WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland look out their windows each morning, they see two very different Americas.
Bartlett, a conservative Republican, gazes over his peaceful, 145-acre farm outside of Frederick, where he has spent more than three decades tending sheep and goats.
Cummings, a liberal Democrat, looks down from his West Baltimore rowhouse onto a street where dealers stash their drugs in planters and two men once robbed him at gunpoint.
It is no surprise that they have come to Washington with divergent visions for the country. Bartlett seeks less government and a more self-reliant citizenry. Cummings wants government to give his people access to opportunity and help them lift themselves out of poverty.
Divided by race, geography and a generation, the men personify many of the political divisions in the nation. Whether the problem is gun violence, welfare dependency or failing schools, they offer starkly different solutions.
As Congress becomes increasingly split along ideological lines, a look at their lives brings a human dimension to conflicts so often defined by the demonizing rhetoric that pervades Capitol Hill. It also helps explain why it is so difficult to reach consensus on contentious issues.
Maryland calls itself "America in Miniature." Its diverse landscape, which includes affluent suburbs, mountain towns and major city, often reflects broader political trends such as the nation's current polarization.
"The state is almost as divided as the country," says George H. Callcott, a professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park.
Cummings represents Maryland's 7th District, a heavily
Democratic, largely black, urban area that stretches from East Baltimore through the center city and to the western edge of Baltimore County. Bartlett represents the state's 6th District, a rural Republican area that includes Carroll County, most of Howard County and all of Western Maryland.
Although they live about an hour's drive from one another and their districts share a border, the two men have little in common.
Cummings, 46, is a baby boomer. His earliest experience with politics, he says, came at age 8, when he was stoned by whites as a member of a group trying to integrate a public swimming pool in South Baltimore.
Bartlett, 70, is a child of the Depression who has lived his entire life on a farm. His greatest influence was his father, Roscoe Sr., who thought that the New Deal made people dependent.
Bartlett, one of the most conservative members of the House, opposes abortion, gun control and affirmative action; he supports welfare reform. In 1995, the National Journal, a political weekly, gave his voting record the same rating as that of former California Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the right-wing firebrand.
Cummings is the most liberal of Maryland's eight House members. A champion of gun control, he supports affirmative action and abortion rights and was the only Marylander to vote against welfare reform.
"It's stunning how different they are," says Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "You're talking about a tremendous cultural, social, economic and political divide."
A typical day
Spend a day with each man, and it is easy to see why they disagree on so much.
Bartlett often begins his mornings before dawn, feeding his 50 goats and 120 sheep. Clad in blue overalls, a worn red cap and work boots, he wades into a pen one December morning with a 5-gallon bucket filled with corn, barley, salt and molasses.
"Oh, my goodness," he says, thigh-high in an undulating sea of bleating fleece. "A mob scene."
Bartlett -- whose land is worth at least $2 million, according to financial disclosure reports -- is a retired research scientist with a doctorate in physiology and more than 20 patents. He keeps the animals as a hobby and perhaps as a reminder of his roots in rural Western Pennsylvania.
When Bartlett moved to Frederick in the 1960s, his property was surrounded by countryside. Today, it is hemmed in by industry. A sprawling warehouse sits next door.
Bartlett would like to see the nation return to its rural roots and a more disciplined, moral and self-sufficient lifestyle. "It would be nice to have an agrarian society today," he says, "but it's not going to happen."
A week later and about 50 miles away, Cummings' day begins much differently. A little before 1 a.m., he awakens and looks out of his red brick rowhouse to check on his 1991 Acura Legend.
Besieged by drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves, residents of this West Baltimore neighborhood of African-American professionals glance out their windows at all hours to check for trouble.
This morning, someone has shattered the passenger window of Cummings' car and stolen his car phone -- the fourth time in a year. Many people would move out, but Cummings says he has %% important reasons to stay.
"It means a lot to the kids in the neighborhood to see somebody who drives an Acura and doesn't sell drugs," he says. "You can say, 'I'm your neighbor,' and they understand you haven't given up."
