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Volume 16, Issue 8 - February 21 - February 27, 2008


Congressional Politics on Chesapeake Bay

Congressmen rarely lose their seats in the U.S. House, especially in their own party primaries. Incumbents have a host of built-in advantages that range from newsletters to district-enriching pork-projects and other goodies to electoral districts often drawn in their favor.

None of those advantages prevented Rep. Wayne Gilchrest — a moderate Republican whose district encompasses Maryland’s Eastern Shore and stretches across the top of the Bay into Anne Arundel County — from losing a primary race last week to state Sen. Andy Harris, of Baltimore County. Harris now faces Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil, a young lawyer who has a sudden opportunity to reach the political big time — if 2008 turns out to be the Democratic year predicted.

As we’ve seen often this year, Ifs abound in politics. Anything can happen. What appears to have happened in Gilchrest’s loss was a combination: on his part, inattention to some of politics’ niceties; on Harris’, backing from the Club For Growth, which organized a huge out-of-state fundraising effort to buy television ads and mailings besmirching Gilchrest.

That’s the way politics works. Gilchrest might be looking at a 10th term now had he used his political skills to grasp the forces marshaling to defeat him.

That defeat could mean a great loss for Chesapeake Bay.

While many Republicans in Congress have drifted away from their party’s pro-conservation roots, Gilchrest has defended the environment. He has championed the Bay, from seeking restoration funds to pressing for oyster recovery to advocating for watermen.

A marine veteran, Gilchrest has been unafraid to take on powerful interests, from challenging unwise decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers to introducing legislation to slap a moratorium on a Texas company’s unsustainable harvest of menhaden in Virginia’s Bay waters.

Given its economic significance, Chesapeake Bay has never seemed to us like a partisan issue. That’s one reason we have encouraged environmental advocacy groups to play stronger roles on behalf of pro-Bay politicians, no matter their party.

In Bay Weekly interviews of GOP candidates, we were encouraged when Harris told us that he and his family are long-time boaters who have witnessed the Bay’s problems. He spoke of his willingness to help curb the air pollution from coal-burning states that damages the Bay.

By the same token, he sounded unconvinced of the need for dramatic steps to curb climate change, which threatens Maryland disproportionately because of our low-lying shorelines.

“I don’t think we know for certain that we’re contributing to it in a way we can effectively change,” he told editor Sandra Olivetti Martin. “I hesitate to take very expensive steps without more information.”

We congratulate Harris and Kratovil for their primary victories. They now have the responsibility to tell us all their environmental plans for Maryland and Chesapeake Bay.

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