U.S. Congress

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MARYLAND'S congressional districts were contorted by the Democrats controlling Annapolis in hopes of boosting their party's ranks in the state's eight-member House delegation, now half Republican. The result was to send incumbents in both parties scrambling.

District 1: In an unexpected bonus for Democrats, six-term Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore has come under sharp attack from within his own party.

With substantial help from outside interest groups and roughly $350,000 of his own money, Baltimore county lawyer Dave Fischer is challenging Mr. Gilchrest on the grounds that he is not conservative enough.

But Mr. Fischer isn't as conservative as the campaign being run for him, either. He says he does not intend to pursue the social issues - such as abortion and gun rights - featured in his campaign ads. When asked to explain charges of "environmental radicalism" lodged against Mr. Gilchrest on the Fischer campaign Web site, Mr. Fischer says he didn't write it. He says he wants to go to Congress primarily to eliminate wasteful spending.

That's a laudable goal but hardly justifies Maryland Republicans dumping one of their most accomplished leaders. Mr. Gilchrest is a conservative in the truest sense. He has devoted himself to conserving the health, beauty, economy and way of life of the 1st District, which spans much of the Delmarva Peninsula and now stretches into Harford and Baltimore counties.

A former schoolteacher who painted houses in the summers, Mr. Gilchrest has emerged over his 12 years in Congress as a national leader on environmental issues. He forged key alliances with lawmakers fighting to protect private property rights and to promote the profitability of farming because he recognizes those elements are vital to land and wildlife conservation.

Mr. Gilchrest is also a man of uncommon integrity, who stood up to the political establishment in Annapolis, the rest of the state's House delegation and this newspaper to wage a successful battle against dumping into the Chesapeake Bay what the Army Corps of Engineers later concurred was potentially harmful dredge spoil.

He has easily earned his party's backing for nomination to a seventh term.

There is no Democratic primary in the 1st District.

District 8: Democratic mapmakers figured eight-term Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County was the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, so they reshaped her district to make a re-election bid even harder for her.

What they have produced so far is a red-hot Democratic primary with three of the party's most attractive House candidates in the nation flailing away at each other while Ms. Morella collects the Republican nomination without opposition.

Democratic voters can hardly go wrong here. Each of the top three candidates espouses the progressive positions favored by the mainstream of their party.

Ira S. Shapiro, a trade negotiator for the Clinton administration and long-time Senate aide, has a wealth of experience on national and international issues.

The career of two-term Del. Mark K. Shriver, a nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, reflects the social concerns that highlight his family's legacy. He has been particularly focused on helping troubled youths make the most of their lives, but also demonstrated during eight years in Annapolis a wonkish taste for budget oversight.

On the basis of both experience and accomplishment, however, the edge goes to state Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

A former U.S. Senate aide before he won a seat in the House of Delegates in 1991, Mr. Van Hollen combines some of the national and international experience Mr. Shapiro offers. But he adds to that a solid grounding in state issues and proven ability to connect with voters.

Over two terms in the state Senate following his service in the House, Mr. Van Hollen has been able to outmatch Mr. Shriver's legislative performance, often emerging as a key player on such diverse but high-profile matters as gun control, health care, environmental protection and education spending.

District 2: This Baltimore County district, now represented by GOP gubernatorial hopeful Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was relieved of many of his Republican constituents in order to boost the congressional prospects of Democratic County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Several other Democrats have also come forward, but Mr. Ruppersberger's solid service in Towson warrants his party's nomination for Congress.

Republicans will find on the ballot the familiar name of former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who has been drafted out of retirement to help her party retain the seat. She is the obvious choice for the GOP nod.

District 3: Thanks to his party's mapmakers, Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who has represented Northwest Baltimore first in the General Assembly and then in Congress for three decades, is now stumping in an almost entirely new, snake-shaped district that slithers all the way south to Annapolis.

As a key national player on health, pension and tax issues, Mr. Cardin should easily be favored over perennial candidate John Rea.

Republican voters in the district also have a couple of choices. The best option appears to be Scott Conwell, a Washington lawyer who says his priorities are education and transportation.

District 4: Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County has become increasingly independent in recent years, defying his party to vote with Republicans to repeal the estate tax and against the drive to ban "soft money" contributions from political campaigns. Glenarden Mayor Don Williams has not made the case, however, for denying Mr. Wynn nomination to a seventh term.

A former Glenarden mayor, Floyd W. Anderson Jr., is the Republicans' best choice for a challenge to Mr. Wynn.

District 5: Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland has no primary opposition. There is also no contest for the Republican nomination.

District 6: Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett is facing no opposition for GOP nomination to a sixth term.

Democrat Donald M. DeArmon, a longtime congressional aide who made a credible showing against Mr. Bartlett two years ago, should be given the chance for a rematch in the Western Maryland district.

District 7: Social activist and frequent candidate A. Robert Kaufman is waging a lively challenge to four-term Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

Mr. Kaufman performs a useful service in forcing the incumbent to scramble a bit, but is not persuasive on the need to boot Mr. Cummings out.

Republicans have no primary in the district.

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