Around the State House, colleagues and friends of state Sen John A. Pica Jr. are calling the four-term Baltimore lawmaker "new and improved." One even jokingly suggested that he be called Jonathon -- to distinguish him from the old John Pica.
What these people are politely suggesting is something the 38-year-old chairman of the city's Senate delegation readily admits: He has undergone a highly unusual political metamorphosis.
When Pica first arrived in Annapolis as a member of the House of Delegates in 1979 he was seen by many as one of a new breed educated, youthful politicians who were breaking from the old "ward healer" tradition of city politics.
But, after one term in the House and two in the Senate, Pica, an investment broker and son of a former city councilman, had begun to develop an unenviable reputation as a lightweight. Critics said his attendance at Senate sessions was unreliable, that he was rarely leading the charge on major issues and that he seemed to sometimes not do his homework.
Last fall, the Democrat from the 43rd District in northeastern Baltimore endured the political equivalent of a near-death experience: He almost lost. Twice.
Opponents in both the primary and general election chipped away at Pica's image, labeling him liberal and ineffective at a time when the city urgently needed help from the state.
Pica survived the primary election by a only 43 votes over a relative newcomer to politics. The results in the general election were only a little better, with Pica defeating the Republican candidate by fewer than 1,500 votes in a district that is about 80 percent Democratic and in a city that last elected a GOP lawmaker in 1954.
"It was a learning experience," Pica recalled during a recent interview in his Senate office.
The night of the primary, the early returns indicated he had lost the race and a key aide recommended a concession speech. Tucking his daughters into bed that night, Pica glumly told them that Daddy would no longer be a senator.
Later returns put him ahead again, but not by much. The race was finally decided three days later when absentee ballots were counted.
Pica describes those sleepless days and nights as among the most grueling in his life.
"I learned a lot about myself and politics . . . I had a lot of examining to do and during that period of introspection I knew that I had to turn all that emotion and energy loose," he said.
He said he learned he had to shed his "team-player" image and step out in front on issues, especially those concerning the city. This session, he has been prominent in efforts to win more money for Baltimore and to bring down auto-insurance rates in the city. He said he was prepared to lead a filibuster against a new gasoline tax -- a proposal that has apparently died on its own -- unless the counties it would benefit with new transportation projects would give up something for the city.
"It's really the old John Pica with a new and improved image. I am working harder and taking the job a lot more seriously," Pica said.
Few people rank him among the Senate's most powerful members, but some say he is at least back on track for that. One long-time State House observer said Pica has become "a force to be dealt with . . . [and] I didn't think a tiger could change his stripes."
Pica says the charges about his work habits were unfair and misleading, but he has vowed to try and attend every Senate vote during his four-year term. He said he is working longer hours and swimming a mile a day.
"When he puts his mind to it, as he has demonstrated this year, he can be as effective as any senator here," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
"We all learn from our experiences. I think he's matured," said Miller, D-Prince George's.
Miller gave Pica an important second chance this year when he named him deputy majority leader. By itself not very powerful, the position does get Pica into the weekly leadership meetings where he can be noticed by the upper chamber's power elite.
Miller has also named Pica the chair of the Senate's redistricting and re-apportionment committee charged with the politically explosive task of redrawing the state's map of legislative districts in accordance with the 1990 census data.
"He is definitely a changed man. . . . He is putting forth a lot both in front and behind the scenes," Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-City, said of Pica.
"He obviously has a lot of interest. He is diligent. I can't say he was diligent before," Hoffman said. "I think the election gave him a jolt."
Another city senator, Julian L. Lapides, a Democrat from Bolton Hill, said, "His attendance has been perfect and I think he has been exemplary."
Pica vowed to keep up the new pace: "I won't blow it. I promise."