Welfare grandmother, 38, makes debut as lobbyist

February 17, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

It was the typical post-lunchtime frenzy in the lobby of the Senate Office Building, with legislators, lobbyists and the usual State House stalwarts milling around before another long afternoon of hearings.

There, getting off the elevator, was Bruce Bereano, the well-known and well-paid representative for the Tobacco Institute. Another high-profile lobbyist, Ira C. Cooke, schmoozed in the corner. Off to the side, Sandra Payton gave an impromptu television interview.

Sandra who? Payton, "like Walter Payton," she told those who asked. A 38-year-old grandmother from Baltimore, a veteran of job-training programs in two states' welfare systems, a hands-on welfare expert. She was in Annapolis on Tuesday to lobby against Gov. William Donald Schaefer's welfare-reform proposal, her first-ever appearance before a Senate committee.

"I'm a lobbyist," she said. "I'm everybody."

Today, Ms. Payton, who cast her first vote in the 1992 presidential election, returns to the State House for the Maryland Food Committee's 11th annual "Day in Annapolis." She will be among hundreds of Marylanders lobbying legislators on the nonprofit's agenda, which includes an alternative welfare proposal and several anti-hunger programs.

"I don't want nobody talking for me," she said Tuesday, her testimony tucked not into an expensive briefcase but a plastic shopping bag. "I want to talk for myself."

It is relatively rare for welfare recipients to testify in Annapolis. The Maryland Food Committee's Daphne Herling said one organizer trying to recruit East Baltimore women found that most believed their benefits would be cut.

Ms. Payton had no such fears. She is used to going up against the system and getting what she wants, although her history with welfare is fairly recent, dating to the mid-1980s in California.

She was born on the South Side of Chicago, and her mother always worked, Ms. Payton said. Married at 18, a mother of three before she was 21, she began having problems at home. "How can I say it?" she mused. "My husband started acting stupid."

So she left him and moved to California to stay with her sister. She went on welfare and into her first job-training program. "Program after program after program," she recalls. Finally, she found work as a nursing assistant, earning $10 an hour.

When she moved to Baltimore in 1989, the nursing jobs she found paid about half that. She tried other jobs -- word processing, data entry clerk -- only to be laid off. When her unemployment benefits ran out, she applied for welfare and enrolled in Sojourner-Douglass College.

Graduation is now just five months away. She hopes to become a prosecutor.

"I'm at both gates," she said. "I want to change . . . but I also want to change the system, in case I have to come back to it. I want to be treated like a human, not a number."

Ms. Herling, who taught Ms. Payton the legislative basics, said she quickly grasped the nuances of power in Annapolis. She understood that Tuesday's hearing was a lesser opportunity than a long meeting that morning, with Baltimore Sen. Larry Young.

"She knows power is organized money or organized people," Ms. Herling said. "It's not enough just to go down there, get in people's faces and be angry."

At 5:30 p.m., after waiting nearly five hours, Ms. Payton finally sat down at the table and faced the senators to testify.

"I'm Sandra Payton, and this," she said, indicating the three people to her right with a sweeping gesture, "is my panel."

She read her testimony. Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, thanked her and moved on. Ms. Payton was satisfied. "At least I know I tried," she said. "I'm going for all the gusto."

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