Special Session Tough for Citizen-Legislators

October 27, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH

Annapolis. -- With a way out of the congressional redistricting tangle at hand, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell gaveled for order and began to speak.

Yes, a compromise had been struck, but computer problems and a pro forma Senate filibuster were almost certainly going to delay a final vote until the next day.

For the umpteenth time, the House of Delegates was slouching toward home, having done virtually nothing.

"I feel like a yo-yo," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore.

The special legislative session's on-again, off-again rhythm created problems for legislators which ranged from personal inconvenience to financial loss to something approaching public embarrassment.

Redistricting had been shunted aside early in the process (it was stalled anyway) by another budget drama. Legislators found themselves besieged by drug abuse program counselors facing layoffs, by State Police facing layoffs and by local government officials facing huge deficits of their own.

So they turned abruptly from re-drawing election lines to rearranging $450 million in budget cuts. The second of these tasks actually occurred with unaccustomed harmony between legislators and Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The daily televised demonstrations, however, obscured that occurrence -- while the suggestion that legislators were bumblers may have been underscored.

The drive for term limitations may have gained more momentum -- particularly since the jarring U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas were under way simultaneously.

But those who urge an end to "professional politicians" and a return to the days of the founders when farmer-legislators were the ideal may have missed an important fact: Maryland already has a citizen legislature, almost as varied as the state itself.

That fact comes through in a survey of how the special redistricting session, with all its fits and starts, affected the rank and file participants.

Del. Brian K. McHale, D-Baltimore, a longshoreman, missed work on the docks at Locust Point because he was on call or actually in Annapolis.

"When I'm not at work, I'm not getting paid," he said. When the assembly meets in regular session, he said, he takes a leave. The special session, with its erratic scheduling, had him driving back and forth sometimes twice a day.

One delegate drove back from vacation in North Carolina -- twice.

Doctor-Delegate Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack, D-Harford, says she had to send patients to other physicians.

Del. Leslie Hutchinson, a community relations specialist for the Baltimore County government, stopped making appointments when she realized she could not be certain of keeping them.

So did Del. Theodore Levin, D-Baltimore County. When he spoke about the special session, Mr. Levin sounded like a constituent on a talk show.

"We looked like a bunch of clowns. We looked like we couldn't resolve anything," he said.

Del. Levin and his 187 colleagues in the House and Senate had a unique view of the legislative process. They saw it all from the perspective of citizens as well as legislators. That perspective is always there, but the focus was sharpened by the intervening budget drama and by the inherent difficulties of political map drawing.

What the assembly did resolve made even its own members guffaw at times. When the new congressional districts were drawn, Cecil County became the battleground: Mr. Mitchell wanted it to remain part of the 1st District and the Eastern Shore. He prevailed.

To accomplish that, though, curious new relationships were struck. South Baltimore, with its richer trove of Democratic votes, became part of the Shore -- to make the district more hospitable to Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th. Always wanted to be linked to the shore, said one of its current legislative representatives.

Now, at least, the members could go home -- so they could try to hang onto their homes.

Del. Hutchinson, like some of her constituents in this recession, was beginning to wonder if she could pay for the house she bought last summer.

"It's killed me," she said. "Every day I don't work is a day I don't get paid."

Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., R-Baltimore County, said he had been forced to hire administrative help.

"When I'm here, I'm not there. It's hurt me big time," he said.

Del. Gerry L. Brewster, D-Baltimore County, said, "The legislature is a full-time job. You have your other career on top of that."

Dr. Bonsack, a freshman delegate elected on last year's wave of voter unhappiness with incumbents, was philosophical yet a bit discouraged.

"People think we're not doing anything. We're doing a lot. I just wish it could get done more efficiently." She was leaving the House for home -- and preparing for three legislative work group meetings the following day and one each in the two days after that.

As for the hits absorbed by her medical practice, she said, "The people's business has to get done first."

Concerns about the paralytic approach to redistricting was made more painful because many of the legislators were, at best, bit players. They were kept informed, but mostly they waited and watched -- and recessed.

"We've have more recess here than we had in kindergarten," Del. Brewster said. "At least there, we got to play with the ball," he added, referring to the fact that more senior representatives were the real players.

"Here," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., R-Baltimore County, who frequently votes against the leadership, "we are the ball."

Like his colleagues, he was looking ahead to January when an even more difficult session looms. Then, the most severe budget problems in the state's history will be superimposed once again on the effort to draw district maps not for Congress this time but for their own districts.

Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

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