WASHINGTON – Congressman-elect Frank Kratovil stole a moment Thursday to corral his four young boys and chat with his wife, Kim, in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, where new members are lodged.
After finally winning the drawn-out race for Maryland’s 1st District last week, the Kratovils plunged into Washington for a grueling week of congressional orientation. Even Kim Kratovil has attended “spouse” meetings, the new congressman said, though, “We haven’t even had time to talk about what it was about.”
Another thing Kratovil hasn’t had time for, he said, is to reflect on his victory, and why he began the journey to Congress in the first place.
Over the next few weeks, before Kratovil is sworn into office on Jan. 6, his to-dos include setting up an office, vying for the best committee seats, planning a legislative agenda, courting heavy-hitting congressional mentors, and finding an effective staff. But perhaps the most urgent task at hand will be finding Frank Kratovil.
“Up until Obama, whether people agree with him,” in terms of a sense of public service, a sense of a new direction, people had lost faith,” said Kratovil, reaching to explain the impulse that inspired his congressional bid, back in the summer of 2007. “I would like to be able to demonstrate to others the positive qualities that leaders in the past demonstrated to me.”
He listed a few model leaders: the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and the one he’s most closely resembled during the campaign months, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, who’s represented the district for the last 18 years, and who after losing the Republican primary, endorsed Kratovil.
When Kratovil announced his candidacy, it seemed likely that he would challenge Gilchrest in the general election, but Gilchrest never made it past the primary and Kratovil ended up defeating his Republican opponent, state Sen. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, by promising to continue Gilchrest’s unique brand of thoughtful moderation.
“When he was running, he was running as Wayne Gilchrest,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg Report. But, “he had to have had that expectation that he would face Wayne Gilchrest.”
Gilchrest says the similarity wasn’t an electoral tactic. “I think in general what we share in common is an ability to think and discern while probing information,” said the ousted congressman. “Unless a policymaker has an inclination to be an independent thinker and to keep him or herself informed, how do you make good policy?”
The plodding, deliberative Kratovil-Gilchrest ticket turned out to be effective against Harris, whose speaking engagements often consist of a crackling torrent of talking points. Harris ran on a forceful agenda of tax reduction, deregulation and social conservatism, disparaging first Gilchrest, and later Kratovil, as “liberals” who are “out of touch” with the district.
Voters proved otherwise by a narrow margin, but the congressman-elect essentially won the seat by promising voters that he would govern exactly as his predecessor did.
“You have people who are willing to do and say anything to prevail. Gilchrest has a broader view of the world,” Kratovil said. “The bottom line is that Gilchrest was a good man. If you want good government, you need good people who are humble, respectful. I just think I can do a better job.”
Rumors that Gilchrest may not run for re-election and that Harris was planning to take on the incumbent compelled his campaign, Kratovil said, but it remains unclear why he originally sought the congressional seat of a man whose service he seeks to emulate. “I understand better now that if Gilchrest had won, what an absolutely difficult race this would have been.”
He paused. “Nobody’s asked me about the philosophy behind it for a long time,” he said, taking a rare moment to reflect on the 15-month road that landed him in 15-hour days of orientation on topics ranging from health insurance to ethics rules with the other new congressmen this week.
By contrast, the other items on Kratovil’s transition checklist are pretty straightforward.
Tim McCann, his campaign manager, will stay on as chief-of-staff, and Kevin Lawlor, the campaign spokesman who’s worked for eight years on the Hill, as press secretary. The rest of the staff will be culled from the stack of resumes Kratovil says he’s received. He’ll also consider Gilchrest staffers who wish to stay on, and at least one has expressed interest, he said.
Committee assignments will be handed out early next week, and Kratovil is hoping for a seat that will let him work with the district’s biggest issues. The agriculture or transportation committees would be the best fit, he said.
He seems anxious to get on top of legislation that would help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, another Gilchrest hold-over, and deal with the challenge of illegal immigration.
The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of Democrats committed to fiscal responsibility that form a powerful congressional voting bloc, supported Kratovil’s campaign, and has welcomed him to legislative and social meetings since he’s been in Washington.
He also has a strong ally in Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, who has known Kratovil since he was a child and can provide inroads to Democrats of all stripes.
Gilchrest did not seem worried about Kratovil finding his place in Washington.
“The reason I backed Frank is because I saw in Frank, someone who was informed, competent and had integrity. Someone who takes the time to accumulate knowledge will make better policy,” he said.