Maryland Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Defeated By John Delaney, Looks Back 'Mr. Smith' Career

It was only days after the primary election when U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett broke bread at what he calls his "secret dinner" with the political rival young enough to be his son.

John Delaney, the Democrat who months later would unseat the congressman of 20 years, had extended the dinner invitation as a goodwill gesture. Though the campaign was soon to divide them, the men who shared the meal in Dutch's Daughter recognized that they had some common ground.

Both Bartlett and Delaney were rooted in the working class. Bartlett's family, tenant farmers in western Pennsylvania, was so poor that his mother sewed clothes and sheets from feed sacks. Delaney's father was a union electrician in New Jersey.

Both men charted a different course from their parents. College degrees boosted Bartlett into a career as a physiology professor and inventor of space-age breathing equipment. Delaney prospered as founder of two businesses.

And neither of the two men had political track records before their election to congress.

Although their pasts parallel at certain points, the Buckeystown octogenarian and the 49-year-old Potomac entrepreneur who will replace him in office have different visions of the future.

Bartlett sees the country proceeding farther down the same path that concerned him when he was first elected.

"It hasn't gotten better. It's gotten worse. We tax more. We regulate way more and spend way, way too much money," Bartlett said recently.

On the other hand, Delaney spots opportunity as he readies to take office in January, when the seat will change hands for the first time in 20 years. He sees more economic and educational development in store for the area he will represent, the western arm of Maryland and the I-270 pipeline that connects it with the nation's capital.

'A new district'

The district that Bartlett will leave is not the same one he's served for the past two decades.

State legislators last year drew a bend in the district, which previously shot straight across the northern border of Maryland, from Garrett to Harford counties. Now, it makes a southern turn, plunging downward through Democratic strongholds of Montgomery County.

The change that threatened Bartlett's seat didn't offend him personally; he said he'd anticipated that state Democrats would use the once-a-decade redistricting process to make a play for one of Maryland's Republican-held congressional spots.

In past elections, voters had backed Bartlett by comfortable margins, and he'd had to do little campaigning. This time would be different, Bartlett saw, and it might be his cue to bow out of public office at the age of 86.

"I could have flipped a coin a year ago, and I was really probably going to retire," Bartlett said recently as he sat in his Frederick office. "It was a new district, a very difficult district."

Then, party members started imploring him to run, saying no one else had as good a chance of holding the district for Republicans. He agreed to give it another shot and dove headlong into 13-hour fundraising marathons, first for a lawsuit challenging the redistricting map, and then for his own campaign.

Delaney still ended up out-raising Bartlett in the campaign, and by the time Election Day rolled around, the congressman wasn't going to be surprised by a loss. Although a poll by The (Baltimore) Sun showed Bartlett and Delaney neck-and-neck, some of his internal sampling told a different story, he said.

He wasn't entirely disappointed to be saying goodbye to an office that for years had demanded the sacrifice of birthday celebrations, anniversaries and visits with family.

"Free at last," Bartlett's wife, Ellen, told him election night after he had lost.

Avoiding Potomac fever

In 1992, Bartlett learned through the radio that he had netted what would be his first of 10 congressional wins. Bartlett had no funds to pay for a poll and hadn't really anticipated a victory in the race, but all of a sudden, the scientist-turned-farmer was bound for Washington.

"You know the movie 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'? I was kind of that," he said.

Over time, as Bartlett settled into his role, his image as a legislator took a singular shape. He carried a U.S. Constitution in his coat pocket and rebelled against the idea of staying overnight in D.C.; he preferred to carpool with staffers to make the 100-mile circuit between the city and his farm.

"I jokingly said that if you sleep inside the Beltway, you get Potomac fever, and you won't be good for much," Bartlett said.

Some of his views bucked the GOP majority, while other priorities, such as protecting great apes from invasive scientific research, were simply out of the mainstream of political discourse

He planted his feet firmly on his convictions about human life, though his beliefs straddled partisan lines. Bartlett aligned with his party when it came to opposing abortion, but differed from them by disapproving of capital punishment and the war in Iraq.

Throughout his time in office, he showed a tendency to look toward the future, but it was hard to get others to join him, he said.

The danger of an electromagnetic pulse that could knock out the nation's electrical grid was one issue that Bartlett tried to reel into the conversation of today. Ultimately, a task force did form to address the risk of an EMP attack, and Bartlett said the group resulted from his efforts. Preparing for a post-oil era was another one of his top priorities, along with warning that the expanding national debt will one day drive the country to hyperinflation. He even tucks into his wallet a faded $50 billion bill from Zimbabwe as evidence of a reality where currency is all but valueless.

Calling attention to the world his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would inherit is an accomplishment that gives him pride, he said.

Now, although he said he wants to continue his work on energy issues and possibly serve on boards and commissions, he'll have more time to spend with his 10 children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

'Talking substance'

Since the election, Delaney's life has been a whirlwind of information and introductions.

He began orientation for new members of Congress to learn about how things work on Capitol Hill and what he can expect as a freshman legislator. The days have been full of formal orientation sessions and meetings, with dinners and functions at night, he said.

He's in the process of selecting staff for his offices inside the district and in D.C. and preparing to conduct a series of town hall meetings across the district before he takes office, he said in a recent phone interview.

"I think it's important before I step into office to sit down with people, now that we're not talking politics, but talking substance," said Delaney.

He's also been working toward a smooth transition. After Bartlett's 20-year service, it's important for people to get to know Delaney and how to reach him, he said. Preparing to take over open constituent service cases from Bartlett's office also will form an important part in the coming weeks, Delaney said.

He's not yet sure what congressional committee he will have, but this week, he will learn where his D.C. office assignment will be.

A mandate in the district

The election results were heartening for Delaney. Not only did he beat Bartlett by 58.8 percent to 37.9 percent overall, but he won Frederick and Washington counties and carried the district, excluding Montgomery County.

"We have a mandate across the whole district," he said.

Delaney crisscrossed the region during his campaign, and he said patterns began to emerge as he spoke with people. Voters throughout the district were most concerned about employment and educational opportunities, but he said he also appreciated the number of important concerns that were specific to smaller communities or even individuals.

Though the district ranges from rural, mountainous areas to the suburbs, Delaney doesn't think he'll grapple too much with problems of conflicting interests among his constituents.

"I don't really frame the district that way. There are opportunities and challenges, but they are not in conflict," he said.

One of his top priorities will be to help attract businesses and jobs to the district, and he hopes to promote workforce training.

He also believes he can reach across partisan divides. His experience as a businessman will help him work with GOP colleagues, he said, since he's used to forging agreements regardless of political leanings.

"I don't enter meetings thinking about someone's politics," he said. "I think that positions me very well." ___

(c)2012 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

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