Freshman state legislator returns to civilian life

April 15, 1995|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

By noon Tuesday, Don Murphy already was depressed.

The night before he had watched confetti rain down in the House of Delegates as the clock struck midnight to end his first session as a Maryland legislator. He had spent the previous 90 days grappling with tough issues like drunken driving and death penalty reform and making new friends with fellow state legislators. Although just a freshman, he probably received more attention during that period than any other in his life.

But his mood was melancholy Tuesday as he walked through the quiet, empty halls of the House office building.

"This is kind of sad," he said, sounding like a boy at the beach the morning after Labor Day. "Nothing beats walking up those [State House] steps and into that crowd of people and you have the most important job to be done as far as the state is concerned."

Like each of Maryland's 188 citizen legislators, Delegate Murphy is slowly returning to civilian life. No longer a lawmaker deliberating weighty issues in the state capital, the 34-year-old Republican has spent the week reacclimating to his role as a husband and father in Catonsville, where lots of yard work awaits.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who has great influence over government purse strings as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the annual transition and culture shock is even more profound for those in leadership positions.

"People spend a lot of time massaging your ego or making you think you're the second coming sometimes," Mr. Rawlings said. "After it's all over, these people don't need you anymore."

Mr. Murphy already has had a taste of anonymity outside the House of Delegates, a self-congratulatory body where even a visit by a lawmaker's grandmother sparks a standing ovation.

Last weekend, he went to an event at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department. When he was introduced to draw chances in a raffle, "nobody was paying attention," Mr. Murphy recalled. "Nobody at my table even clapped."

If nothing else, the end of the 1995 legislative session has given Mr. Murphy time to reflect on his first three months in political office. This week he talked about some of the things he learned, as well as the role Republicans are playing in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

He is particularly proud that Republicans forced a vote on a personal income tax cut this year. Democrats easily defeated the measure in a party-line vote, arguing it was fiscally irresponsible with reductions in federal aid looming. But Mr. Murphy thinks that by keeping the pressure on, the GOP may hold Democrats to their promise to press for a tax cut in 1996.

While some GOP actions made Mr. Murphy proud, others disappointed him. During last year's campaign, many Republicans pledged to vote against so-called "pork barrel" spending for local projects. But when it came time to actually vote on projects like a floating theater on the Chesapeake Bay or a baseball museum for Salisbury, many supported them in exchange for help on projects that would benefit their own districts.

"A lot of Republicans who said they would put a fork in the pork were voting [yes] on the floating theater and the Baseball Hall of Fame," Mr. Murphy said. "I had these grand ideas that we were going to put an end to this."

Although Republicans picked up 16 seats in the House during last year's election, Mr. Murphy has no illusions about their power there. Democrats still hold 100 of 141 seats, control all the committees and can kill bills at will.

As a new legislator, he has also learned that his vote is equal to all others in theory only. During freshman orientation, Democratic House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. showed the new delegates how to use the voting machine on the House floor. Mr. Taylor said that if delegates wanted to know which way to vote, they needed only to look at his light on the tote board.

"It's a Democratic institution from the top down," Mr. Murphy said. "I know there's a little back room, and they decide what bills they want and what bills they don't want. I'm just a cog in the wheel."

While Mr. Murphy criticized the General Assembly in the past, particularly as a candidate, he seems more circumspect now. When he ran for office last year, it was as an outsider against a 16-year incumbent he portrayed as out of touch with constituents.

At community meetings these days, Mr. Murphy tries to emphasize the General Assembly's accomplishments, including the helpful bills it passes. He said he fears that if he focuses on the legislature's problems, he'll be perceived as one himself, if only by association.

"That's one reason not to beat on the place," the delegate said. "I'm now one of them."

With the session over, many legislators are returning to their regular jobs. Mr. Murphy, though, is not among them.

He left his position renting office space in Baltimore County last year during the campaign and now is looking for something else to supplement his $28,000-a-year salary as a delegate. His wife, Gloria, who has largely run their household for the past year, said she can't wait.

Mr. Murphy, who last updated his resume in 1987, thinks he may try to return to real estate leasing, but isn't sure. "I'm not thrilled about it," he said. "Maybe I'm not thrilled about anything right now."

But his spirits seem to rise when the conversation turns to the future and the 1996 General Assembly. Large-scale casino gambling, which Mr. Murphy opposes, is expected to be one of the big issues in Annapolis next session, and he can't wait to take it on.

Gesturing with his hands, he discusses building a coalition of Republicans and other legislators from counties with charitable gambling operations to block casino interests.

"I am very much looking forward to getting ready for next year," he said.

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