Fiercely libertarian, Cecil Co. senator speaks his mind

March 08, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- The mugger who stole Jean Baker's purse last month got away with $400 in cash, some credit cards, assorted keys -- and the governor's assault weapons ban.

Mrs. Baker happens to be married to Sen. Walter M. Baker, the Cecil County Democrat who heads the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. While Mrs. Baker struggled with the thief, Mr. Baker bashed him over the head with an umbrella, until the purse strap broke and the thief bolted.

The next day, Mr. Baker told Gov. William Donald Schaefer that the assault weapons ban was dead, although his committee will not hold hearings on the bill until Tuesday.

His reasoning: Law-abiding citizens should have access to arms. And he isn't swayed by arguments that a mugger might be more likely to have an Uzi, while the citizen wields a semiautomatic umbrella.

Call him Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. After all, his colleagues have, sometimes in official resolutions. Mr. Baker just laughs, as he quietly kills bills that offend his libertarian sensibilities.

A committee chairman since 1986, Mr. Baker has always been the scourge of gun control. This year, his influence extends to a domestic violence bill proposed by the governor, as well as California emissions standards for cars.

In fact, Mr. Baker may be the single greatest obstacle to the governor's legislative package, much of which must move through Judicial Proceedings. Mr. Schaefer won the first battle -- a helmet bill for motorcyclists -- but Mr. Baker is expected to exert more influence over the gun bills. He also was able to amend the domestic violence bill, so it was more palatable to conservatives.

"I have a philosophy, I'm predictable," says Mr. Baker. "I'm a strong believer in individual rights and a strong believer that we have responsibilities that go with those rights."

Translated, he's a pro-gun, pro-death penalty, anti-helmet law, anti-tax workaholic, who also was a floor leader for the 1991 abortion rights bill.

Still, some feminists have been less than impressed by Mr. Baker's contention that he is a social moderate, complaining about comments Mr. Baker made during a hearing on the domestic violence bill. Jean Baker, his wife of 37 years, rankles at the idea the senator might be a sexist.

"A lot of times, those females get angry because he doesn't agree with them, and they don't want to hear his explanation," said Mrs. Baker, who is in Annapolis almost as much as her husband. "He's very consistent. If you ask him a direct question, he will give you a direct answer."

His objections to the domestic violence bill, Mr. Baker said, were strictly legal ones. He felt the bill was poorly drafted and suggested several amendments.

And when a committee member balked, Mr. Baker warned: "You're disagreeing with your chairman, and I worked very hard on this. I'm afraid [the governor's office] is going to say, 'We beat you on this.' "

"Every legislative body needs a Walter Baker, someone with a great deal of common sense," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "He sometimes has to be reminded there's a bigger picture, but so do all of us."

Del. John Arnick, the House Judiciary chairman who often sees his committee's work stopped dead in Mr. Baker's realm, admires him.

He did note, however, that Mr. Baker is "not particularly quick to change things that have worked well in the past. He likes to move a little slower when it comes to major change."

'Freshwater turns to salt'

If Mr. Baker tends to cling to the past, his deep roots in Cecil County may offer some explanation. He is an eighth-generation native of the Upper Shore county, a place some Marylanders know only as the last leg of a trip to Pennsylvania.

The county straddles Maryland's two shores. Its geography is similarly bisected, changing from rolling farmlands in the west to the flat, marshy land of the Eastern Shore.

"We have a saying in Cecil County," Mr. Baker says. "The Eastern Shore don't want us and the Western Shore won't have us." (The old saying also is quoted as, "The Eastern Shore don't want us and we won't have the Western Shore.")

"We are not traditional Eastern shoremen. We're farmers, not too much of a watermen tradition. It's where the freshwater turns to salt."

Mr. Baker was born Sept. 23, 1927, outside Port Deposit, the fourth of 12 children. His family had a small farm on which they grew their own food, plowing the land with two mules.

They had no indoor plumbing and no electricity until Mr. Baker was 21. His father was a laborer who, in his best year, earned $1,260.

It was a hard life and it left its mark, said retired District Court Judge Walter E. Buck Jr., who has known Mr. Baker since they were teen-agers. "When you grow up in a time of Depression and war, you don't come out of it too starry-eyed."

To make extra money, Mr. Baker and his brothers sold milk along a rural delivery route.

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