Bartlett reflects on career in Congress

December 09, 2012|By KAUSTUV BASU |

The sign on the door at the Frederick office still says "Rep. Roscoe Bartlett."

But inside, it is an office in transition.

Late last month, boxes were waiting to be packed. Some computers and televisions had been dismantled and were on a center table. Staffers scurried around talking on their cellphones.

On this morning of Nov. 26, some of the women on Bartlett’s staff said they were not wearing any makeup. “Moving day,” they said by way of explanation.

In just a matter of a few weeks, Bartlett, 86, will become a former congressman, having lost the Nov. 6 election for Maryland’s 6th District to John Delaney, his Democratic challenger.

The defeat brought to an end a legislative career spanning two decades.

In that time, Bartlett held steadfast to his conservative principles, said Alex X. Mooney, Maryland’s Republican Party chairman. But Bartlett also was able to build alliances with Democratic legislators, according to Gene Taylor, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Mississippi.

Redrawn district

In election after election, Maryland’s “Red” 6th District returned Bartlett to office.

But in 2011, the boundaries of his district were redrawn, adding thousands of Democratic voters from Montgomery County.

“I was redistricted out,” Bartlett said. “The 6th District is no longer a community of interest of small towns, farms and volunteer fire companies.”

When asked why he lost Washington County, which usually votes Republican, Bartlett attributed the results to a flood of negative advertising in the last weeks of the campaign.

“I had a better chance than anybody of holding the seat,” Bartlett said. “But this election was determined when the district lines were redrawn.”

Still, Bartlett said he was grateful for the chance to serve in Congress.

“I am a Depression-era kid who was born in Kentucky ... some days, I had to pinch myself to make sure this was all real,” he said.

A friend to soldiers

Bartlett, who worked at the National Institutes of Health and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory among other places before he took to politics, said he was proud of his work on the House Armed Services Committee.

Taylor, the former Democratic U.S. representative who served with Bartlett in the Seapower subcommittee, called him an honest broker who kept an eye on defense contractors.

“He wanted them to succeed, but he brought a healthy dose of skepticism,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Bartlett worked to give soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq access to the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle instead of the Humvee, which was more susceptible to improvised explosive devices.

“You only hear about the casualties. Think of the life and limbs that were saved. It can’t be measured. I don’t know if anyone kept those numbers,” Taylor said.

Bartlett never put politics above his country, Taylor said.

A hard worker

Mooney, the state’s Republican Party chairman, worked for Bartlett as a staff assistant after graduating from college in the mid-1990s.

“I was 22 years old. It was eye-opening,” Mooney said. “He worked incredibly hard.”

Bartlett was very inclusive, sometimes asking for Mooney’s opinions as the congressman met with CEOs and owners of small businesses.

“I freely gave my opinons. Then, one day his chief of staff pulled me aside to tell me that they had noticed that I had been talking at the meetings ... while my job was to be a fly on the wall. It never occurred to me that I should not be talking. From then on, I sat and listened,” Mooney said.

An oddity in his party

Some suggested that Bartlett seemed preoccupied with the threat of electromagnetic pulse attacks — in which a nuclear weapon exploded above the earth could destroy a country’s electrical infrastructure — and on how fossil fuels are going to run out one day.

By his own records, Bartlett went to the floor of the house 52 times to talk about the issue of how “fossil fuels are finite.”

“He is a scientist. He was just being a scientist,” Mooney said.

But this kind of talk made him an oddity in the Republican Party.

Ralph Nader called him a “Republican freak” after a meeting.

“I have been called the greenest Republican, but I realize that’s not a steep hill to climb,” Bartlett said.

Sitting in his Frederick office, Bartlett reflected on his political career and wished he had been more politically correct.

“I guess if I have any regrets, it was that I was not a bit more sensitive to political correctness,” Bartlett said. “... but obviously it affects the way people think about you and vote for you.”

Bartlett said he felt political correctness was one of the things hurting the country because people cannot be honest with each other.

Unwanted attention

Over the years, he seemed to have a tendency to wade into trouble or to get unwanted attention.

Earlier this year, a video surfaced of Bartlett, who is anti-abortion, at a town hall meeting where he said that few pregnancies happen as a result of rape, a comment that drew criticism.

A Washington Post story in August detailed how Bartlett was prepared for a doomsday scenario, with stocks of emergency supplies in his cabin in the West Virginia mountains.

Bartlett, who belongs to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said that many church members believe “that in the last days there are going to be some very tumultuous times.”

“Conversations in the family may be misunderstood if you are listening in from the outside and this was kind of a family conversation,” Bartlett said, refering to two videos that the Post quoted from in its story. Snippets from “Urban Danger,” one of the documentaries, are available online.

Looking ahead

Bartlett, who lives on a farm in Frederick County, Md., said that his energies are now focused on his own family — his wife, his 10 children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“Obviously, my wife has her husband back,” he said. “If you take this job seriously, you really have to kind of neglect your family.”

“Free at last,” his wife Ellen told him soon after the election, Bartlett said.

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