By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008
From the beginning, there was no grand scheme, no intricate political calculation, involved. When Wayne Gilchrest decided one day in 1988 to run for Congress, he simply took a lunch break from his job painting houses, got in his old Ford pickup and drove to the state election office in Annapolis.
He didn't even know to take the $100 filing fee and was able to register as a Republican candidate only because the clerk offered to take an IOU. It was just something that popped into his mind, like anything else he had done -- slaughtering chickens at a poultry plant, teaching high school, moving to the Idaho wilderness to count moose. He lost in 1988, but not by that much.
And when he won two years later, to some it was as though Mr. Smith really had gone to Washington -- albeit in the form of a balding, rumpled philosopher.
Gilchrest shunned the Washington party circuit, preferring most nights to drive two hours back to his family and farm on the Eastern Shore. When he stayed in the city, he slept in his office rather than "waste money" on an apartment. He rarely cast votes that followed any party or ideological lines, and he became known as the quintessential political maverick, winning the odd distinction last year of being the Republican most likely to vote against his own party.
But this week, the maverick attitude that won him nine terms in office led to his defeat.
Hammered by four challengers as too moderate, he lost the GOP primary by 11 percentage points to a state senator -- Andy P. Harris -- who spent more than $1 million burnishing his conservative credentials and attacking Gilchrest's.
Yesterday, even after most results had come in and long after Harris had declared victory, Gilchrest refused to call his opponent to concede. Yes, he had lost, he said when reached at home. Even with absentee and provisional ballots uncounted, Harris's lead was probably insurmountable.
"But I just don't see the need to make a phone call," he said, noting Harris's string of attack ads leading up to Tuesday's primary. "I really don't want to congratulate unseemly behavior."
As for losing a job he has held for 18 years, he said, "The integrity of my eternal soul is infinitely more valuable than a pathetic political career."
It was a career that began by chance.
Gilchrest was written off as a joke in 1988 when he challenged four-term Democratic incumbent Roy P. Dyson. Gilchrest was outspent almost 6 to 1, but he came within 1,540 votes of victory after a series of scandals ravaged Dyson's campaign.
Two years later, Gilchrest ran again and won.
In a town obsessed with appearances, he was a different kind of politician.
He had developed a habit of growing a beard and then shaving it all off, partly to avoid daily shaving. For much of 1996, he used a paperclip to hold together his broken glasses.
Perhaps because he had won his seat by claiming the moral high ground, he seemed unwilling to relinquish it. From 1991 until last year, he refused to take money from political action committees, saying he didn't want his votes tainted by business interests.
Prone to philosophical musings, he explained each vote as though giving a treatise on his beliefs, which often clashed with those of his party leaders.
He saved his most impassioned speeches, however, for the environment. He quit teaching in 1976 to become a ranger in the Idaho wilderness. And he carried that passion into Congress, even bringing in a Harvard specialist to tutor then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on biodiversity.
Recently, however, his stands against the party leadership gained visibility, particularly after he was one of two Republicans to vote for a timeline on withdrawing troops from Iraq.
He never seemed interested in becoming a permanent part of the Washington establishment, and he often talked about quitting to pursue other interests. With the end in sight, Gilchrest said, "it feels great, like being released from bondage."
And what will he do now that he's free?
"I plan to probe at the fabric of life," he said.