Baltimore delegate stands firm on panel boycott Douglass' protest costs city a key vote

April 05, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

It's early afternoon in Annapolis, and all the state delegates but one are settling into their committee work. Some are listening to testimony, while others are crafting proposed laws.

The delegate missing from the hubbub is Baltimore Democrat John W. Douglass, who has not set foot in his committee during the legislative session.

With just one week left before adjournment, Mr. Douglass is still protesting his transfer in January from the House Appropriations Committee to Ways and Means.

Most people outside the state capital might wonder why Mr. Douglass is making such a big deal out of a transfer. After all, one committee is just as good as another, right?

To Mr. Douglass, a six-term delegate from East Baltimore, his committee boycott is a matter of principle. He said he was transferred as punishment for the way he voted on a budget cut last year.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. denied that charge, saying he moved his fellow Democrat as part of a reorganization of all House committees.

Whatever the case, Mr. Douglass' boycott has left the city a vote short on the 28-member Ways and Means Committee, which decides tax and lottery issues.

It also has left Mr. Douglass open to criticism for failing to perform all the duties he was elected to do, and for which he is paid about $27,000 a year.

Although he faithfully attends House sessions, he has not taken part in the sizable amount of work done in committee. Instead, he stays upstairs in his House office answering mail and updating his computer list of voters.

Some Baltimore legislators say they wish Mr. Douglass hadn't carried his protest so far.

"We're quite concerned because we're at a distinct disadvantage by being one vote short on some issues that can be critical to the city," said Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., the leader of the city delegates. "Certainly being two votes short can make a substantial difference."

The second missing vote is that of Baltimore Del. R. Charles Avara, who has missed many meetings because of health problems. Mr. Avara, a Democrat, is recovering from a brain tumor. He and Mr. Douglass are among six city delegates assigned to the committee.

Ways and Means considered several hot bills this session, including a plan to reform legislative scholarships, a bill to abolish the keno lottery game and a proposed tax on gas-guzzling cars.

No committee vote during the 90-day session has been so close that its outcome could have been changed by Mr. Douglass' ballot, said Del. James W. Campbell, one of the Baltimore lawmakers on the panel.

But Mr. Douglass' boycott is costing Baltimore more than a vote, said Del. Clarence Davis, a fellow Democrat from East Baltimore also on the committee.

"It's not so much his vote as his presence and expertise. John has what I consider to be the best fiscal mind in state government. His expertise could have influenced a decision or two because John's knowledge is of greater value than his vote," Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Douglass, 51, a real estate investor and computer consultant, said he has heard those arguments, but they're not enough to change his mind.

He stunned the 140 other delegates on the session's opening day when he refused his committee assignment. "Members of this House are not chattel," he declared in a Jan. 13 speech on the House floor.

Legislative insiders cannot recall a similar occurrence in the past 25 years, at least.

Mr. Douglass said the transfer was his payback for bucking the speaker and Baltimore lawmakers during the special session in November, when he voted against a plan to shift the burden of paying teachers' Social Security taxes from the state to local governments.

In Mr. Davis' view, the transfer is related to Mr. Douglass' support of a Montgomery County lawmaker who tried to unseat Mr. Mitchell as speaker last year.

Back home, Mr. Davis added, many residents support the protest. "John is a hero to the average citizen I encounter at places like the American Legion, the Elks and some other community associations."

Nevertheless, Mr. Douglass says he may not seek re-election.

"I'm not sure I'm going to run again," he said last week.

"I've been here a long time, and Baltimore City is not doing very well. It's going backward. It's on the verge of being overrun by crime. Conditions are a lot worse in Baltimore now than when I started nearly a quarter-century ago. I live on ground zero -- North Avenue near Harford Road.

"You got to face that fact that if you can't improve things, you ought to step aside," he said.

Mr. Douglass also said he might move to Montgomery County to live with his new wife, a teacher. The two have a commuter marriage, seeing each other mostly on weekends.

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