Vallario steps into House limelight Judiciary head is a big unknown

January 24, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Ban military-style assault weapons? No way, he says.

Tougher laws to protect battered women? He's against that, too.

Clamp down on drunken drivers? Nope, not for that either.

Meet naysayer Joseph F. Vallario Jr., the new leader of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, a man with the power to shape Maryland's laws on the most controversial and emotional of issues.

The cigar-chewing lawyer from Prince George's County ended up with the chairmanship -- a likely springboard to a judgeship -- by exploiting a failed attempt to oust House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. last month. In so doing, Delegate Vallario ended 18 years of relative obscurity in the House and thrust himself into the spotlight.

His colleagues are still blinking. Although his conservative streak is no secret to lawmakers or the governor, whose bills Mr. Vallario has often opposed, his style of leadership is a big unknown. Fellow committee members say they just don't know him well enough to speculate.

A rumpled man with coal black hair and a mustache, Mr. Vallario, 55, is a self-made millionaire who doesn't look like it. He is more likely to wear a brown blazer with olive pants than expensive "power" suits. He speaks plainly, avoiding the legal jargon that can clutter an attorney's speech.

He subscribes to a rigid work ethic instilled in him by his late father, an Italian immigrant who ran a painting contracting business in Washington, D.C.

"Joe Vallario worships work, and I mean all kinds of work," said Vincent J. Femia, a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge who is "almost like brothers" with Mr. Vallario. "His father was an 18-hour-a-day man."

"No one ever gave him a silver spoon to put in his mouth," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who represents the same suburban-rural district as Mr. Vallario.

He won't allow his health to get in the way. Friends tell the story of the time Mr. Vallario took a nasty fall while removing a campaign sign from a roof some 20 years ago. He broke bones in both arms but nonetheless drove back to his law office and drew up a will for a client. Only then did he agree to see a doctor.

Not surprisingly, he began his legal career in the same hard-driving way. He put himself through the University of Baltimore Law School by painting and doing accounting work, for which he had first trained.

"I remember going to law school and really stinking," Mr. Vallario said. Stinking?

"It was night school and I didn't have a chance to get a shower," he explained. "I would leave the [painting] job at 4 p.m., and class would start at 6, and it was in Baltimore. So I had a chance to get something to eat but not to shower," he recalled. "I always felt very bad about that."

Even after he passed the bar and put out a shingle, he relied on painting to support his growing family while he built up a general practice representing accident victims and people accused of drunk driving and other crimes.

He shunned many of the trappings of his profession, insisting on a modest office and, for a time, mail-order suits. His "why-have-leather-chairs-when-vinyl-is-comfortable" attitude turned out to be shrewd. He claims to attract working people to his office who are scared off by lawyers in fancy digs who, they assume, charge higher prices.

"People say, 'Vallario's got a good name, and I can afford them prices,' " he said.

Mr. Vallario kept a low profile during his first 16 years in the House. In the 1980s, he championed bills creating the sentence of "life imprisonment without the possibility of parole" as an alternative to the death penalty, which he also supports. He acquired a conservative voting record on some issues, he said, because of his experience with clients.

To explain his "pro-gun" position, he tells a story about a widow who ran into legal trouble for carrying a cheap handgun in her purse. The woman bought it because she feared for her safety in her dangerous apartment complex. "I voted against banning Saturday night specials because a poor person in a high crime area would have to pay a lot of money for a gun."

Mr. Vallario said he opposed some drunken-driving measures, such as confiscating suspects' license plates, because they were too harsh on people who have to drive to work.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is not exactly thrilled by Mr. Vallario's promotion. "He has never voted for any of our bills," said Donna Becker, president of MADD-Northern Maryland.

In 1991, he became more active in Annapolis when he took over the chairmanship of the Prince George's House delegation. The previous chairman, Sylvania W. Woods Jr., had resigned abruptly from the legislature amid charges of impropriety.

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