Bartlett could benefit if Republicans regain majority in House

But Democratic rival warns Maryland interests might suffer

October 01, 2010|By Paul West, The Baltimore Sun

Frederick — — Roscoe Bartlett is a Maryland original.

The state's only Republican in Congress is a charter member of the House tea party caucus. Yet he boasts that he's personally directed more than half a billion dollars in earmarked federal spending, much of it to his district, which sprawls from the banks of the Susquehanna in the east to the West Virginia border.

His conservative voting record tracks the party line, but he broke with President George W. Bush and almost sounds like a liberal in criticizing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. On energy, a longstanding concern, he's openly contemptuous of Republican policy and what he terms the "perfectly stupid mantra" of "drill, baby, drill."

At 84, he is now the second-oldest House member, with more seniority than most Republicans. But his influence is limited. He isn't close to the Republican leadership and was skipped over for a promotion last year to the top Republican seat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee.

Bartlett explains that he never played the inside game of currying favor with party leaders.

The more junior Republican who beat him out for the job, California Rep. Howard McKeon, "kisses ass and raises a lot of money," Bartlett said in an interview at his district office in Frederick. "I work too hard to spend a lot of time cozying up to leadership."

Bartlett is asking voters to reward those labors by returning him to Washington for a 10th term. He faces Democrat Andrew Duck, an Iraq war veteran he beat once before. In a season of anti-establishment anger, the incumbent is rated a safe bet to win re-election.

He is "iconoclastic and not a team player," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "He's not anywhere near the norm of either party, and if there's a genius of American politics, sometimes it resides in the outliers on the right and the left."

If Republicans gain control of the House in next month's election, as many analysts predict, Bartlett would be the majority party's senior Marylander in Washington. And that, says his Democratic opponent, would be harmful to Maryland interests that depend on a steady flow of federal dollars.

Bartlett "would continue to have the lack of influence that he has demonstrated thus far," said Duck, who also opposed Bartlett in 2006. "The problem is, he's not willing to do the work that is required."

The congressman brushes the criticism aside, pointing out that he's a team player with his Democratic colleagues.

"We're all on the same page when it comes to getting stuff for Maryland," he said. "I don't think Maryland will be a loser if the Republicans take over."

But Bartlett could be at odds with leaders of his own party. This week, senior Republicans said they want House members to stop directing money to pet projects through earmarks. Bartlett defends the practice.

He says that General Dynamics Corp. would not be the world's largest military robotics builder had he not earmarked funds for its Maryland-based unit. Company executives and their political action committee have donated more than $37,000 over the years to Bartlett, who gets about one-third of his campaign funds from defense-related sources, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.

Bartlett says the political contributions have nothing to do with his decisions as a congressman. He makes it a point, he says, to stay ignorant about the sources of his campaign money, even though it is a matter of public record.

If lobbyists or company executives tell Bartlett they're pleased to have supported him, "I don't know what that means when they come up and say that to me. Did they vote for me? Give me $100? Give me $10,000?"

Trained as a scientist, Bartlett is "thoughtful and articulate and exceptionally well-educated," said Smith. "He'll be talked and written about long after he's departed the political scene."

A politician with a sharp eye for publicity, Bartlett once singed his mustache on national TV during the early days of the manned space program while demonstrating what happens when a lit cigarette comes in contact with pure oxygen.

Next week, he expects to be featured on a CBS "Early Show" report about the brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive species that Bartlett was quick to publicize nationally as a threat to agriculture. That effort has cast him in a positive light in the weeks before the general election, which he's won by margins of better than 20 percentage points over the past 10 years.

"This thing could become a plague of truly biblical proportions," he said of the pest he refers to by its scientific name, Halyomorpha halys. "We need to get in crisis mode if we're going to have any chance of having decent crops next year."

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