Winegrad's environment work praised


January 29, 1994

Big-money testimonial dinners are fairly common fund-raisers in Maryland, but not among the environmental community, whose socializing runs more to box lunches and picnics.

Still, it was no surprise that the Maryland League of Conservation Voters was able to turn out more than 300 guests, at $100 a plate, on a recent weeknight in Annapolis.

That is because the political action group's honoree was state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-District 30. More than any legislator, and perhaps more than anybody, he has set Maryland's environmental agenda during a 16-year career that will end this year with his retirement at age 49.

Winegrad has lived all his life within a couple miles of where he was born; and technically, he was elected to represent Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. (He's one of the few legislators who describes his district in terms of rivers: West, South, Rhode, Severn, Magothy.) But he has always championed a wider constituency.

"What drives him is . . . a pure, unbridled empathy for the broader web of life," said John Kabler, of the Clean Water Action group.

An opponent of the forest-protection bill Winegrad pushed through a few years ago referred to the proverbial tree falling in the forest: "Does it make a sound if no one's there to hear it? I'm beginning to think this guy hears it."

Such descriptions might conjure images of some gentle woodsman, dispensing eco-homilies, but Winegrad is better described by a lobbyist who initially doubted the young delegate's ability to carry a controversial bill through the session: "This guy . . . they stick ice picks in him, ice picks, and he keeps coming back."

A practicing attorney, Winegrad is a hard-charging, to-the-wall type, who combines relentless advocacy with a command of facts that he can employ to bludgeon foes into submission. Even allies have been known to edge away when, just as a long policy session is breaking up, Winegrad buttonholes them in the doorway and continues breathlessly elaborating on the nitrogen contributed by farm manure for each of 12 river systems feeding the bay (followed, perhaps, by the three latest studies on shad and herring migrations).

"In 17 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I have never met another legislator who combines the passion, drive and understanding of complex issues," says William C. Baker, CBF's president.

Numerous legislators, of course, have excellent environmental voting records, but across the board on all the toughest issues -- growth management, farm pollution, forest protection, a phosphate ban -- no one has carried the mail like Winegrad.

Several weeks ago, I spoke with Winegrad about his career, and the outlook for the bay:

Q. You can get re-elected easily, and you've grown from someone once labeled a zealot to being cited twice as one of the most effective members of the legislature. Why leave now?

A. It's not any one thing. There's been a nastiness to politics in recent years. The recession created a me-vs.-them mentality that struck at issues I've always worked for, from abused children to RTC the environment. The votes themselves weren't any harder -- I've been through abortion and survived [as a Catholic who voted pro-choice] -- but the ugliness was different.

It's taken so much fighting in the '90s just to stay in place, to keep environmental programs from being gutted. We've seen big hits in budgets for DNR [Department of Natural Resources], for MDE [Maryland Department of the Environment], for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education programs.

I don't think the public has retrenched at all. There are more demands than ever on behalf of the environment. Even business groups are more interested in having me speak to them, which is heartening. But I'd rate the last [1993] session about 1.5 on a scale of 10; and we need an 8 or a 9 most sessions to overcome the problems with the bay. The '91 and '92 sessions I'd rate maybe in minus numbers.

I only know one way to go, all out, and I spend a lot of time responding to requests for speaking and information. But it's gotten to where I never spend less than 25 hours a week on this job, and 60 to 80 hours during the [three-month] session. The pay is $27,000 a year, and my law practice has deteriorated.

So it all adds up. I've decided I can do other things to accomplish more for the environment with less wear and tear on my mind and body.

Q. If the public wants more for the environment, what is the legislature's problem?

A. I think the main problem has been a lack of leadership. The majority of legislators know the environmental problems are not going to go away, but anti-environment interests have used the recession as a wedge to block any significant progress.

The Clay Mitchells [former speaker of the House] and certain committee chairmen have used that wedge to put out edicts like, "If it has a big fiscal note, it's dead"; also, "We can't stand more regulations."

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