Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's career in Congress comes to a close

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Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett began his unsuccessful campaign for another term with an unusual meeting: a one-on-one chat over dinner with his Democratic rival.

Bartlett and his challenger, John Delaney, met alone for two hours in a Frederick restaurant after the April primary to talk about politics, family and their childhoods. The secret meeting set the tone for a race that remained courteous despite the hyper-partisanship playing out just down the road in the nation's capital.

Bartlett, a 20-year incumbent, found himself in a battleground district when state lawmakers redrew its boundaries last year. He couldn't overcome lackluster fundraising, held few public events and was beaten even in Washington County, a longtime GOP stronghold. Unofficial results show Delaney could have won the district even without parts of Democrat-heavy Montgomery County that were added.

Bartlett's cordial relationship with Delaney — and his final campaign — is a reflection of his style during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives, several Democrats and Republicans said.

"He and I came from similar humble backgrounds," Bartlett said in an interview last week of the man who days earlier had ended his tenure in politics. "I was a Depression-era kid, his father was a union electrician, and we have both been able to realize some successes in life. So, from that perspective, we came from common backgrounds."

In a career on Capitol Hill that began when William Donald Schaefer was still Maryland's governor and Bill Clinton was moving into the White House, the 86-year-old Bartlett has managed to maintain staunchly conservative principles on many issues — taxes, spending, abortion, immigration — while also earning the respect of some very liberal Democrats.

"I don't know that he rocked the boat, but he was a fine statesman," said former Maryland Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Republican who lost reelection in 2002 when her own district was redrawn by the legislature. "Roscoe is a gentleman. They become rarer by the moment."

Bartlett, who lives on a farm in Buckeystown and was the first lawmaker in Congress to drive a Prius, is one of only 25 House incumbents nationwide to lose a seat in the Nov. 6 election and the only Maryland incumbent of either party to be defeated. He said he plans to work on his farm and spend time at a cabin he owns in West Virginia, and that it's unlikely he would ever run for office again.

His loss leaves state Republicans with only one member in Congress: Baltimore County Rep. Andy Harris.

After winning with wide margins in every election since 1992, Bartlett lost to Delaney by more than 20 percentage points in the new 6th District, which includes Western Maryland and the Interstate 270 corridor. Delaney, a Potomac financier, found most of his support in the new territory in Montgomery County. And in the redistricting, some Republican-heavy areas were taken out.

But Delaney, 49, also carried portions of Frederick County as well as Washington County, which traditionally votes for GOP candidates.

"Congressman Bartlett has honorably answered one of our nation's highest callings for the last 20 years — public service," Delaney said. "Our staffs plan on working together to make sure that the transition is as seamless as possible."

Bartlett's bruising defeat should give pause to Republicans who hope to reclaim the 6th Congressional District in 2014, the lawmaker said. He added that Republican Party chairman Alex X. Mooney, businessman Brandon Rippeon and state Sen. David R. Brinkley may be best positioned to tackle that challenge in the midterm election.

Rippeon and Brinkley ran in this year's primary. Mooney considered it, but backed out to support Bartlett.

"Much of the bench is probably a bit conservative for this district," Bartlett said. "I think the voters would like to see a new face."

Born in Moreland, Ky., Bartlett is a descendant of Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire and the namesake of the presidential character played by Martin Sheen on the popular NBC series "The West Wing." He arrived in Maryland in the 1940s to study at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, in Takoma Park.

He later taught anatomy and physiology at the University of Maryland, College Park, ultimately earning his doctorate. He worked at the National Institutes of Health and then the U.S. Navy's School of Aviation Medicine in Florida, where he invented respiratory devices that are still used by pilots and firefighters.

His scientific background made for a politician who sometimes strayed from conservative orthodoxy. He bucked his party on energy, arguing the GOP should embrace alternative fuels more forcefully. He also was one of the first lawmakers to warn of the threat from electromagnetic pulse attacks — the idea that a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere could knock out communications and power grids.

A senior member on the House Armed Services Committee, he pushed to expand the number of Navy ships fueled by nuclear power.

But Bartlett's folksy demeanor and outsider persona — which many voters found endearing — have not always worked to his advantage. Less senior but better-connected lawmakers in the House jumped over him for plum committee assignments, for instance, and his list of legislative accomplishments is relatively thin for the length of his service.

Not big on scripts or talking points, Bartlett has also often been prone to gaffes. During this past election, he associated student loans with Nazi Germany. He later apologized for the remark.

Bartlett ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and the House in 1982. A decade later, he emerged to challenge Democrat Beverly B. Byron, who had represented Western Maryland for 14 years. Byron was upset in the Democratic primary by Thomas H. Hattery, a more liberal candidate who drove independent Democrats toward the little-known Bartlett.

Over the past year, several state Democrats who supported the redistricting quietly lamented that it was Bartlett who would be forced out.

"While Roscoe Bartlett and I have different ideas for how we can keep our state and country moving forward, we have worked together to address important issues for Maryland," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Southern Maryland Democrat and House minority whip. "Despite our differences, he has been a dedicated public servant who worked hard on behalf of his constituents."

Bartlett's Washington office was packed one day last week with staff members, many of whom were visiting from district offices to have a final picture taken with their boss. Others were there to begin the transition process. Some were teary-eyed.

Delaney will be sworn in come January. Until then, Bartlett will have a role to play — and votes to take — as lawmakers wrangle over a way to avoid the year-end combination of tax increases and automatic spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff." The congressman wouldn't say directly whether he would take a more centrist approach to those issues given the election's outcome.

"It would be nice if we vote on those things in the lame-duck [session], but I don't think we will," he said. "I think what we're going to do in the lame-duck is simply push it off until next year."

As for the broader issues at stake, Bartlett expressed concern about the willingness of the colleagues he is leaving behind to reach a compromise.

"The two sides have to come together," he said. "It would be nice if you ran as a Democrat or Republican and you came to Congress as an American and just kind of left partisanship at the door."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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