Youngest new member of House of Delegates gets advice from all sides

November 12, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTON -- Dress well, gain 15 pounds, let your hair grow a little, advertise that you've been a waterman for nine years, know the issues and knock on plenty of doors.

That, plus a couple of twists in the byzantine politics of the Eastern Shore's 37th District, was Kenneth D. Schisler's formula for election to the Maryland House of Delegates on Tuesday at the age of 21 years, 3 months and 6 days. He'll be going on 21 1/2 when he takes office in January.

No one in memory has been elected a delegate at a younger age. Delegate David B. Shapiro, D-Baltimore, was appointed to the House at 21 years, 3 months and 10 days in 1977, but he was a crusty 22 when he was first elected. Benjamin L. Cardin, now the U.S. representative from the 3rd District, was 23 when elected to the Maryland House in 1966.

State historians can't say for sure if Mr. Schisler, a Talbot County Republican, is the youngest legislator ever elected in the state because Maryland birth certificates only date back about a century.

Think young people are aimless today? You can't prove it by Ken Schisler, a 6-foot 3-inch, Salisbury State University biology major who is a walking definition of the adjective "clean-cut."

He started crabbing commercially on the Choptank River at 12 and now is part-owner of a 29-foot workboat. He has known he wanted to be a state legislator since attending American Legion Boys State, a weeklong mock legislature, at 17. Then he was a high school intern for former Delegate William S. Horne. And he filed for the House race in June, at age 20.

Mr. Schisler said his age -- which was listed in newspaper voters' guides but not in his campaign literature -- never became a big issue in the campaign.

"When I went door to door it would come up occasionally. They'd say, 'Starting young, aren't you?' " he said. "I was trying to say, 'Look at me for what I am and for what I'm trying to say, not that I'm 21 years old.'

"I didn't have to say I was 21. I wasn't going to deny that I was a college student, but I didn't put Salisbury State University at the top of the literature," he said.

"It was a smart campaign. He disguised his age very well," said Robert A. Thornton Jr., a Denton lawyer and Democrat twice Mr. Schisler's age who was also elected to the House from the 37th.

"His literature advertised the fact that he had been a commercial waterman for nine years, which would lead you to believe he had to be in his late 20s or early 30s. You don't assume he started at 12. He's physically big, and so when you see him -- I'm almost 6-foot-1 and I look up to him -- it's hard to tell how young or old he is," Mr. Thornton said.

An endorsement from outgoing Delegate Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester, who lost his seat when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress, helped cement Mr. Schisler's credibility.

"The legislature will hear our concerns because they will hear them through Ken. Make no mistake, they will listen to Ken. I've been there. I believe Ken is just what this state and this district needs," Mr. Colburn wrote in the Oct. 30 letter mailed to nearly 24,000 households in the 37th District.

Mr. Colburn said in an interview that Mr. Schisler's youth was no impediment.

"I don't feel like Ken is too young at 21. The average age of soldiers we send to the Persian Gulf is 21. We can send them to the Middle East, but not to Annapolis?" he asked. "He's very aggressive. And he had to be aggressive to get elected, particularly as a 21-year-old Republican in a 2-to-1 Democratic district."

Mr. Schisler's aggressive campaign, which cost about $18,000, was a family affair. Brother Tom, 24, was campaign manager. Sister Christina, 20, went door to door. Father David, a wholesale food distributor, and mother Nancy, an antiques dealer, worked the polls as their son got 10,676 votes, placing third behind incumbent Delegate Samuel Q. Johnson III, D-Wicomico, and Mr. Thornton.

And when victory came on Tuesday, it made the elder Schislers' day doubly special: It was their 25th wedding anniversary.

"After the cheer went up," Mrs. Schisler said of the celebration at Talbot County Republican headquarters, "my husband looked across the room at me and said, 'Happy anniversary.' "

The unique nature of the 37th District in Maryland politics gave Ken Schisler a major boost: It is a four-county district with three delegates, and no county may have more than one. The result is a game of electoral musical chairs in which one county can't sit down in the House of Delegates.

This year, two Talbot County Democrats squared off in the primary and split the vote. Both lost, leaving Ken Schisler -- who had no primary opposition -- as the only Talbot County candidate in the general election.

Then, in the Nov. 6 general election, two Dorchester County candidates squared off, split the vote and both lost, leaving Ken Schisler a 21-year-old delegate-elect. He will join the legislature's oldest member, Senator Frederick C. Malkus, 77, a Dorchester Democrat, in representing the 37th in Annapolis.

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