It was on this block in the summer of 1993 that two men with sawed-off shotguns threatened to kill Cummings for the $40 in his pocket. They made him lie on the pavement and told him he was about to die. Passers-by scared them off.
Last year, in just the Baltimore portion of Cummings' district, at least 200 people were slain, according to police records.
Rural lawmakers, traditionally the biggest opponents of gun control, don't usually have body counts in their districts and see firearms in a different light. Cummings recalls a meeting in September when the Congressional Black Caucus was trying to plan activities for a weekend retreat. Members from rural areas ,, suggested skeet shooting.
Cummings and other urban legislators were appalled. "I said, 'This is crazy; we can't do this,' " recalls Cummings, who associates guns with drive-by shootings and funerals. "But the people from the rural areas, they couldn't understand the objections."
Bartlett has never been the victim of violent crime.
Bartlett opposes gun control because he thinks it violates the Constitution, but he acknowledges that his background may also have influenced his views. Although he doesn't shoot guns, he grew up around them. His father kept a loaded shotgun next to the door to kill dogs that went after the sheep.
"People who grow up where there is never a gun may only see it as a tool of the criminal," he says.
Growing up on a farm influenced Bartlett's thinking in many ways. His family survived winters during the Depression by canning corn, beets and tomatoes in 1,000 jars, which they stored in the basement. His sister's dresses and his underwear were made from feed sacks. The family refused to take government assistance. "My father would have rather died," Bartlett says.
Bartlett believes that welfare has destroyed people's initiative. That is why he voted last year to end the 6-decade-old guarantee of aid to the poor by limiting lifetime assistance to five years.
When he was young, Bartlett remembers, people in his rural community said that a lazy person "would go to work when his belly's rubbing blisters on his backbone."
In other words, he will work when he's hungry.
But what, Cummings asks, if he can't find a job?
Cummings is walking through the parking lot of Lemmel Middle School moments after addressing an auditorium full of students. A man in a black leather jacket approaches, asking for help finding work as a truck driver. It's a common request, Cummings says.
"That's what [ticks] me off about people who say people don't want to work," he says. "I would be interested to see how they would react if everywhere they went -- the supermarket, church -- people are asking for jobs. I wish more legislators could tour poor areas."
About 17 percent of the people in Cummings' district live below the poverty level -- more than three times the percentage in Bartlett's district, according to the 1990 census.
Frederick County had a 2.7 percent unemployment rate in November, the most recent figures available. The unemployment rate in Baltimore was 7.3 percent, according to the state.
Cummings says that neither of his parents, both Pentecostal ministers, ever received federal assistance. His mother, Ruth, cleaned houses in Roland Park and Guilford. His father, Robert, worked as a laborer at the chemical company W. R. Grace. In the neighborhood where he grew up, some received government aid. But, he says, they were good people in difficult circumstances.
"Welfare did not have the stigma that it has now," he says.
When Bartlett and Cummings talk about their sections of the state, they sometimes complain of being misunderstood. Bartlett recalls the time in 1995 when county health officials told him to bury the rotting sheep and goat carcasses he had left out on his farm.
Bartlett explained that they were three-quarters of a mile from his house and posed no health risk. He said he left them exposed so wild animals could eat the remains during the winter months.
"This is something that farmers do," he says. "I know that city people don't understand this."
Growing up in rural America might have shielded Bartlett from some of the darker elements of modern life. To this day, he says, he does not know of anyone who has ever had an abortion.
"The society I grew up in was not far from 'The Scarlet Letter,' " Bartlett says. "When a girl got pregnant, she got married, and if the man didn't want to marry her, why, the father of the girl you know what a shotgun wedding is?"
Bartlett's strict religious upbringing also influenced his views on abortion, which he believes devalues human life. He was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which forbids smoking and drinking.
As a student at Washington Missionary College in Takoma Park -- now Columbia Union College -- he was grounded for a week after someone spied him holding his girlfriend's hand.
