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Passionate Gilchrest follows his own path


WAYNE T. GILCHREST paddled his canoe with determination against the Sassafras River's currents near his Kennedyville home on a damp, cloudy morning.

He was returning from a trip into a nature wonderland, almost in his back yard, where water lilies bloom and blue heron nest.

He angled the canoe to buffer the vessel against the strong current and eventually guided in for a smooth landing.

Oncoming waves didn't bother Mr. Gilchrest, Maryland's 1st District congressman. Not one bit. The congressman is accustomed to paddling against the tide, whether it's in the rivers he fights to make pollution-free or turbulent political waters.

He's paddled especially hard this year in a perplexing, perhaps precedent-setting, brawl with the Maryland Port Administration.

In an unthinkable move, he's asking Congress to take back millions of dollars allotted to deepen two of the port of Baltimore's channels, projects the state insists are crucial to luring and retaining steamship lines that could find other ports more attractive.

Deauthorizing home state projects -- particularly those widely viewed as vital to the state's economy -- is virtually unheard of.

Mr. Gilchrest has created this storm and now he endures the currents of criticism from port officials and businessmen, his congressional colleagues and this newspaper -- all of whom have praised him in the past.

Yet he stays the misguided course: He honestly believes dredging projects that would bring more cargo to Baltimore are wasteful and environmentally disastrous.

Nobody questions his deep commitment to the environment. He says protecting the Chesapeake Bay and other preservation efforts consume one-third of his time and energy in Congress. The environment is his passion.

He's proud that Kent County farmers have learned to protect the Sassafras River by allowing a buffer strip of brush to grow between their crops and the river, protecting the waters from harmful nutrients. He's studied environmental issues issue well and deserves credit for his work.

But he ignores the realities of economic development.

"Wayne Gilchrest is such an environmentalist that he would not want to disturb anything on Earth," complained former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a fellow Republican who is legendary for her incessant work to improve the port of Baltimore. "He really does not understand the maritime picture."

Most troubling to Ms. Bentley is that Mr. Gilchrest's bid to deauthorize the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal deepening project would raise federal standards for approving dredging funds. But while other ports would use existing standards, only Baltimore would be hurt.

"In 1948, the port dug a 42-foot channel," Ms. Bentley said. "If Wayne Gilchrest had been around then, we wouldn't have done it. And if we hadn't done that, what do you think we would have today?"

The congressman thinks steamship companies are threatening ports like sports franchises -- dredge or we'll go elsewhere. He says he stands for tougher, national dredging standards. But he stands alone. His House colleagues -- even fellow Republicans -- haven't lined up behind him.

The congressman isn't exactly sure where his environmental fervor comes from. He grew up in northern New Jersey, which already was a mass of suburban sprawl. He surmises that the development of a wooded oasis near his Rahway home may have created the spark that turned into a conflagration.

Mr. Gilchrest, 54, isn't easy to figure out. He comes from a conservative background -- he says his father thinks Rush Limbaugh is too liberal -- but he's a staunch moderate. He fought Republican attempts to water down the Endangered Species Act, and he fought changes to dilute the Clean Water Act.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a fellow Maryland Republican who has strongly opposed Mr. Gilchrest on the dredging controversy, describes the Eastern Shore congressman as a mainstream conservative on military, spending and tax issues and a libertarian on social matters.

"Philosophically, he's probably a little more moderate than his district," Mr. Ehrlich said, adding that his colleague's "basic decency" is a strong asset.

In addition to the environment, Mr. Gilchrest says Medicare and health care are his major issues. But elderly citizens were upset with him during an appearance this year at a Berlin senior center because Eastern Shore seniors are struggling to pay for prescription drugs and want the Republican Congress to do better.

The American Conservative Union isn't crazy about the congressman, giving him a 63 lifetime rating and 52 score for 1999 -- low figures for a Republican. He's conservative on most fiscal matters and a social moderate.

The liberal Americans for Democratic Action ranks him among the House of Representatives' 21 moderate Republicans, along with New York senatorial candidate Rick Lazio and Delaware's Michael N. Castle. He belongs to Congress' Tuesday Group of moderates (which actually meets on Wednesdays).

Though the congressman is a 10-year veteran, he has accumulated little power in the House. He doesn't get caught up in the ego-building of Washington. Instead, he remains humble and unobstrusive. You'll miss him in a crowd.

At home, when the House is in recess, he favors worn jeans, suspenders and whiskers. He comes across as a nice guy.

Earlier this year, Mr. Gilchrest, a former schoolteacher and house painter, told a group of Berlin fifth-graders that he ran for Congress to protect nature.

"Take a deep breath like this," he instructed 50 pupils paying rapt attention to their unimposing visitor, who wore a corduroy sports jacket with an elbow patch.

He inhaled audibly, and the class did the same.

"We want to make sure the air you breathe is clean so you won't have to worry about it."

Mr. Gilchrest breathed plenty of fresh air 14 years ago when he left his Kent County teaching job for a summer in the Idaho wilderness, where his nearest neighbor was several mountains away.

Today, he lives with his wife of 29 years on a small stretch surrounded by cornfields and soybeans. His wife refuses to use the clothes dryer; she hangs her laundry on a clothesline, across from the horse barn.

Mr. Gilchrest's modesty and amiability win votes. Upon meeting the congressman at a Kent County dock, an elderly Rock Hall man smiled. "I vote for you every time because you don't carry yourself like a big shot," he said.

The low-key, Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington appeal plays well in the First District, which includes the nine Eastern Shore counties, large portions of Anne Arundel County and Brooklyn and Curtis Bay in Baltimore.

When Mr. Gilchrest first ran for Congress in 1988, he lost by less than a percentage point to incumbent Roy Dyson, whose political career toppled when an aide committed suicide and revelations emerged about Mr. Dyson's close ties to the defense industry. Two years later, Mr. Gilchrest defeated Mr. Dyson handily as the incumbent's troubles mounted.

Mr. Gilchrest's humble style has been winning elections since. He defeated Democratic incumbent Tom McMillen in 1992, winning 52 percent of the vote, when redistricting pitted the congressmen against each other. He's won by wide margins since.

Mr. Gilchrest is chairman of the House subcommittee on the Coast Guard and maritime transportation, advocating increased drug interdiction.

It wasn't surprising that he became an early supporter of Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. The two have something in common -- and not just the late-night meetings with Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, over tequila and beer to talk about the environment.

"I like McCain's independent streak," Mr. Gilchrest said.

Still, he is puzzled by a common description of him as a maverick. "Mavericks don't consider themselves mavericks," Mr. Gilchrest said. "You just do the things you think are right and reasonable."

For the most part, Wayne Gilchrest has done that well in his five terms. But his hard-line, no-compromise dredging stance is reason to worry that he has veered too far off course and now is sailing fast toward a dangerous waterfall.

Election 2000

Today, The Sun continues its editorial look at members of the Maryland congressional delegation who face re-election contests on Nov. 7.

Wayne T. Gilchrest (R)

1st Congressional District

Born: April 15, 1946, Rahway, N.J.

Years in Congress: 10

Prior office: none

Occupation: high school teacher

Residence: Kennedyville

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