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Conservatives chafe as Van Hollen embraces new territory in Carroll

ElectionsLaws and LegislationVehiclesChristopher Van Hollen Jr.Courts and the JudiciaryRepublican Party

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."

Van Hollen first won election in 2002 in a district that included a large portion of Montgomery County and a small slice of Prince George's County — both of which are heavily Democratic. In fact, Van Hollen benefited from the 2001 redistricting, which added Democrats to the 8th District to defeat Republican incumbent Constance A. Morella.

In 2011, the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley redrew the statewide map with an eye toward electing a seventh Democrat to Congress. Republicans in Carroll County and elsewhere were drawn out of the 6th Congressional District and added to other districts, including Van Hollen's, so the 6th could get more Democrats. The strategy had its intended effect. Longtime 6th District Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican, lost his seat last year to Democrat John Delaney.

Despite the skepticism from some conservatives, the new Republican territory doesn't present a significant challenge for Van Hollen. He remains widely popular in Montgomery County, which accounts for most of the district's population.

In 2010, he won reelection in the former district with 73 percent of the vote. Two years later, under the new map, he won 63 percent of the vote — still a significant margin by national standards.

But while Van Hollen is in no danger of losing the seat, the new territory has unquestionably changed the political character of his district. Under the old boundaries, 75 percent of district voters backed Obama's election in 2008. In the redrawn district, about 63 percent of voters would have picked Obama that year.

Van Hollen, 54, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a U.S. foreign service officer and a State Department intelligence analyst. His Baltimore-born father served as ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s under Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. In addition to his time with Mathias, Van Hollen also worked for Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer and with former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He was elected to one term in the Maryland House of Delegates and two in the state Senate.

As the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Budget Committee, Van Hollen is now a top message man for his party on fiscal matters, including last month's government shutdown. He is serving on a 29-member committee charged with finding a budget deal by year's end, in part to avoid future shutdowns.

For some Republicans in Carroll, the concern is not over anything specific Van Hollen has done. Many remain angry over the redistricting itself — a process handled by the General Assembly. And they deeply disagree with Obama and other Democrats in Washington — on health care, taxes, business regulations and the nation's debt.

Even though most independent analysts do not rank Van Hollen among the most liberal House members, he has nevertheless voted with his party and ardently defended its position on most of those issues. And that, said 59-year-old Bob Kurland, makes him fair game for criticism.

"He can't possibly represent this district," said Kurland, a Westminster man who owns a towing business. "He is the quintessential, far-left liberal."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ElectionsLaws and LegislationVehiclesChristopher Van Hollen Jr.Courts and the JudiciaryRepublican Party
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