When Roscoe Bartlett was thrust suddenly into front runner status in a topsy-turvy race for Congress in 1992, Republican leaders in Maryland arranged a meeting so he could get to know them.
Maybe it was his ill-fitting suit, or his folksy demeanor, but the meeting did not go well. "The initial reaction was, 'Does this guy really have a chance?'" recalled Ellen Sauerbrey, then the minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates.
"He sure proved that he did."
During a nearly two decade career on Capitol Hill, the Western Maryland Republican has remained the consummate political outsider, eschewing Washington to drive home each night to his farm south of Frederick, bucking his own party on energy and climate change and claiming ownership of issues — such as stink bug control — that few others have embraced.
But at 85 — the second-oldest member of the U.S. House of Representatives — Bartlett now finds himself a target of the Democratic controlled redistricting process in Annapolis. A commission appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed a district for Bartlett that is packed with Democrats, presenting the longtime lawmaker with what may be the greatest political challenge of his tenure.
Bartlett declined to be interviewed at length for this story. Approached on Capitol Hill last week, he argued that the political shift contemplated by the proposed map is dramatic.
"It's a huge change," said Bartlett, who called for substantial changes to the map in a meeting with O'Malley in Annapolis Thursday. "I'm told it's the biggest change across the whole country."
He said he plans to seek re-election no matter what. But, partially because of his unusual approach to politics over the years, observers say Bartlett's next move is anybody's guess.
"Roscoe makes his own way," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "His life saga has been an illustration of that as well."
Born in Moreland, Ky., in 1926, Bartlett is a descendant of Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire and the namesake of the presidential character played by Martin Sheen on the popular NBC series The West Wing. Roscoe Bartlett arrived in Maryland in the 1940s to study at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, in Takoma Park.
His scientific endeavors began at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he studied and later taught anatomy and physiology, ultimately receiving his Ph.D. in physiology. Deciding to pursue research full time, Bartlett took a job at the National Institutes of Health and then the U.S. Navy's School of Aviation Medicine in Florida, where he invented respiratory devices that are still used today by pilots and firefighters.
In Congress, his scientific background has influenced his policies. Bartlett was among the first lawmakers to warn of the threat from electromagnetic pulse attacks — the idea that a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere could knock out communications and power grids. This past August, he penned an op-ed article in The New York Times calling on the scientific community to end the use of apes for lab testing.
When congressional leaders organized trips to the south and north poles in 2003, Bartlett, who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, was part of small group chosen to participate.
"There are other members who could go, but they're not going to know what they're seeing," said Richard Falknor, chairman of the Maryland Center-Right Coalition and a longtime Bartlett ally. "Who else could the scientists talk to among members who would understand what they're saying?"
He has received national attention in recent years for publicizing the impact the brown marmorated stink bug has had on agriculture in Western Maryland. Bartlett has frequently referred to the invasive species as a "terrorist bug" that could inflict a "plague of biblical proportions" and has sought federal funding for eradication.
Despite his grasp of scientific issues and his seniority in Congress, the tea party conservative has never managed to climb into Republican leadership ranks. In 2009, Bartlett was passed over for the top Republican seat on the House Armed Services Committee. Instead it went to California Rep. Howard McKeon, who is less senior.
Supporters say Bartlett has been snubbed largely because of his disdain for internal politics on Capitol Hill. He has openly opposed his party on energy and climate change, arguing that the nation is too reliant on fossil fuels, for instance. During the debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling this year, Bartlett was one of the last holdouts to support the plan put forward by GOP Speaker John Boehner.
"He's fearless in his voting," said Larry Helminiak, chairman of the Republican Central Committee of Carroll County, who has known Bartlett since the congressman first took office. "Whether I agree with his vote or not, whatever he votes he believes it was the right thing to do."
Bartlett has had his share of missteps. Months after taking office he was excoriated for suggesting that a group of scholarship recipients with surnames from Asia and East India did not represent "the normal American." He later apologized. He also has been dinged by health officials for problems at an apartment building he built on his farm decades ago.
Married with 10 children, Bartlett consistently ranks as the most wealthy member of Maryland's congressional delegation, worth between $2.4 million and $8.2 million, according to annual financial disclosure statements. Unlike many of his colleagues, most of Bartlett's money is tied up in real estate around Maryland. He also holds between $250,001 and $500,000 in precious metals.
Bartlett ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and the House in 1982. A decade later, he reemerged to challenge Democrat Beverly B. Byron, who had represented Western Maryland for 14 years. Byron was upset in the Democratic primary by Thomas H. Hattery, a more liberal candidate who drove independent Democrats toward the little-known Bartlett.
Since then, Bartlett has won reelection by wide margins, slipping below 60 percent only three times. This year, he has had particularly lackluster fundraising, though, bringing in less than $30,000 in the second quarter. The number has fueled speculation in Washington that he may be considering retirement.
The current 6th District encompasses Western Maryland, including Cumberland and Hagerstown, and also extends as far east as Harford County, scooping in conservative strongholds in Baltimore, Carroll and Frederick counties. The new 6th District would dip south to include Democratic portions of Montgomery County. It would also include Democratic-leaning Frederick.
Republican allies say Bartlett, who always carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket, has managed to do so well for so long largely because he is a reflection of his Western Maryland district. His chances of surviving under the new map are less clear.
"There's nothing put on about Roscoe," Sauerbrey said. "People have related to him in large part because he represents a district of like-minded people."