Retiring teachers' union lobbyist receives ovation from Md. legislators

March 06, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

They will remember him at the General Assembly for his literary allusions and for the political scars he helped inflict.

V. Thomas Gray II, lobbyist for the Maryland State Teachers Association, retired last week amid the usual reminiscences and an unusual accolade.

His 17 years as the man from MSTA ended Monday night with a standing ovation and a Senate resolution. No one could recall when a practitioner of the persuasive arts had been similarly recognized.

"Never has the profession of teaching had so ferocious a defender," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat and a retired teacher.

Mr. Gray said concerns about health prompted him to leave his post. Hit with a lingering virus last fall, he found himself thinking more about the toll his job had taken on health and family.

"It was just time to leave," he said.

There have been changes at the top of the teachers union, and its new leadership reportedly wanted fresh representation in Annapolis.

Mr. Gray became famous for cementing his points -- in testimony at hearings or chatting outside committee rooms -- with just the right lines from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Will Rogers, Winston Churchill and many others.

But the 55-year-old Salisbury native with the Eastern Shore lilt in his voice could make a point in his own words.

The pension reform struggle of 1984 and the get-even elections of 1986 provide an example.

Teachers worked hard in 1986 to defeat Del. Paul Muldowney, a leader in the effort to overhaul the pension system. Teachers were bitter that the state had reneged on promises,and they held legislators, including Mr. Muldowney, responsible. Their money and their volunteers helped defeat him in the Democratic primary.

A few days later, Mr. Gray ran into Mr. Muldowney near the coffee maker in a committee room, greeting him with the nickname "Mul."

"It's Delegate Muldowney to you," the legislator said.

"Yes, delegate," Mr. Gray replied, "but perhaps not for long."

Mr. Muldowney tried to hang on with a write-in effort in the general election, but the teachers came down hard and he lost his seat.

Nevertheless, the former delegate had kind words for his adversary.

"He's a gentleman," Mr. Muldowney said. Mr. Gray was a union man, the former delegate said, but a professional who "could have been director of human resources for General Motors."

Mr. Gray acknowledges the drama and significance of 1984, when the House of Delegates at first deadlocked, voting 70-70, on the pension reform bill. In time, the power of the legislative leadership prevailed and the teachers lost a system that provided virtually unlimited cost-of-living increases.

Things were different in 1978, a year Mr. Gray remembers more fondly. It was his first as MSTA's chief lobbyist, and a similar pension reform measure was turned back.

"It was the only bill of any magnitude the governor [Blair Lee III] lost that year. We beat the administration on the floor of the House while Roy Staton [then a senator] stalled the bill on the Senate side."

Mr. Gray's wife gave him a set of gold cuff links. The bill number is engraved on one and the vote, 83-44, on the other.

If he has a regret, Mr. Gray said, it is leaving the teachers without autonomy to set professional standards.

His friends wonder how the teachers union could allow him to leave. It was not the union's decision, he said.

He did, though, quote Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare's Henry VIII: "Had I but served my God with half the zeal I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies."

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, he said he does not feel abandoned by God or king.

A bit melancholy though?

"You can't spend that much of your adult life without being sorry that it's over and grateful that it happened at all," he said.

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