Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett is no liberal, but a debate developed yesterday over how his stand against the death penalty and his views on abortion at a candidates forum should be understood in light of his rock-solid conservative voting record.
Spectators at a forum Sunday night at a Columbia synagogue heard the conservative Republican congressman from Western Maryland's 6th District say he's opposed to the death penalty, which puts him to the left of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a liberal Democrat who supports it.
And if that weren't enough, Bartlett, 74, a four-term incumbent, appeared to say he's against outlawing abortion and added that he thought the Democrats' version of estate tax reform should have been allowed to come up for a vote in the House.
"I would have been very happy to vote on your bill," he said to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who was seated next to him at Beth Shalom Congregation. Cardin, a 3rd District Democrat, had accused Republicans of pushing their bill, which was vetoed by President Clinton, because they want a campaign issue more than they want reform. Bartlett voted against a Democratic attempt June 9 to amend the GOP bill.
Lisa Wright, Bartlett's media spokeswoman, said yesterday he is "a compassionate conservative" who opposes abortion, but he merely meant that a constitutional amendment outlawing the procedure isn't practical now.
"He has a 100 percent pro-life voting record," Wright said. "That's very, very different than the political assessment that the country's not ready for a constitutional amendment."
Bartlett did not return a call for comment yesterday.
On Sunday night, Bartlett told a crowd of about 20 people that "my hope, my prayer, is that incrementally we will one day be a country which values all life. Imposing it [by law] will not work."
He also said he is opposed to the death penalty. "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 endless appeals, he said. "I no longer support the death penalty. I support all life."
That surprised Carroll County state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a conservative Republican with congressional aspirations. "That doesn't sound like Congressman Bartlett at all," he said, adding that he thought the congressman supported the death penalty.
Different people had different interpretations.
Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation - host for the event sponsored by Howard County's Jewish institutions - said Bartlett's comments on abortion offended her and her congregation. After she asked the candidates about abortion, Bartlett said, "You will find nobody in Congress stronger in support of religious freedom than I. I'm strongly, strongly pro-choice on religion," adding that he is "pro-life" on abortion.
"He was misrepresenting himself," Grossman said. "His record has been to consistently vote to outlaw abortion. From our point of view, you can't be in favor of religious freedom and want to outlaw abortion."
She said the Mishnah a body of rabbinical law based on the Old Testament states: "If a woman in labor has difficulty, one dismembers the embryo in her, removing it limb by limb. For her life takes precedence over its life."
Grossman said Judaism "is not pro-abortion," but Jews believe that the mother takes priority in every case, whether that involves physical, mental or emotional health. She dismissed Bartlett's comment afterward that he does not know whether he co-sponsored legislation or a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion.
"I don't buy that," Grossman said. "He seems to be so meticulous. What he says he is doing and what he is actually doing is different. He obviously gives preference to the life of the fetus over the health of the mother."
Co-sponsor of resolution
Bartlett co-sponsored House Resolution 639 last year that sought to vest the right to life under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution at the moment of fertilization, according to the Library of Congress.
Donald M. DeArmon, the Democrat running for Bartlett's seat, was critical of Bartlett. "I think it doesn't surprise me that elected officials would moderate their comments depending on the audience they're in front of," he said.
DeArmon, 44, of Frederick, a congressional staff member, said Bartlett has voted against budget bills that contain money for causes he champions, such as defense and veterans health. Voters should not allow him to get away with that, DeArmon said. He dismissed Bartlett's explanation that he makes those votes to oppose pork barrel spending hidden in omnibus spending bills.
"Had his vote prevailed, there would have been no funding for veterans health or defense," DeArmon said.
Wright, Bartlett's spokeswoman, denied that he was playing Sunday night to his largely liberal Jewish audience at the eastern edge of his six-county district.
"He does not change his position, his approach or the way he talks," she said. "Congressman Bartlett does not tailor comments because he is not political in that sense of the word. He says what he believes, and he believes what he says."
A Sun article published yesterday reporting that he opposed banning abortion by law at the forum "distorts and inaccurately portrays his position," Wright said.
Although Bartlett also said Sunday he opposes the death penalty, his voting record is solidly in defense of the ultimate punishment.
He voted in 1998, for example, to oppose a bill requiring the courts to change a death sentence to life without parole if any doubt of guilt exists.
Whether he was trying to seem more palatable or was misunderstood, Bartlett sometimes defies efforts by voters to understand him, some observers said.
"Roscoe is a rather complex individual," said Joseph Lebherz, president of the Frederick Chamber of Commerce. "He might surprise you. He doesn't always follow the party line."