WASHINGTON – On a Sunday afternoon a month before the midterm elections, most candidates scrambled to shake hands with voters and get their hands on the latest poll numbers. U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest took a walk through the woods with a gaggle of kids.
The eight-term incumbent from Kennedyville took a group of about 50 parents and children from various homeless shelters in Kent and Cecil County on a hike through Turner’s Creek Park, showing them different types of acorns and berries and introducing them to a form of nature most had never experienced.
The best part, he said, was “making a connection to those parents and to those children,” who ranged in age from 18 months to 15. “Nothing was more inspirational for me than that.”
The 60-year-old nature enthusiast has served the 1st Congressional District — which spans the Chesapeake Bay and encompasses all nine counties of the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford, Baltimore and Ann Arundel counties — for 16 years.
He’s the first to admit that his path to Congress wasn’t a traditional one. A series of coincidences that led him to enter the congressional race in 1988 prove that “life is random,” he said.
He was painting houses looking for a new job when he saw an advertisement in The Star Democrat announcing that the Republican Party couldn’t find a candidate to run against Democrat Roy Dyson. Since he didn’t agree with Dyson’s point of view on the environment, he paid $100 to put his name on the ballot.
That November, the former high school history teacher with no public service experience came less than 1,600 votes shy of unseating Dyson. Two years later, he edged the Democrat by more than 20,000 votes and landed in Congress.
Though he’s part of the Republican majority in Congress, in Maryland he’s a member of the minority. Of the state’s eight representatives, he and U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett are the only two Republicans.
Gilchrest has made a name for himself in Congress as a strong advocate for the environment. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans, he has spent the last several years working to amend and reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which helped strengthen the sustainable management of ocean fisheries.
Public service, he said, is “an extraordinary opportunity to serve your state, district and the international community.”
But some feel his support for the war in Iraq is out-of-step with his constituents. They say he has worked too closely with the Bush administration.
“He’s been in their pocket,” said Jim Corwin, 49, the Democratic nominee who will face Gilchrest in November. “We all like him, he’s a nice guy, but he’s been ineffective.”
So far his record voting record has yet to jeopardize his seat in Congress. Since a close race against Tom McMillen, who came within 7,000 votes in 1992, Gilchrest has consistently received more than 60 percent of the vote.
When he returns to the Shore, constituents don’t hesitate to approach him in the grocery store or the Dunkin Donuts across the street from his Chestertown office to voice concerns or shoot the breeze, said Mary Meier, a case worker for Gilchrest’s campaign in Chestertown.
Maybe it’s because his 5-foot-6-inch frame isn’t exactly intimidating, or the fact that he says things like “Holy Christmas!” to express shock.
Meier, 39, is also one of Gilchrest’s former students. She took his ninth-grade civics class at Kent County High School where he was known among students as “Gilly.”
“He’s very much like somebody you’d want to have as your neighbor, but he’s also very statesmenlike,” Meier said.
As a teacher, Gilchrest was always “very out of the ordinary, thinking outside of the box” she said. He took his students on hikes along the Appalachian Trail and on field trips to the United Nations in New York.
One day he brought in an old, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet to class and fried grasshoppers to illustrate what American Indians ate.
“It was pretty disgusting,” she said. “I did not eat one of those, but there were classmates who did.”
The decorated Vietnam veteran — he received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and Navy Commendation Medal for his service — carries his passion for teaching with him as a congressman and at home. During family dinners when his daughter flies home from Maine and his sons and their wives come from Chestertown, Gilchrest insists that everyone bring a poem to share at the table.
Throughout the meal he’ll call on each person to read their selection then facilitates a discussion. That means wife, Barbara, and his children, Katie, 24, Joel, 31, and Kevin, 33, are expected to come home armed with a well-researched, thought-provoking poem.
But like any class assignment, sometimes the students have to cram. “Usually it’s the boys racing to the Internet or a book at the last minute,” he said, chuckling to himself.