WASHINGTON – Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, continued his 17-year political tradition Tuesday of casting votes he thinks are right — regardless of whether they please party leaders — siding with Democrats on an energy bill that strictly limits new drilling opportunities Republicans pursued all summer.
Gilchrest hasn’t let his loss in the Feb. 12 primary change him much. He’s still showing up for work, although he’s missed about twice as many votes as he did earlier this term, largely procedural or ceremonial ones. And he’s still voting against his party’s wishes, albeit slightly less often than before the primaries, according to a Capital News Service analysis of congressional voting records.
The congressional maverick has voted against his own party more frequently in this term than any other member of the House, according to the Washington Post’s Votes Database. His record was central to his primary loss to state Sen. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, who argued that after nine terms on the Hill, Gilchrest was no longer attuned to his conservative district.
“We have policy goals that will be ongoing,” Gilchrest said. “We have been working for the last so many months on issues related to the Chesapeake Bay, global warming, energy, the war in Iraq.”
The war was a black spot for Gilchrest’s political bailiwick and a weapon for his opponents who rallied conservative Republicans to demand his exit.
In March 2007, Gilchrest helped Democrats narrowly pass a bill requiring President Bush to set deadlines for troop withdrawals in Iraq, and though the bill was later vetoed, his position created a stir that angered the Republican base.
“It seems that the vote did anger some Republicans,” said Harry Basehart, professor emeritus of political science at Salisbury University. “I’m beginning to think that vote was more important than I thought it was (at the time).”
Harris, the Republican nominee for the district, told Associated Press reporters in January, “His votes against troops this spring tarnished his reputation beyond repair with Republican primary voters.”
But like his other votes — often against the GOP line — Gilchrest wouldn’t take it back, even to save his political career.
“I didn’t regret that at all. Whenever I voted, I voted based on good solid information, not shifting sand, not political reasons,” he said. “If I could have voted in a different way and won the primary, what would that have said about my integrity?”
Those aisle-crossing votes have dropped to 17 percent of Gilchrest’s yeas-and-nays, down from 24 percent before the primaries, but the decline in his trademark opposition to the party is sheer coincidence, Gilchrest said. “It must have been OK votes, then,” he said. “I don’t purposefully vote with the party.”
The CNS analysis counted votes where Gilchrest voted “no” when the majority of Republicans voted “yes”, and votes where Gilchrest voted “yes” when the majority of his party voted “no”. In some cases, Gilchrest voted against the consensus of both parties, so all votes counted are not necessarily supportive of a Democratic position.
Gilchrest has missed more votes than usual. Before the primaries, he was in the middle of the pack, skipping 9 percent of votes. Between Feb. 13 and Sept. 18, he missed 23 percent of 565 votes.
Of the 128 votes Gilchrest has passed on since losing the primary, 32 were procedural, for instance, to consider motions and adjourn sessions. Three were specifically to determine the renaming of post offices and another 32 dealt variously with honoring, celebrating, supporting, or condemning anything from the New York Giants in their 2007 Super Bowl victory to “Frank Sinatra Day.”
Of the remaining 61 votes, 20 were votes on different versions of the same bills.
Gilchrest’s commitment to finishing his last term in the same way he began it may be an oddity among incumbent congressmen told by their voters to move on.
“The most likely thing would be that they just kind of disappear, that they just coast out, and don’t try to move any of the bills that they introduced, don’t show up for committee meetings, or do the things members are supposed to do,” said Michael Surrusco, a spokesman for the government watchdog Common Cause.
The most recent example is former Rep. Al Wynn, D-Mitchellville, who lost Maryland’s 4th District primary to Donna Edwards and resigned in May to join a lobbying firm, Dickstein Shapiro.
Wynn did not return a call for comment Friday.
Even though Gilchrest is still in Washington, his staff is already dwindling.
“We lost the primary in February, so people have until December,” Gilchrest said. He told his staff, now a skeleton crew, “I’m taking the ship back to port, so if you want to get off at any other stop, you should do so.”
After vacating his office in January, Gilchrest said he will return to the Eastern Shore as a constituent, and will make a definitive exit from politics. He’ll stay in the policy world, however, focusing his energy on “some foreign policy, some environmental, some homeless policy.”
Gilchrest dragged his trailing foot across the party line Wednesday, praising Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the presidential race.