EASTON, Md. — They call it “book club,— but the only pages that get read are the ones on the drink menu.
The all-male group — they devised the book club title as a cover in case their wives and children ask where they’ve been — is made up of friends from this small Eastern Shore town who gather most weekday nights at Legal Spirits Tavern to blow off steam after a long day of work.
As the half-dozen or so club attendees gathered around the bar Wednesday night and sipped their drinks while surrounded by an eclectic decor of stuffed wild game heads and portraits of famous gangsters, the topic of conversation drifted to the House’s recent passage of a health care reform bill and, more specifically, Rep. Frank Kratovil’s (D-Md.) vote against the legislation.
The general consensus seemed to be that Kratovil did right by his conservative constituents in opposing the bill. But these men remain wary of their freshman Congressman and the party that he represents.
“I sent [Kratovil] an e-mail,— said Steve Wheeler, a local entrepreneur and founder of the Web site capitalismordie.com who was drinking dark rum on the rocks with two limes at Wednesday’s club meeting. “I said I intended to vote [for the Republican candidate in 2010]. However, if you’re truly going to be fiscally conservative, you could earn my vote.—
In a district that went decidedly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the presidential race and had been represented by a Republican for nearly two decades before Kratovil, the freshman Democrat is going to have to win over more than a few conservative voters — and not alienate his Democratic base — if he hopes to return for a second term.
Don’t Get Swallowed’ by D.C.
Despite the fact that he’s been in Congress for nearly a year, Kratovil is, in many ways, still introducing himself to his constituents in his sprawling 3,700-square-mile district, which includes all of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and sections of the Western Shore.
Parts of the 1st district lie less than a half-hour drive from Washington, D.C., but most of its residents feel far removed from the world of Capitol Hill.
[IMGCAP(1)]“I hope he doesn’t get swallowed up there in D.C.,— said Queenstown resident and Vietnam War veteran Jerry Studuck, a self-described Democrat who attended a Veterans Day event in Federalsburg on Wednesday where Kratovil made an appearance. “I hope he doesn’t get caught up in the cliques down there.—
Kratovil, 41, is a former Baltimore public defender whose only previous political experience was winning the Queen Anne’s County state’s attorney post in 2002 and 2006. On the campaign trail last year, he touted his fiscally conservative views, and after coming to Capitol Hill, he joined the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats.
Kratovil’s Republican opponents view his affiliation with the group as little more than an attempt to find political cover in a tough district. They point to Kratovil’s votes earlier this year for the final version of the stimulus bill and for cap-and-trade legislation as evidence of where his heart truly lies.
And even though he voted against his party on the health care bill, those detractors continue to believe that Kratovil was against the bill more out of political necessity than out of a serious commitment to fiscal responsibility.
“He had to ask [Speaker] Nancy [Pelosi] for permission to vote [no] on the health care bill,— said Wayne McNeir, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the color guard at a Veterans Day service at the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery, where Kratovil offered a few remarks.
But not everyone is as cynical of Kratovil’s motives.
Crownsville resident M. Hall Worthington, who came to the Crownsville ceremony carrying a chest full of medals from his 35 years of service in the Army and National Guard, praised the Congressman for voting against the bill. Worthington, a Republican, expressed his confidence that Kratovil would stay a “no— vote no matter what pressure he might come under.
“I kiss him for [voting against the bill] … Anybody I talk to expresses the fact that it’s only going to hurt,— Worthington said.
While he’s earned mixed reviews from conservatives, Kratovil’s “no— vote on health care reform has been panned in some Democratic circles. Last week, representatives from Eastern Shore branches of the NAACP met with the Congressman to see what they could do to move him to vote in favor of the final version of the bill.
For his part, Kratovil said he’s undecided about how he’ll vote if the bill returns to the House floor after going through the conference committee process.
“Everybody on so many of these debates comes to the table already decided where they are going simply based on ideology,— Kratovil said. “They come and say vote against it regardless of what it is or vote for it regardless of what it is. … Ultimately substance does matter.
“If I believe the bill substantively addresses the problems that it seeks to address, if I’m convinced the good outweighs the bad and it moves us forward, I’ll vote for it,— he said.
Local Vs. National Geography
At a gathering of the Mid-Shore League of Republican Women on Wednesday night, state Sen. Andy Harris (R) — who came about 3,000 votes shy of beating Kratovil in 2008 and is running again next year — offered a different explanation for why his opponent came out against the health care reform bill a day before the vote was scheduled to take place.
Harris, a third-term state Senator who is being touted this cycle by the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he believes Kratovil was chastened by Republican gains in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections.
“It is just striking that he took three months to figure [his vote] out and he figured it out 36 hours after the votes in Virginia and New Jersey,— Harris said. “I don’t believe in coincidences.—
Before Wednesday night’s meeting, Harris expressed his confidence that time is working in his favor as he looks toward a rematch with Kratovil.
Along with a better national political environment than the one Republicans faced in 2008, “now [voters] actually know what Frank Kratovil’s record is,— Harris said. “This evens up the race. Last time it was a little one-sided. It was someone who actually had a record against someone who made a lot of promises. This time it’s two people with records, and I think those records are starkly different on the issue of fiscal responsibility.—
But Harris may still face some of the same problems that hobbled him in 2008.
Former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) — whom Harris beat in a nasty primary and who went on to endorse Kratovil in the general election — is already getting involved in the 2010 race. He sent out a fundraising letter for Kratovil in mid-September.
Meanwhile, Harris continues to have an Eastern Shore problem.
Harris hails from Cockeysville, near Baltimore, and his Western Shore roots don’t sit well with some on the Eastern Shore, which is where the majority of the district’s voters reside.
Harris, who also works as anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, has attempted to address that concern this year. He hasn’t moved, but he has concentrated more of his campaign team on the Eastern Shore and has begun working part time at Eastern Shore medical facilities. He spent part of his Veterans Day working at the Memorial Hospital at Easton and made sure to bring up that fact in his remarks to the GOP women’s group.
It remains to be seen whether his efforts will pay off by November 2010, but back at the Legal Spirits Tavern, Wheeler explained that Harris continues to be perceived “as a Western Shore entity.—
Wheeler said he agrees with Harris and the Republican leadership in Washington on national issues such as foreign policy and spending, but like Gilchrest, Kratovil is viewed as the man who knows and cares for issues that are near and dear to the Eastern Shore community, such as the environment.
Wheeler said he continues to struggle with the issue of “who represents your local concerns and who represents your national concerns. … I would have no difficulty having [Kratovil] as a state delegate.—