A kinder, gentler U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett appeared last night at a Columbia candidates' forum sponsored by a coalition of Howard County's five Jewish organizations.
Known for sometimes taking extreme positions - such as legalizing concealed weapons and outlawing adult magazines on military bases - the conservative Western Maryland Republican told an approving crowd that he opposes the death penalty and outlawing abortion.
Despite his statements, Bartlett has repeatedly voted with his party on measures favoring the death penalty, legally restricting abortions and banning the use of federal funds for family-planning education.
In 1998 he opposed a bill requiring courts to change a death sentence to life without parole if any doubt of guilt exists. Last year, he voted for a bill making criminal any acts that harmed a fetus.
Last night, Bartlett also said he favors estate-tax reform legislation sponsored by a Maryland congressional colleague, liberal Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin.
"I do not think capital punishment is a deterrent. It is cheaper to keep someone in jail for 60 years than it is to execute them" because of years of costly appeals by death-row inmates, Bartlett said. "I no longer support the death penalty. I support all life," he said.
The four-term 6th District incumbent was responding to a comment from Douglas Revelle, 40, of Baltimore, who is a member of the Maryland Coalition Against State Executions.
"I was very pleasantly surprised," Revelle said later.
Bartlett appeared along with Donald M. DeArmon, his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 7 election, and Cardin, the 3rd District incumbent who represents parts of Howard County. U.S. Senate candidate Paul H. Rappaport, a Republican, attended the forum, as did four Howard County school board candidates and John Peter Sarbanes, the son of Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
On abortion, a question raised by Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman, Bartlett was evasive.
"You will find nobody in Congress stronger in support of religious freedom than I. I'm strongly, strongly pro-choice on religion," he said, adding quickly that he's "pro-life" on abortion.
Later, after DeArmon, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, said Bartlett sponsored a constitutional amendment that would make all abortions illegal, Bartlett said he may have done so.
"My hope is, my prayer is, that incrementally, we will one day be a country which values all life. Imposing it [by law] will not work."
Bartlett lamented that "the political process" blocked a Democratic version of estate-tax relief from reaching the House for a vote. By exempting estates worth more than $5 million, the measure would have given tax relief to families who want to pass on small businesses and farms.