A Baltimore 'need-to -know' legislator

Bruce L. Bortz

December 03, 1992|By Bruce L. Bortz

IN last month's legislative unpleasantness, otherwise know as the special session on the Maryland state budget, a petite woman from Baltimore shot to the center of the fray.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the ranking woman in the Senate, was instrumental in beating back an 11th-hour attempt by Montgomery County to delay or scuttle a carefully scripted plan to balance the budget by eliminating $147 million in state payments for teachers' and librarians' Social Security.

Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, normally would have guided the measure firmly through the legislative labyrinth, but this time he was quietly in opposition. So the panel's second in command, Ms. Hoffman, stepped in, both in the committee and on the Senate floor, and took considerable flak from Montgomery for doing so.

It didn't seem to faze her. Over a two-day stretch, Ms. Hoffman marshaled the arguments for the measure, even though Baltimore City stood to lose $16 million in the deal (to Montgomery's $27 million). The transfer of Social Security payments from state to subdivision, she recognized, not only would save the state big bucks year after year; it would be the first meaningful attempt to erase a built-in deficit.

Senator Hoffman sniffed at Montgomery County suggestions that she and fellow Baltimore City legislators should oppose the measure simply out of loyalty to their suburban Washington allies. "The public doesn't expect us to make decisions on that basis," she said. "It's never naive to vote to do the right thing." And with most of the state's 23 counties supporting the measure in return for a moratorium on further reductions in local aid, it was unfair to make Baltimore City the culprit in the affair, she insisted.

Ms. Hoffman hasn't shied away from other controversies. During this year's abortion referendum battle, she accepted numerous invitations to speak publicly for Question 6 and met with a black doctor who had appeared in a Vote kNOw television commercial opposed to the law. Coincidence or no, the commercial was pulled shortly after their meeting.

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Barbara Hoffman grew up in Baltimore believing it is a citizen's duty to participate in the democratic process. Until she met Sen. Rosalie Abrams, that meant vote, they told her, but don't go into that dirty business called politics.

Senator Abrams changed that. She was a highly principled working woman -- a nurse -- who had been elected to the Maryland Senate and possessed considerable political astuteness. Ms. Hoffman, a teacher and Morgan State University supervisor of teachers, volunteered to work for Ms. Abrams. Then, through a promotion to a paid position, she successfully ran Ms. Abrams' and then-Del. Benjamin Cardin's combined state legislative campaign in Baltimore's 42nd District.

That was 1978. The same year, Ms. Hoffman again teamed with Ms. Abrams, who was named Democratic Party chairman and promptly named Ms. Hoffman as the party's executive director. Fourteen years later, Ms. Hoffman, 52, not only has forged her own political career, but is moving through the hoops in the male-dominated General Assembly.

Ms. Hoffman came to the Senate, thanks to an appointment, in 1983. Ms. Abrams, resigning her Senate seat to take a post she's held ever since -- head of the state Office on Aging -- urged Ms. Hoffman to take her place. Ms. Hoffman was initially reluctant. She wasn't sure she was up to the job, she told Ms. Abrams. But, able to try out legislative life without having to campaign for office, she soon decided to take advantage of the rare political gift.

Ms. Abrams' advice to the new appointee was to aim for a seat on the Senate's budget committee. That, she said, was where the state's priorities were determined. Ms. Hoffman wasn't so sure, and ended up elsewhere. After winning her first election in 1986, she was able to make the recommended committee switch, and she's never regretted it. Following her uncontested re-election campaign in 1990, and the loss by election of two of the committee's main players, Frank Komenda and vice chairman Frank Kelly, Ms. Hoffman politicked for and gained an appointment as B&T vice chairman.

As a former English teacher with a graduate degree from Hopkins, Ms. Hoffman also sees merit in the city's yet-to-be-filed lawsuit against the state, alleging unconstitutional school funding. Administrative cuts may be in order for the city school bureaucracy, she says, but clearly disadvantaged city students will have their problems compounded with fewer state resources.

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