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-startling 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, who is running for re-election.
All the congressional candidates wore yarmulkes, Jewish prayer caps, in the Beth Shalom Congregation building, but only Bartlett talked about his support of Israel.
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.
"I have no idea. I sign onto a lot of bills that I know aren't going anywhere," he said in a hallway after the forum.
"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.
Bartlett said Cardin's bill would have provided the kind of tax relief he favors.
"I would have been very happy to vote on your bill," he told Cardin.
DeArmon said Bartlett voted against budget bills that would have achieved things he says he supports, but Bartlett said they were votes against pork-filled, omnibus spending bills.
In the 6th District contest, Bartlett seems to have most of the advantages. In addition to being an incumbent, he starts with huge advantages in the number of registered voters and money.
His six-county western Maryland district - stretching from Garrett County east to part of Howard County - has 50,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats, and he has more than four times the money DeArmon does, according to the latest federal campaign finance reports.
Bartlett won his primary election in March with 78 percent of the vote, and easily beat his 1998 Democratic opponent, Timothy D. McGown, a Frederick County drug counselor. McGown is attempting a write-in effort this year as a candidate of the Green Party.
Although a Democrat in 1998, McGown said recently that the Green Party is closer to his real goals - campaign finance reform, better health care and lower taxes.
"The 38 percent [of the vote] I got was gotten with $2,300," McGown said. Now, he said, he will have organizational help from the Greens, despite the extra burden of trying to get write-in votes. He's trying to help build a third party, he said, a goal that even a 10 percent vote will help achieve.
Among the four school board finalists, incumbent member Stephen C. Bounds was the top vote-getter in the March primary, despite a difficult year punctuated with criticism of the county's five-member school board.
He got more than 8,000 votes, compared with about less than 6,500 each for Virginia Charles, Jerry D. Johnston and Patricia S. Gordon.
Bounds asked for support from the small group of about 20 spectators as the only parent of children in the county schools, and the only man on the board.
Charles said teachers should have gotten a 10 percent pay increase instead of the three county deputy administrators who did get that much. Teachers got a 6 percent pay raise this year.
Patricia Gordon said she strongly opposes school vouchers and feels Howard County should provide enough textbooks for every student to be able to have one.