GUN OWNERS OF America sounds like the right kind of group for Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the crusty conservative defender of the Second Amendment and of individual liberties.
He found ideological empathy with the organization's executive director, Larry Pratt, and the two-term congressman wrote an appreciation for Mr. Pratt's book on constitutional history. The group gratefully gave $6,700 to Mr. Bartlett's 1994 campaign in the Sixth District, which stretches through Western Maryland. Amid embarrassing disclosures of Mr. Pratt's links to radical militia groups and white supremacists, the Republican legislator last week returned the campaign funds, declaring his blunt opposition to such extremist groups that "undermine democracy."
But before taking that correct step, Mr. Bartlett had to stick his foot in his mouth, as he has so often during his past four years of public life. He smeared organized labor with the mud of organized crime. "Labor unions have a long history with the Mafia," the embattled congressman declaimed, referring to campaign contributions from labor groups to his Democratic challenger, Stephen Crawford. "Does that mean that Stephen Crawford supports the Mafia?"
Candidates invariably receive campaign money from groups and people with all kinds of political baggage. The recipients don't necessarily embrace all the causes of their contributors. But they must expect to answer questions about their stands on these donors' issues.
Instead of reacting responsibly to this campaign flak, Mr. Bartlett instinctively attacked major contributors to his opponent with the kind of far-fetched, thoughtless insinuation that only undermines his own credibility with the general electorate.
But Mr. Crawford deserves no praise for his manner of raising the issue, in anonymous telephone "push polls" of voters with questions that linked Mr. Bartlett to the private militias.
There was no winner in this shameful exchange, except perhaps the perverse accomplishment of Mr. Pratt in again undermining a fellow conservative's campaign. He co-chaired Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign before he resigned last February after reports of his attendance at extremist gatherings.
Pub Date: 5/21/96