WASHINGTON – Voters who showed up at the Ocean Pines branch of the Worcester County Library for a town meeting Wednesday with Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, were greeted with news that he was not coming.
But at least he had a good excuse: He was stuck on Capitol Hill for a vote.
And it is not just Gilchrest. Maryland congressman have had little time to campaign through their districts, as budget wrangling has kept Congress in session weeks past its scheduled adjournment date of Oct. 6.
An aide to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said his staff knew Congress would adjourn late, but they did not expect it to run this late.
“We assumed we would definitely be here until Oct. 14. But we did not presume we would be in until November. So things planned in the last two weeks have been rescheduled and postponed,” said Lisa Wright, a Bartlett spokeswoman.
“For the last two weeks instead of operating on a week’s notice, we’re on a day-by-day notice,” she said.
While it is not unusual for Congress to stay in Washington after its targeted adjournment date, it is unusual to be there so close to Election Day, said Michael Korzi, a political scientist at Towson University.
“They are normally back in their constituencies running re-elections. I don’t believe this has happened for quite some time,” Korzi said. “But it is not surprising given the bitter partisan rancor between President Clinton and Congress.”
Paul Schurick, campaign manager for Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R- Timonium, said the 2nd District congressman’s schedules have become “blank pages” because of the uncertainty of when Ehrlich will have time away from the House.
He said most of Ehrlich’s campaigning was scheduled for weekends when Congress is not in session. But Congress was even called to vote last Saturday, preventing Ehrlich from going door-to-door in Dundalk as scheduled.
But congressmen do not always have to cancel. Even though he has been stuck in Washington at times, Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, has found other ways to campaign, appearing by satellite from Washington for a debate he could not make in Salisbury with Democratic challenger Bennett Bozman.
And Maryland congressmen have been luckier than others because of their districts’ proximity to Washington.
Wright said that has allowed Bartlett “to keep almost all of his commitments in the district, with a great amount of effort and an awful lot of patience on the part of event organizers.” Unlike congressman from the West Coast, she said, Bartlett “did not have to take a red-eye flight to Washington.”
And if congressmen cannot make an event, someone else usually goes in their place. When Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, was unable to attend a scheduled luncheon with the Montgomery County Retired Teachers Association on Oct. 19, campaign manager P.J. Hogan went for her.
“We always make sure there is some kind of presence,” Hogan said. He added that most voters are not upset by cancellations.
“They understand. They elected her to do a job, to be on Capitol Hill. And that’s what they want her to do,” Hogan said.
Carole Everett, campaign manager for Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, agreed with Hogan, saying Cardin has “got to be where he’s got to be. He’s in Washington doing the job he needs to be doing.”
Campaign aides said they do not think the loss of personal campaigning time will affect the incumbents’ chances of re-election. Korzi also said he doubts it will have any impact on re-election chances in Maryland because a “limited number of races are really contested.”
“Maryland is a great example of a state where eight seats are up and we can say with total confidence who is going to win them,” he said.