Cummings also grew up in the church. He learned his considerable oratorical skills while testifying -- beginning at age 4 -- to God's good works at prayer meetings in his parents' home on Cross Street. But his neighborhood had more in common with the works of James Baldwin than Nathaniel Hawthorne.
When Cummings was about 10, he says, he saw a young woman carried from a house bleeding from below her waist. She later died.
"I remember someone saying she had to give up her baby," he said. "A few years later I understood: She had tried to have an abortion using a coat hanger."
Images such as this, Cummings says, helped make him a staunch supporter of a woman's right to end her pregnancy.
Given such different views and experiences, how do Bartlett and Cummings -- and an increasingly polarized Congress -- find compromise? Both men say the road begins with understanding those on the other side of the aisle.
"If I'm at the end of a street and you're at the other end of a street and we never come together, all we know is what we have been told," Cummings says.
Although the two men have served in the House since April, they had never spent more than 30 seconds speaking with one another until last month.
At the request of The Sun, they sat down for a 90-minute lunch in Cummings' Capitol Hill office to talk about issues. As they chatted over turkey subs and diet colas, the two expressed themselves in strikingly different ways.
Bartlett, the mild-mannered descendant of English immigrants, sat back in an armchair and often spoke conceptually, like the professor he once was. Cummings, the great-grandson of slaves, sat up in his chair, gesticulating, grimacing, laughing and shaking his head as he made his points.
At times, their political differences seemed insurmountable.
When the subject turned to affirmative action, Bartlett spoke of the five years when he worked as a research manager at IBM and not one white male was hired in his section. In trying to promote diversity, he said, the company discriminated against qualified whites and set up some less qualified women and minorities for failure. "I saw the tragedy of that," he said.
Through affirmative action, Cummings said, government can bring people of different races together who otherwise would never meet. He then explained how affirmative action lifted him over mediocre LSAT scores and into the University of Maryland School of Law. "I wouldn't be a lawyer today, I don't think, if it weren't for affirmative action," Cummings said. "I wouldn't be here."
Do you think someone else didn't get in because you did? Bartlett asked.
"I don't have a clue," said Cummings.
A point of agreement
In a discussion that ranged from school choice to public housing, the two men concurred on at least one point: People moving from welfare to work should continue to receive government-funded health insurance so that costly doctor bills don't force them back on public assistance.
"It kind of surprised me," Cummings said of the unexpected agreement.
Despite the chasm that has separated their lives, they also discovered some common ground. Bartlett said he learned to see past people's skin color when he taught physiology and endocrinology at the majority-black Howard University College of Medicine in the 1950s.
"I graduated from Howard," said Cummings, who finished Phi Beta Kappa in 1973.
Lunch broke up as the bells rang, calling House members to the floor to vote on a punishment for Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics violations. As Bartlett headed toward the door, Cummings said he'd like him to visit his district sometime. Bartlett said he would like that.
Roscoe G. Bartlett
Education: B.A., biology, Washington Missionary College. M.S., Ph.D, physiology, University of Maryland College Park.
Career: Farmer, teacher, homebuilder, research scientist and inventor with more than 20 patents.
Religion: Seventh-day Adventist.
Family: Married. Ten children.
Elected to the House: 1992.
Elijah E. Cummings
Home: West Baltimore
Education: B.S., political science, Howard University. J.D., University of Maryland School of Law.
Career: Attorney, state legislator for 14 years.
Family: Separated. One daughter.
Elected to the House: 1996.
Two different worlds -- Maryland's 6th and 7th Congressional Districts
The 6th District:
Carroll County, most of Howard County and all of Western Maryland.
White: 94 percent.
Black: 4 percent.
Rural: 47 percent.
Median household income: $36,883.
Married couple families: 65 percent.
Families living below the poverty level: 5.3 percent.
College education: 44 percent.
The 7th District:
Downtown, East and West Baltimore, and Western Baltimore County.
White: 27 percent.
Black: 71 percent.
Rural: 1 percent.
Median household income: $25,684.
Married couple families: 34 percent.
Families living below the poverty level: 17.4 percent.
College education: 37 percent.
Pub Date: 2/09/97