U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett had never held political office before when he won election to the House of Representatives in 1992.
In a surprise upset to many, Rep. Beverly Byron lost in the Democratic primary to state Sen. Thomas Hattery, and after the bruising primary left many Byron supporters angry, Bartlett found himself in Congress representing a predominantly Democratic district.
But the Western Maryland district that held more Democrats when he first won election grew more Republican after his win, and Bartlett won re-election handily until Democrats last year in Annapolis redrew the 6th District to make it once again predominantly Democratic. Bartlett’s seat was clearly targeted.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to run again,” Bartlett, 86, said of the recent election in which he lost to Democratic newcomer John Delaney. Bartlett was interviewed late last month in his Washington, D.C., office.
Among the criticisms of Bartlett was that he failed to make much of a legislative impact in his 20 years in the House. On his office wall hang the three bills he sponsored that passed during his tenure, including one dedicating a national monument in Frederick County to fallen firefighters.
Still, Republican Party leaders in the state and in Congress had told him he was the best hope for the district to remain in Republican hands. Bartlett campaigned across the district, but with so much of it in new sections of Montgomery County he felt like he never got the chance to connect with voters the way he did in Western Maryland.
“The people in Western Maryland know me,” he said. “The people in Montgomery County didn’t.”
In the end, Bartlett lost by more than 20 percentage points to Delaney, including in Washington County, which he had previously won by wide margins.
In Congress, Bartlett was known for taking conservative stances; he even described himself as holding tea party views before the tea party existed. He also prided himself — although during the recent campaign he didn’t talk it up in Western Maryland — on his friendship with Democrats such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
“I was her date to the State of the Union,” he said.
Bartlett, a scientist and farmer from Buckeystown, bucked his own party at times on issues related to renewable energy.
“It would be nice if when we were elected we were no longer Democrats or Republicans, but just Americans,” the congressman said.
Bartlett and U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington served as co-chairs of the House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency caucus for years.
“While Congressman Bartlett and I may have had disagreements on a variety of policy issues, we were still able to work together on areas of common ground,” Van Hollen said. “I always respected his willingness to speak out on the important issues of energy security and climate change.”
Bartlett said that even when Democrats and Republicans fail to agree on national issues, the Maryland delegation rallies around matters important to the state.
“The congressman and I both understand that representing the people of this district is a tremendous privilege,” Delaney said of his vanquished opponent. Bartlett said both he and Potomac businessman Delaney, 49, came from working-class backgrounds and found success outside of politics before entering the political arena.
State Sen. David R. Brinkley (R-Dist. 4) of New Market, who lost to Bartlett in the Republican primary, said he sent the lawmaker a note thanking him for his 20 years of service to the district after he lost in the general election.
But, Brinkley also believes the 6th District election was a missed opportunity.
“He could have went out on top, but unfortunately he didn’t,” Brinkley said of Bartlett. “A lot of us weren’t surprised he was defeated. We were surprised by the margins.” Delaney garnered 59 percent of the vote to Bartlett’s 38 percent.
Although he believes Bartlett should have retired earlier, Brinkley said constituents liked the congressman because he was “willing to dance to the tune of his own drummer.”
“But there also was a sentiment among a lot of people it was time for him to go,” Brinkley said.
Brinkley said he did not know if he would seek the congressional post again. “It’s going to be tough for a Republican to retake that seat,” he said.
Michael O’Loughlin, a political science professor at Salisbury University, agreed.
With the redrawn district map surviving a referendum challenge, it is likely Maryland Democrats will continue to hold seven of the eight congressional seats for the foreseeable future, he said.
“Andy Harris may be able to survive in the 1st District, but that’s not even definite,” O’Loughlin said. “If the Republican Party wants to get back into a competitive position, it’s going to have to change. It’s going to have to move to at least the middle.”
For his part, Bartlett said he already is looking forward to life without the partisan fights on Capitol Hill.
“I’m going back to work on my farm and do some work on my cabin in West Virginia,” said Bartlett, who has 10 children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.