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Gilchrest amazes friends even as he rattles foes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lawmakers are usually in the business of getting money for their constituency. The more the better.

So when Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland took to the House floor recently and offered to give back millions already earmarked for two dredging projects in his home state, colleagues were stunned.

"When you even talk about deauthorizing [a project], it is the buzz of the Capitol," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who helped lead a successful effort to defeat Gilchrest's proposed amendment. "They're like, are you serious? If you don't want the money, give us the money."

The move, though, was classic Gilchrest. The former house painter and Kent County High School teacher has been a wild card in the Republican Party from the day he showed up in his painting cap and blue jeans to register as a candidate against an entrenched career politician in the 1st District.

Given the choice between protecting the Chesapeake Bay and sending more money to his home state, few doubted which side Gilchrest would come down on.

But this time he has taken on virtually all of his Maryland colleagues in the House, as well as the governor, the Maryland Port Administration and influential labor leaders and business interests in the port. Some have responded by denouncing Gilchrest as an extremist who has put into peril the port of Baltimore and the thousands of jobs it supports. Without federal money to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, proponents say, steamship lines will continue to leave the port in favor of those closer to the ocean.

"He's doing a tremendous amount of damage to the port," said S. A. "Skip" Brown III, president of Belt's Corp., a warehousing and distribution company that lost a major customer recently when a steamship line scaled back its service to Baltimore. "It's the Pearl Harbor of the port of Baltimore, in my opinion."

State transportation officials say Gilchrest's campaign against dredging is sending the wrong message to steamship lines at a time when the port is trying to attract new business.

"It's just part of a concentrated and concerted effort by Congressman Gilchrest to hurt the port of Baltimore and the statewide jobs it has generated," state Transportation Secretary John Procari said last week.

Gilchrest is unswayed. Though he once endorsed studying plans to deepen the C&D; as part of efforts to bring the Maersk/Sea-Land shipping alliance to Baltimore, he has since concluded that the project would harm the fragile Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps more importantly, he argues, the economic benefits of the project are outweighed by the cost, originally estimated at more than $80 million.

In a matter of months, he says, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release an economic analysis concluding that the project doesn't warrant federal funding. His amendment to kill funding for the study now will prevent further waste of taxpayer money, he argues.

"The corps has spent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars studying this issue," Gilchrest said in a speech on the House floor. "When do we say there is no benefit to taxpayers, no benefit to the port of Baltimore, and the study comes to an end?" The Sun's editorial pages, a frequent defender of the port, weighed in with some harsh criticism, claiming that Gilchrest has distorted the facts and threatened years of effort to reverse the port's declining container-cargo business.

Gilchrest's defenders say those charges won't stick in the House, where even his critics don't doubt his objectivity.

"It's a situation where you're arguing with someone that no one would believe has purposely twisted the facts," said one congressional staffer who agreed to be interviewed only with the promise of anonymity. "None of those kinds of arguments often heard around [the Capitol] have the slightest applicability with him."

Though his colleagues often disagree with him, Gilchrest has earned a reputation as a studied environmentalist and independent thinker with no political pretense. And, although few expect that he will succeed in overturning congressional approval for the canal-deepening project, they also don't dispute his credentials or sincerity.

"On environmental policy, he is as knowledgeable as anybody in this Congress today - House or Senate," said Rep. Michael Castle, a Delaware Republican, who said he relies on Gilchrest for advice on such issues. "And he approaches it almost always with a scientific point of view as opposed to any great political fixation."

Gilchrest's connection with the environment is evident in his surroundings. His home lies on a two-lane road in rural Kennedyville, not far from Turner's Creek - a favorite Eastern Shore canoeing destination. Visitors typically find him in blue jeans and suspenders, surrounded by a menagerie of dogs, cats and a couple of old horses fenced in nearby. He's been known to show up at his Washington office with manure still clinging to his shoes. If it weren't for politics, Gilchrest says, he'd be living a pioneer lifestyle.

"Would I rather be taking people on horseback rides or canoeing rides as an outfitter? Yeah, you betcha," he says.

