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Anti-Environment Republicans Target Gilchrest in Maryland Primary
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by Lisa M. Mayo | 2007

Perhaps the most competitive Maryland primary race in 2008 will be the Republican contest for the state’s 1st Congressional District for the U.S. Congress, as Charlie Gilchrest battles anti-environmental opponents in the Republican primary

Perhaps the most competitive Maryland primary race in 2008 will be the Republican contest for the state’s 1st Congressional District for the U.S. Congress. This district includes the Eastern Shore of Maryland, as well as parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford Counties. Incumbent Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest has held this seat since 1991, but as a moderate, he has drawn the ire of local GOP critics who have questioned his credentials as a conservative and his commitment to furthering the goals of the Bush administration.

Gilchrest has faced challengers in the Republican primary before, but 2008 could present more of a contest since his main opponent—State Senator Andrew Harris (R-7-Baltimore and Harford Counties)—has secured the backing of Eastern Shore State Senator Richard Colburn, former Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr., and the ultra-conservative PAC, Club for Growth.

The League of Conservation Voters, which tracks the “green” voting records of incumbents at the national level, and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, which tracks those records at the local level, recently held a joint press conference announcing their endorsement of Congressman Wayne Gilchrest for the 2008 primary election. Although GOP members often score poorly on “green voting” on Capitol Hill and in Annapolis, Wayne Gilchrest earned respectable “green-voting” scores of 50% and 67% during the two sessions of the 109th Congress—the last Congress for which the LCV issued a scorecard. In giving their support to Gilchrest, both groups made a point of highlighting his important environmental leadership as a co-chair of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force and as co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Climate Change Caucus.

In contrast,, State Senator Colburn, State Senator Harris, and former Governor Ehrlich have some of the worst environmental voting records in Maryland politics. Senator Colburn, who sits on the powerful Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee in Annapolis, has a lifetime score of 15%, according to the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, while Senator Harris has earned the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest lifetime scores, nearing the bottom of the barrel with only 9%; oddly Harris’ described himself as “a common sense environmentalist,” according to the Star Democrat, an Eastern Shore newspaper. The environmental record of former Governor Ehrlich, despite the realization of his first-term Flush Tax (to upgrade Maryland’s major sewage treatment plants), was one of the main targets of challenger Martin O’Malley, who, during his successful bid for the governorship, effectively differentiated himself from Ehrlich on all matters relating to environmental law enforcement, Smart Growth and funding of Program Open Space.

Now these two different factions of the Republican Party in Maryland are coming together in a primary race that could hinge on the support that Wayne Gilchrest receives from the environmental community. While Gilchrest has been a strong supporter of restoring the Chesapeake Bay, Harris has shown that he could very well kill any support for Chesapeake Bay restoration in the House of Representatives. Many voters tend to sit out the state’s primary elections, but this is one race that should draw the attention of all Marylanders, and especially those who care about the environment.

 

A History of Clashing Priorities

One recent Chesapeake Bay issue best illustrates the difference between Republicans like Colburn, Harris, and Ehrlich, and “green” Republicans like Gilchrest: the controversial Blackwater Resort Communities development project that was to be built in an area of Maryland currently represented by both Colburn and Gilchrest.

The mega-development project would have included 2,700 single-family and multi-family homes, a 100-room hotel/conference center, a golf course, and a retail center—all upstream from the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. Within the project zone would have been 313 acres named by the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission as “Critical Area” land, including a designated “Resource Conservation Area” and “Habitat Protection Areas.” These areas were near the Little Blackwater River, which feeds directly into the Blackwater refuge and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

In January 2006, during the first large-scale meeting that was held in Cambridge to discuss the Blackwater Resort project, Congressman Gilchrest was the first politician to speak. He told the packed room that he was opposed to the development and that he supported Cambridge citizens, conservationists, farmers, and watermen against the mammoth proposal. During his speech, Gilchrest reiterated his long-standing commitment to protect the Chesapeake Bay, and he emphasized his belief that the project was too big and too close to the river and the refuge.

On the other hand, Governor Ehrlich remained passive throughout the many months of the Blackwater debate, insisting that the Blackwater Resort was a local issue, even though he received many letters and petitions from across the state pleading with him to intervene. Senator Colburn, however, was not passive but was one of the most vocal supporters of the development, often throwing temper tantrums on the Senate floor when more conservation-minded members voiced their support for a proposed bill that would have reined in the project.

The contentious issue finally came to a head when, less than twenty-four hours before the polls opened for the 2006 elections, Colburn and Ehrlich—who were both facing difficult opponents in their respective races—hastily organized a press conference at which it was suddenly announced that Ehrlich’s administration had reached a deal with the developer and would use money from Program Open Space to buy a large chunk of the developer’s land—particularly those parcels near the river. The press event was filled with GOP members suddenly anxious to appear “green” to undecided voters on the eve of the election. But one dignitary was conspicuously absent from the staged event: Wayne Gilchrest, the only politician who had been looking out for the bay and the refuge all along.

 

The Campaign of State Senator Andrew Harris

State Senator Andrew Harris, who is Gilchrest’s primary challenger, has not focused his campaign attacks on Gilchrest’s environmental record, but has instead attacked Gilchrest’s positions on ending the Iraq War, dealing with government spending, and fighting illegal immigration. Unfortunately, Harris’ allegations regarding Gilchrest are often based on false or misleading information, most notably the claim that Gilchrest is a prime source of “earmarks,” or pork spending, on Capitol Hill. Yet an analysis of earmarks by Congressional Quarterly “puts him [Gilchrest] near the bottom of House members seeking funding for local projects.” When Gilchrest has voted for spending, he’s voted for laws like the recent Farm Bill, which included millions of dollars in new annual funding to help Bay-area farmers implement conservation practices and methods. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “This is by far the largest amount of federal funding ever devoted to protecting and restoring the Chesapeake Bay, and would bring Bay-restoration programs approximately halfway to their required funding and implementation levels.” (At this stage, President George W. Bush has threatened to veto the Farm Bill.)

Despite Gilchrest’s often being commended by taxpayer watchdog groups, Harris has attempted to distort Gilchrest’s record and cast him as a “tax and spend” liberal Republican. These deceitful campaign tactics by Harris drew a rebuke from Gilchrest, who said, “I think a debate of the issues is healthy, but that depends on candidates’ being honest, which doesn’t appear to be happening now.”

Harris’s campaign is receiving a large chunk of its funding from medical industry PACs (Harris is a doctor and an opponent of universal health care) and money from the Club for Growth PAC, which has called for abolition of agriculture subsides, privatization of Social Security, defeat of the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill, defeat of the minimum wage hike, and additional tax cuts for the rich. The Club’s views might not be popular with most Marylanders in District 1, yet Harris has embraced his endorsement by the Club and has readily accepted major funding and public relations support from the powerful PAC.

Fortunately for environmentally conscious Marylanders, Republican Wayne Gilchrest offers an alternative to Harris in this primary race. Gilchrest, unlike many Republicans in the 21st century, is not bound by rigid ideology, but instead understands the grave moral responsibility Americans have to protect the natural systems that support the local and national economy. Above all else, Gilchrest is a Republican who can legislate responsibly even while protecting the environment that supports the Maryland way of life.

If Marylanders ever hope to realize even a portion of the state’s goals for restoring the Chesapeake Bay, Gilchrest must be victorious on February 12.   

 

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