported by The Gazette newspaper. "I know he believes it is legal, but being legal doesn't always make it right."
Opponents are now challenging Bartlett's commitment to fiscal conservatism. The Frederick News-Post has published a series of searing editorials questioning his judgment. Most of the Western Maryland delegation has publically condemned his actions.
One Republican state senator who did not immediately speak against Bartlett found himself the target of criticism.
"I didn't see it as my role to pile on," Sen. Alex Mooney said, and added: "He should not have done it, obviously. It looks bad."
The 40-year-old Bartlett, a three-term delegate, appears to have been blindsided by the interest in his domestic affairs.
"I can understand that there is heightened sensitivity," he said. He said that he does not plan to continue billing the state for the rent.
His political future, meanwhile, is now up in the air. A member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, he has already filed the paperwork to run for a fourth term. But when asked about his intentions, he has been evasive.
In an interview, he said that every four years he undergoes "the same process of questioning" to be sure "the fire is there." Pressed on his plans, he declined to say more.
Roscoe Bartlett, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. "This is a matter he is dealing with as a parent," spokeswoman Lisa Wright said.
It's a far cry from 2006, when the younger Bartlett had no primary challenger. Or 2004, when he told The Baltimore Sun that he'd consider running for Congress after his father retired.
Bartlett would not talk about whether he still has ambitions for higher office. But he said few constituents have contacted his office about the controversy. And while many eating a late lunch recently in a Middleton diner frowned upon Bartlett's behavior, several said it would not cause them to throw their support behind another candidate.
"It looks bad," said Shaon Andrews of Middletown. "It is like having a budget for something and spending it whether you need it or not." Andrews said he'd still vote Bartlett.
A few tables over, Jon Grossnickle asked whether it mattered, especially if the system was not abused. "If he does his job what does it matter where he lives?"
The affable Bartlett, never before the subject of public controversy over his personal life, said the experience has been unsettling. He expressed annoyance on learning that a reporter had visited his Frederick County house, but he quickly apologized, explaining that it has been a difficult few weeks.
For Bartlett, the difficulty started in June, when The Gazette first reported that he had been using his per diem to pay rent to Katharine Hopkins, in whose Annapolis house he has stayed when the legislature is in session.
The rules bar lawmakers from passing the money on to family members, but nowhere is it written that it can't go to a girlfriend.
Initially, Bartlett said the arrangement lasted during the legislative sessions from 2008 to 2010. Records released subsequently revealed that it began earlier, in the 2007 special session — news that inspired a fresh round of newspaper headlines.
In total, the state has paid Hopkins $31,932 in rent since November 2007. Hopkins bought the Annapolis house in 2002 for $285,000.
The twice-divorced Bartlett has stressed that he and Hopkins were not romantically involved when the arrangement began. He described her as a friend with whom he stayed when the house he had previously rented was not available.
They began dating in spring 2008, he said. Hopkins did not respond to several messages left by The Baltimore Sun.
Bartlett says the arrangement did not cost taxpayers any additional money, because if he hadn't stayed with Hopkins, he would have used the funds to stay somewhere else. "There was no impact on the budget," he said.