It's that inherent lack of political ambition that frustrates political opponents. In a city full of ego, Gilchrest doesn't seem to have any, which renders good old-fashioned political gamesmanship useless against him whether the subject is port dredging or campaign-finance reform.

"A guy like Wayne is a breath of fresh air," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, a Republican ally of Gilchrest's on environmental matters. "It would be foolhardy for anyone to try to paint Wayne Gilchrest as an extremist."

He may not be that, but there's no missing him in the crowd. Gilchrest, a former Kent County High School history teacher, is noted for being one of a small number of House members who don't accept money from political action committees or from donors outside his home district. He shuns cocktail parties and other trappings of Washington life, making the roughly two-hour drive to his district nightly. If House business keeps him at the Capitol, he sleeps on the couch in his office.

Constituents have hardly been put off by Gilchrest's folksy demeanor, handing him nearly 70 percent of the vote in his 1998 campaign against challenger Irving Pinder, a state official and former Queenstown commissioner.

But things were different in 1988, when he decided to take on Roy Dyson, the veteran Democratic incumbent. A registered Independent, Gilchrest was a house painter and former Idaho trail guide with no political experience or spare cash. He and Leonard Smith, an old painting buddy and varsity football coach at Kent County High School, filled out long election disclosure forms in pencil and turned them in at the last minute. Neither knew the slightest thing about running a campaign.

"I didn't think I was going to be a member of Congress," Gilchrest recalled. "I just thought in the beginning that this guy shouldn't run unopposed."

Growing up in New Jersey, Gilchrest dreamed of a life in the country while delivering newspapers at age 12. The only thing he imagined himself doing was living in the wilderness, not running for Congress to protect it.

He pursued his dream in 1986, abandoning his 17-year teaching career to work as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service. Borrowing from retirement savings, he packed up his family that summer and headed for a cabin in the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho.

"I remember the superintendent [of schools] telling me I was making the biggest mistake of my life, and I said, 'I don't think so,'" Gilchrest said. "I had seen the movie 'Never Cry Wolf' and I desperately wanted to do something like that."

The isolation was too much for his wife, Barbara, who took their daughter, Katie, then 4, and headed back to Maryland after less than a week. Gilchrest and their two sons, Kevin and Joel, stayed behind, registering hikers in the designated wilderness area, spotting fires and counting moose and elk for the forest service.

The three returned home about four months later, but Gilchrest wasn't through with pioneer life yet. After rebuilding his savings by painting houses during the winter, he and the boys returned to Idaho the following summer to work for an outfitter, taking care of horses.

"I figured I had found my niche in life and was going to spend the rest of my life there," Gilchrest said.

As it turns out, the second trip didn't last long. Gilchrest was thrown from his horse while riding back from a trout fishing expedition, leaving him with a broken jaw. He returned home and resumed painting houses. But the experience helped shape his future political priorities.

It was while painting the house of the late Chicago Cubs player Bill Nicholson that he decided to run for office. The inspiration came after Gilchrest read in the newspaper that the GOP couldn't find anyone to run against Dyson.

Nobody took his candidacy seriously until scandal shook Dyson's campaign. It started when the incumbent's top aide leaped to his death from the Helmsey Palace Hotel in New York amid questions about his near-exclusive hiring of young male staffers. Sensing vulnerability, formerly indifferent GOP strategists pleaded with Gilchrest to withdraw to make room for a more recognizable candidate.

Gilchrest balked, marking the first of many times he would go against party elders. "You're pressured to the degree you allow yourself to be pressured," he says of the incident. It was clear from the beginning that the candidate wasn't going to toe the party line. When party leaders sent a professional campaign manager to help out, Gilchrest and his band of volunteers rarely followed her advice.

"She wanted me to be pro-life; she wanted me to do this and that. She laid out an agenda, which was a Republican agenda," said Gilchrest, who is pro-choice. "It was helpful, because then I knew what the Republican agenda was, but I also realized that every Republican probably doesn't feel this way."

Constituents don't always appreciate his independence, but Gilchrest shakes off the criticism. "I get letters from people in the district that say I'm not acting like a Republican, but I don't know what the hell that means," he said.

