Lawmakers pay a price to be in Assembly


September 15, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

When he was appointed to the House of Delegates in 1991, Phillip Bissett enjoyed a measure of new respect from friends and neighbors.

The reaction at work was another thing.

It was not long before he learned a painful lesson: Jobs are not always compatible with the democratic process.

Then a warehouseman for Giant Food, the Anne Arundel County Republican was chosen to fill the unexpired term of the late Dr. Aris T. Allen.

Suddenly Mr. Bissett had to fit his work around new duties -- in the midst of a legislative session. Even after the Assembly finished its 90-day term, he had public hearings to attend. And, he knew, in the future he would need time to campaign. "I needed a little more flexibility and I couldn't get it because I was getting scheduling preference over other employees; they were raising a stink," Mr. Bissett says.

"And management was afraid to bite the bullet and say, 'This guy's in the legislature. We have to work with him a bit.' "

So, after 15 years with Giant, Mr. Bissett moved on.

The sort of difficulty he faced is not unknown among the Assembly's 188 members. Most are not as severely stressed as he was. But senators and delegates pay a price to serve in the Assembly if only in pressure to meet the time demands.

Most have families and most find the $28,000 legislative pay insufficient. Not that Mr. Bissett or anyone else is complaining a single bit, not in this era of term limits and anti-incumbent sentiment!

Lawyers, dentists, doctors, schoolteachers, a barkeep, an auctioneer and many others in this citizens' legislature will tell you they're happily making the adjustments.

They are, after all, a reflection of voters who have their own accommodations to make, thank you.

At least two delegates have lost their full-time jobs. And finding new ones can be complicated if employers balk at job-seekers who impose time restrictions.

Of course, most of the lawmakers manage well enough.

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg of Baltimore teaches at the University of Baltimore Law School at night when the Assembly is meeting. "We have parental leave now, not political leave," he wryly observes.

In one recent year, the legislature worked past its 90th and usually final day in order to deal with budget matters. Mr. Rosenberg faced a choice: a scheduled class or a session of the Assembly.

"I was in Annapolis," he says. The class was rescheduled.

Mr. Bissett, 37, who lives in Edgewater with his wife and three sons, solved his problem by starting his own cleaning company. Using equipment that sprays water at high pressure, he scrubs fleets of trucks and even industrial buildings. His independence enhances his ability to serve his constituents and his chances of getting elected in his own right next year.

He says he now has time for the appearances that politicians must make: "I was turning down more invitations than I was accepting. Now I can work my schedule around being a good legislator." He finds self-employment exhilarating. "It was the best decision I ever made in my life," he says. "You don't always need someone else to tell you what to do."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's scant patience is tested constantly and never more than when he hears talk of "reinventing government." The phrase is in vogue now as President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore try, yet again, to make the federal government more effective and less costly.

To Mr. Schaefer, these words carry an assumption that government is beyond redemption.

That idea strikes him as a dangerous loss of faith in the capacity of fundamental institutions and a slur on the ability of governors -- or, worse still, a personal repudiation of his own life.

"I'm sick of hearing that term," he told a group of local government officials recently. "I don't want to reinvent government. I just want to make it work better."

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