Volume 14, Issue 38 ~ September 21 - September 27, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Portrait of an Odd Politician

No Election Day worries for Wayne Gilchrest

Every man paddle his own canoe.

Frederick Marryat’s Settlers in Canada, 1844

It was in early afternoon the day of the recent primary elections, and little did I expect that day I would be lunching with one of the candidates whose name was on the ballot on the entire Eastern Shore and a portion of polling places on this side of the Chesapeake.

The politician I had a lunch date with was a congressman known for his independence; a rather laid-back fellow who paddles his own canoe. He doesn’t seem to be interested in becoming the admiral of the fleet; just one who paddles in the direction he wants to go.

If this year, two, four, six or 20 years down the line, he’s removed from the fleet that we call the U.S. House of Representatives, one gets the impression he wouldn’t sink into despair.

He’d be perfectly content to hop into his own real canoe and go paddling in some tributary of the Chester River. He would be out of the belly of the beast, where he has been since 1990.

Canoeing to him, he says, is “political dialysis.” It does for the mind what dialysis does for the blood of a kidney patient: a thorough cleansing.

Meet Wayne Gilchrest

Meet Wayne Gilchrest, Republican member of the House of Representatives, First Congressional District of Maryland, former house painter, teacher, Vietnam veteran — and past, present and future canoeist who has yet to find himself up that well-known proverbial creek without a paddle, though he must think at times the current and wind is against his flimsy craft.

For years, I’ve wondered what the real Wayne Gilchrest was like, this congressman from the Eastern Shore where the words ecology, environment and conservation aren’t spoken much with positive fervor. From what I’ve read, he’s a maverick Republican, doesn’t hesitate to part from the party line; he paddles his own canoe, and sometimes on a collision course with the thinking of many constituents.

But when we lunched, he was unopposed in the primary.

We had met a few times previously, but for little more than a handshake and a sentence or two. I knew that of late he — as chairman of the House Fisheries Subcommittee — and fellow Republican Rep. Jim Saxton, former chairman, have been lightning rods as letters pour in from concerned fishermen as the vote nears on the Magnuson Act, which controls fishing from three miles to 200 miles offshore.

We’ll touch on that in a moment, but my purpose was not primarily to cover issues; instead to get to know the guy who paddles his own canoe, how and why a Republican got so involved in conservation and why he persists — sometimes to the chagrin of party leaders and members.

My first impression was a good one; he chose the eatery where we’d lunch, and it wasn’t one of the hoity-toity places for which Annapolis is known and where politicians gather. It was the Double T Diner: good food and lots of it. At 1:30 in the afternoon he had eggs sunny side up. So I had breakfast, too.

His Way In

“As a boy, we were living in New Jersey, and in an area that had a dirt road and everything was green. Then it was all gone, developed.” Simply put, that spurred his life-long interest in the environment.

Seeing that he disavows being political, how did he get into politics? In ’88, he was teaching history in Kent County. The course delved into politics, and he didn’t like the way Roy Dyson was doing things. At the last moment, he filled out the papers to challenge him. After all, he was teaching kids to get involved.

He lost, but not by much, then ran again. Then school teaching and painting houses in summer vacation were behind him; he was off to D.C. One can sense he misses teaching, but maybe not as much as house painting, a job where one can work and think at the same time.

He recalled the day he got the teaching job in Kent County. He was painting when far off he could see his wife Barbara driving faster than usual toward the house. He thought something had happened, then he feared he knew what it meant. There’d be no more house painting year ’round; he’d been hired to teach. He was right.

Previously, after he’d served in Vietnam and taken a shot in the gut, he had taught in Vermont and Idaho, and also did some painting. “Nothing better than being at the top of a ladder getting ready to putty and paint,” he says.

His Way

How does he get reelected and reelected while sometimes holding different views than his constituents? His philosophy: “People are more interested in information than in their own thoughts on an issue. People like to think. And I engage them in the process.”

He’s concerned about global warming. He says in 800,000 years, there have been natural variations of gases and atmosphere. But in the past hundred there have been more changes than in the previous 10,000 years.

So why aren’t our leaders getting more involved?

“Pervasive ignorance and arrogance and dogma. People have got to know how to live with change.”

As for the Magnuson Act, Gilchrest and Saxton are on opposite sides. The act incorporates a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program that sets a 10-year time frame for restoration of fishery stocks. Bottom line: some species appear not to be meeting that goal. That calls for cutbacks in the catching of some, such as flounder.

Fishermen, sports and commercial, want an exception, and Saxton is on their bandwagon. He’s their hero. Gilchrest’s position is that it’s an “environmental decision based on good biology. And there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

His Way Out

Does he worry that such thinking can cost him a presumably safe seat in Washington? Apparently not. Besides, he says he hasn’t yet decided what to do with rest of his life. He got involved in little things like nature walks at a homeless shelter for mothers and disadvantaged children in Elkton; found it satisfying and rewarding.

There’s always teaching, also house painting up there on a ladder. And what better way to ponder human activity not compatible with nature’s design than paddling his own canoe?

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