Conservatives chafe as Van Hollen embraces new territory in Carroll

Redistricting leaves some Republicans wary of Democratic congressman

  • Rep. Chris Van Hollen, left, chats with residents at Carroll Lutheran Village.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, left, chats with residents at Carroll… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 11, 2013|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

Bill Schroeder, owner of a bustling Italian grocery on Westminster's Main Street, doesn't know Rep. Chris Van Hollen's voting history or many of his positions. But he knows his Democratic congressman lives in Montgomery County.

And he finds it appalling.

"We have nothing in common with Montgomery County — absolutely nothing," said Schroeder, 56, who usually votes for Republicans. "They depend on Washington. We don't."

Two years after state lawmakers redrew Maryland's congressional map, some voters in Carroll County are still coming to grips with the fact that one of the state's most conservative strongholds is now represented by Van Hollen, a Democrat with roots in the Washington suburbs and close ties to the Obama administration.

The 8th Congressional District remains solidly Democratic overall, but it now includes pockets of tea party Republicans — the kind Van Hollen frequently criticizes as a national spokesman for his party.

For his part, Van Hollen said he's comfortable with the new territory in Carroll and Frederick counties. He points out that he began his career as an aide to former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, a moderate Republican. He said his positions should appeal to centrists in both parties.

But the tea party, he acknowledged, may be a tougher sell.

"I am seeing more and more evidence of moderate Republicans who are disaffected with the tea party groups and appreciate a moderate voice," Van Hollen said in an interview.

"Obviously, you've got more Republicans than Democrats in a lot of these areas, but my view is it's my responsibility to get out there and get as much input on as many issues as possible," he added.

Four of Maryland's seven Democrat-held House seats became more Republican in the 2011 redistricting, but nowhere was the shift more pronounced than in Van Hollen's district. A higher share of voters opposed President Barack Obama's reelection in Carroll County than any place in the state except for westernmost Garrett County.

The six-term congressman has been leading a charm offensive this year to reach out to new voters. He has traveled to Carroll and Frederick counties about 20 times since January, according to his aides. He has toured farms and met with business owners and health care workers. He set up a satellite office in Mount Airy in July.

"He's doing his job," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "That's what a good congressman or congresswoman does."

Discord with conservative constituents boiled over in June at a town hall meeting at which Van Hollen was jeered and booed. In one tense moment, a man who was yelling at Van Hollen stood up and began to approach the congressman as the crowd shouted.

A video of the meeting posted on the Internet shows that a police officer and one of Van Hollen's aides moved to the congressman's side as the man approached. The man then stuck out his hand for a handshake and sat back down.

Controversy erupted before the meeting began. Carroll County Democrats were criticized days earlier for seeking to bar a tea party advocate, Michelle Jefferson, from attending the meeting. Van Hollen aides said their boss had nothing to do with the request, which a District Court judge threw out.

In an interview, Jefferson dismissed Van Hollen's district events as photo opportunities — a token show of engagement.

"He doesn't want anything to do with us," said Jefferson, who created a local tea party group called We the People.

Van Hollen was again in the county last week for a meeting at Carroll Lutheran Village, a 700-resident retirement community in Westminster. About four dozen seniors listened as their congressman discussed federal veterans benefits and took questions about the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

"This is the first time I've been exposed to him," said George Beck, a 93-year-old Republican who sat in the front row to quiz Van Hollen about his support for Obamacare. The World War II veteran said he wasn't convinced by the answer he heard.

"I don't think we're getting the right information — from either side," he said.

But John Newcomb, an 82-year-old Republican who helped organize the meeting, praised Van Hollen for his "straight talk" and said the exchange "probably softened my feelings toward Obamacare somewhat."

Other Carroll County Republicans give Van Hollen credit for showing up.

"He has definitely come out here several times and spoken with the people," said Paul Whitson, a member of the nonpartisan Westminster Common Council and a Republican. "I believe he is following what he believes."

Lora Andrews, who owns a tea bar in Westminster, said she met Van Hollen when he toured the area in January. Andrews, who tends to vote for Democrats, said she was generally impressed.

"He's been active," said Andrews, who is 43. "His name is in the news a lot."

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