As the 1988 race tightened, Dyson supporters made an issue of Gilchrest's unconventional career path, describing him as an eccentric unemployed teacher and house painter who had once abandoned his family to go find himself in the Idaho wilderness. The strategy backfired. Working-class Eastern Shore residents and nature aficionados began to identify with Gilchrest's independent streak and blue-collar appeal. Though he would end up losing that election by about 1,500 votes, Gilchrest would later draw on those supporters in his fight against the state's dredging plans.

With Dyson still dogged by scandal when it came time for their 1990 rematch, Gilchrest turned back seven other Republican challengers in the primaries and went on to win the general election with 56 percent of the vote.

He spent many hours of his freshman term reading bills word for word - a rarity on Capitol Hill - and educating himself on the issues. Often, his conclusions would put him at odds with his colleagues and constituents, such as when he supported a waiting period for handgun purchases and stood out as the lone Republican in the House to support statehood for the District of Columbia.

But before long, he was taking on the role of educating others, particularly on environmental issues. To help illustrate his point, the former history and civics teacher has been known to bring an easel and magic marker to the House floor during his speeches.

His studiousness, particularly on environmental issues, has earned Gilchrest the respect of Republican leaders, despite his sometimes stubborn refusal to vote with the party.

When Republicans took over Congress in 1995, Gilchrest found he had new clout. Along with a small block of pro-environment Republicans, he helped block conservative members from the West who were trying to limit the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency. In another fight that year, Gilchrest threatened to resign from the House Resources Committee after his colleagues wouldn't let him call witnesses to speak in favor of the Endangered Species Act. The tactic failed, but Gilchrest countered by holding his own town meeting in Annapolis with scientists and other experts testifying.

But when he first started questioning Chesapeake Bay dredging projects a few years later, many of his colleagues didn't understand the issue. Some still see it as a largely local fight inside the Maryland delegation, which has for the most part supported the governor and state transportation officials on the matter.

With the backing of the pro-environment constituents who helped elect him, Gilchrest has stood firm in the face of studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which originally determined that the bay would not be harmed if dredge spoils were dumped in open water north of the Bay Bridge. The proposed dumping ground, known as "Site 104," was deemed critical to the port of Baltimore's efforts to obtain federal funding to deepen the C&D; Canal, which provides a short-cut to the port to and from the north.

Gilchrest was convinced that the corps was wrong. Just as he had done in his fight for the Endangered Species Act, he took the fight beyond Washington, calling public meetings in his district and enlisting volunteers to study the corps' environmental and economic analyses.

The group was largely isolated in its opposition to Site 104 until a subsequent corps study suggested that dioxin, PCBs and other toxins discovered in the shipping channels posed a risk to certain species of fish and mussels. In light of the new evidence, Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced this month that he was putting a stop to the Maryland Port Administration's plans to use Site 104 as a disposal area for dredge spoil.

The decision was vindication for Gilchrest and fuel for his battle against the plan. Port officials, who were counting on Site 104 as a cheap disposal site for dredge spoil from the proposed C&D; project, say they are looking for alternatives. But, without Site 104, Gilchrest and other critics say, the Army Corps will never be able to economically justify spending federal dollars on the project.

Port officials disagree, saying the dredging plan should still be approved based on its economic benefits to the state. In a public radio debate with Gilchrest last week, Kathleen Broadwater, the port's director of planning and business development, said Baltimore stands to lose 200,000 to 250,000 tons of container cargo a year if the C&D; Canal isn't deepened. Future jobs will also be threatened, she said.

The corps' Philadelphia district will continue studying the issue to determine who is right, unless Gilchrest succeeds in cutting off funding for the project this summer.

Cummings has pledged to make sure that doesn't happen. He's gearing up for a fight when Gilchrest introduces a new amendment to kill the C&D; project.

"If we have to look longshoremen in the face and say this is why you're not going to be able to feed your family in the next few years, we better have something reliable to show them," Cummings said of the pending corps study.

Yet, Cummings said, "It's hard to be upset with Wayne on this issue because, deep in my heart, I believe it's something he has true passion about. It's something that he in his heart believes is the right thing."

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