Life After Congress: Gilchrest Teaches a Love of Outdoors

Posted April 2, 2010 at 2:02pm

Since he left Congress at the end of 2008, former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) has been savoring retirement. He spends a lot of time outside, snowshoeing and ice-skating when it’s cold, hiking and canoeing as it warms up, and making plans for an outdoor learning center in Kent County.

[IMGCAP(1)]Yet on Tuesday nights he makes a two-hour drive to Salisbury University and shares a little of his hard-earned wisdom with a class of 33 undergraduates.

Gilchrest, who will turn 64 this month, may be the ideal teacher for the school’s Environment and the Political Process class. From the time he was first elected to Congress in 1990 until he lost in the 2008 primary, Gilchrest was known for his work on environmental issues, particularly those related to the Chesapeake Bay. The moderate Republican was a leader in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Congressional Task Force and the Congressional Climate Change Caucus.

Before Congress, Gilchrest taught government and history classes at Kent County High School. He said the adjustment from government teacher to Congressman wasn’t as hard as people might think.

“You needed to learn how the system worked over there, but if you already were pretty good at human nature, then it only took a little time to learn the different characters there and how to deal with them,” he said.

In the same way, adjusting to teaching again took only a couple of weeks, as Gilchrest learned students’ names and they got used to his laid-back teaching style. Last Tuesday the former Congressmen invited a couple of Baltimore Sun reporters to address his class, and one of them recalled an early 1990s encounter Gilchrest had forgotten.

Along with some Maryland officials, the Congressman went to check out a golf course they believed was violating a provision of the Clean Water Act protecting wetlands. The others didn’t want to bring a reporter, but Gilchrest let Sun reporter Tim Wheeler in on what was going on.

“The reporter got a canoe and paddled right on the shoreline,” Gilchrest recalled, laughing. “When I saw him coming that’s when I walked over to talk to him. … Then after that of course the other people went over there and answered his questions that he was shouting in the canoe.”

After regaling the class with that anecdote, Wheeler and fellow reporter Matthew Brown were invited to give their insights for a group project students are working on. Each group was assigned an environment-related issue, and group members had to tackle the issue from different perspectives, including that of an objective reporter. Senior Eric Scholl, whose group is researching climate change, said that even though he often disagrees with Gilchrest, the professor is open to dialogue with students.

“Meeting politicians, whether they’re currently involved or retired, they always seem to be very guarded about their experiences,” he said. “He’s just really open about his time there.”

Though students read from Jeffrey Sachs’ book “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet,” take weekly quizzes and write two papers during the semester, much of the class involves Gilchrest reminiscing about the way things really work on Capitol Hill.

“What I try to do is show the mindset of, and the frame of reference of, Members of Congress before they make a decision. A lot of times they make a decision on policy with almost no information — it’s party pressure, it’s pressure from the White House, it’s pressure from how much money can you make from interest groups,” he said. “It clears away the mystery from this very, very human institution.”

To that end, Gilchrest invites in a number of speakers. His former chief of staff, Tony Caligiuri, spoke to the class, and upcoming speakers include Rep. Frank Kratovil (D), Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and a representative from the attorney general’s office in Annapolis.

Yet the best stories may come from Gilchrest himself. He has told the class multiple stories starring his friend, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). One took place early in Gilchrest’s Congressional career, as Young yelled at him for a vote on the House floor.

“So I let him say all he wanted to say, and then I say, ‘Don, look around on the House floor and point to the person who will intimidate you to change your vote,'” Gilchrest said. The Alaskan took his meaning, and Gilchrest said they treated each other with respect after that.

In addition to teaching the class, Gilchrest is volunteering at a couple of different places in Maryland. One is a group called Crossroads Community, where the former Congressman goes hiking and canoeing with mentally disabled adults. He also invites young people from a homeless shelter in Cecil County to spend time in the country around his home during warmer months. And he’s helping the Maryland Department of Natural Resources plan an outdoor learning center along the south side of the Sassafras River near Betterton, Md.

One thing Gilchrest said he won’t do, however, is run for office again.

“That chapter of my life is over,” he said. “If I was 44 instead of 64, I would do it, but you know I’m not willing to be wandering around in these places again. I’d rather be on the ground now snowshoeing whenever I want.”