WASHINGTON – Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle was holding a news conference in front of the Capitol a few years ago and noticed soldiers doing push-ups across the field. Then he saw a man take off his sport coat and join in.
“I said ‘What the heck is this?’ And the guy got up and it was Wayne,” Castle said.
“Wayne” is his good friend and colleague, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who was voted out of office in February after representing Maryland’s 1st Congressional District for nine terms.
The moment underscores for his friends what Gilchrest’s loss will mean for the humanity of the House of Representatives and the district he serves.
“He just took it upon himself to sit there and do pushups with them. It was just sort of amusing,” Castle said. “It’s sort of typical Wayne. There he was.”
Gilchrest, a Vietnam War veteran who used to grow all his own food and once took his family to live in the Idaho wilderness, is fascinating but quirky. Well read, yet simple.
Reflecting on his 17 years in the House, Gilchrest said his legacy will be his support for the environment and effort to connect with lawmakers across the globe. But, his colleagues will remember him for his character and thoughtfulness.
Gilchrest leaves office Jan. 3, 2009, after he was beaten in a five-way primary because his opponents charged he wasn’t Republican enough.
Gilchrest grew up in Rahway, N.J, and after high school joined the Marines. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart after being shot in the chest in Vietnam.
“I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the world and I wanted to go to Vietnam,” Gilchrest said. “That was at a time that I assumed the government was competent. And I found out later that’s not always the case, neither in Vietnam nor in its policy in the Middle East right now.”
After coming home, Gilchrest said, he read the Pentagon Papers, secret documents that belied the government’s public positions on the Vietnam War, and other historical books and was astonished to learn Ho Chi Minh wanted to be a U.S. ally and be independent from other communist nations.
“I began to become angry at members of Congress for not knowing this kind of information that an average young citizen could come up with,” Gilchrest said. “Unfortunately and tragically to some extent we made the same mistake in Iraq. In Iraq, in order for the policy to be adequate, you needed to understand the Middle East from the time of the Ottoman Turks to the present.”
Views like these and a belief that no incumbent should go unchallenged prompted Gilchrest to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1988, and again, with better luck, in 1990.
Gilchrest became one of two Republicans voting to set a timetable for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq last year, Frederick Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett said, because he wasn’t afraid to separate himself from his party and his conservative district.
“He knew that he was potentially alienating himself from his base, but that was the price he had to pay for being honest . . .,” Bartlett said. “I have a few simple principles that guide my votes. If it’s bigger government or more taxes or more regulation, the answer is very easy. It’s no. Wayne really works, struggles over each vote.”
Gilchrest said he is also using the lessons he learned from Vietnam in Iraq to try and improve relations with the Middle East. Holding unconditional talks with Iran is his main goal. He said he has a network of contacts that he hopes is still in place after he leaves to improve U.S. relations there.
Gilchrest could often be seen reading books on the House floor, Castle said, carefully deciding how to vote.
“He would usually have a very articulate position on it,” Castle said. “Some people would just say, ‘I’m voting no because my staff told me to.’ But Wayne could usually say I’m voting no because I disagree with this that or the other thing.”
Gilchrest, Castle said, had particular expertise on the Chesapeake Bay and the environmental hazards it faces. Losing Gilchrest, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force, is a loss for the clean-up effort.
“The thing that mattered most to his district was the bay and the environment, and there Wayne was preeminent,” he said. “He was knowledgeable, thoughtful and caring.”
Gilchrest’s fascination with nature is obvious. Walking down a Chestertown Street recently, Gilchrest commented that the weather was perfect for planting. For the first time since joining the House, Gilchrest has replanted his garden with broccoli, cabbage, onions and potatoes. He used to feed his family almost solely from his garden.
Gilchrest was once prompted by a movie about a biologist living with wolves in northern Canada called “Never Cry Wolf” to uproot his wife and three kids and move to the Idaho wilderness.
The family maintained a cabin for the U.S. Forest Service for no pay.
Joel Gilchrest, then age 10, said he was first excited to go to Idaho because he’d miss school, but came to appreciate it for much more.
“It’s about 180-degrees from what you’re getting here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” Joel said, who kept a pet chipmunk at their cabin. “To a 10-year-old that’s heaven. It gave me a whole new perspective on the world.”
Joel now works for six months a year in Antarctica and wasn’t able to campaign for Gilchrest, but is back now.
“He’s very unique and there’s not enough men like him,” Joel said of his father. “If there were, the world would be a much better place to live.”
The Republican nominee, state Sen. Andy Harris, of Cockeysville, won with 43 percent of the district’s vote, but he’s not won over many on the Eastern Shore.
Kent County Commissioner Roy Crow, a Republican, has thrown his support behind the Democratic nominee, Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil.
“Though I’m a Republican, I not only vote, but support those I feel are the best candidates,” Crow said. “Frank is from the Eastern Shore, understands Eastern Shore philosophy. He’s very similar to Wayne.”
Gilchrest, Crow said, always kept an open mind while in the House.
Redistricting, Castle said, has led to an increasingly polarized House and in turn makes it harder to pass legislation.
“You lose those individuals who may be willing to bridge between Republicans and Democrats — to do progressive things to keep things moving,” Castle said. “We lost that when you lose Wayne, and I worry about it.”
The polarization, Gilchrest said, has hurt the election process.
“It will lead to a Congress where if you want to get re-elected you have to adhere to the party line, submit to a Republican icon dictating policies where no one questions those policies,” Gilchrest said. “People fear their re-election so they don’t engage in controversial discussion. It’s a dog chasing its tail.”
But, Gilchrest has had enough of campaigns and is planning his next move. He’s deciding between a number of offers, including teaching and traveling.
“The first 20 years I was growing up, the second 20 years I raised my family, third 20 years I was in politics,” Gilchrest, 61, said. “Now I’ve got a fourth 20 years, as long as my health holds.”
In typical Gilchrest fashion, his only set plan is to spend a few weeks living in a tent in Antarctica helping researchers.
Beyond Antarctica, Joel’s not sure what his father will do next.
“He’s never been afraid to experience something new, whether it’s quitting your job and moving to Idaho or filing for Congress when you’re basically unemployed,” Joel said. “I can’t really say what he’ll do, but it will probably surprise us. He’ll just go onto a different experience, a different adventure.”