Sobering Changes in the State Capital


April 16, 1995|By LIZ ATWOOD

You used to be able to find two kinds of people hanging around for last call in the Annapolis bars during the annual winterfest known as the state legislative session: reporters and politicians.

Now, all that is changing.

Reporters have started to call themselves "journalists." Forget what you saw in those old movies. They no longer sneak swigs from a bottle of booze hidden in the bottom desk drawer and chain-smoke cigarettes as they pound out the latest scoop. Instead, they sip bottled water, heat their Lean Cuisine lunches in the office microwave and drink gourmet coffee shipped in from Starbucks.

While reporters have been turning into journalists, the politicians have been changing, too. They've started to call themselves "public servants." Drinking and philandering have nearly gone the way of the polyester suit. The buzz words are family values, ethics, accountability.

As a result, the General Assembly session isn't the 90-day party it used to be. Many of the good ol' boys have been replaced by a new breed of lawmaker who likes to work hard and then go home to spend time with the family.

For the state capital's restaurant and bar trade, that's a bummer.

"It's not a party scene like it used to be," says Rusty Romo, a manager of Harry Browne's Restaurant on State Circle. He has been a manager there for 15 years and has seen the politicians in recent years counting calories and drinking moderately. "The bar activity is way down," he says.

Instead of meeting colleagues for drinks in the evenings, some lawmakers instead are getting together to go jogging, for Pete's sake. And a number of them are simply going home at day's end rather than staying overnight.

Ken Motiram, a manager at the landmark Chick & Ruth's Delly on Main Street, has also noticed that the legislators aren't getting out as much as they used to. Bills used to be debated in the restaurant's spartan booths over BLT sandwiches. Now Mr. Motiram says the lawmakers are asking for carry-out lunches and party trays which they can take back to their offices so that they can work through lunch.

When they do go out, they are eating more healthy foods. At Fran O'Brien's Steak and Seafood House, the steaks aren't as popular. Instead of prime rib, today's legislators tend to go for a mushroom salad washed down with a non-alcoholic drink, owner Jerry Hardesty says. The restaurant has changed its menu to offer more salads and light fare to accommodate the new tastes.

Riordan's Saloon used to serve large dinner parties of legislators, who dined with lobbyists or constituents. Now, manager Tom Frankowski says he sees legislators dining with their husbands and wives over light meals before heading home.

These changing tastes reflect the demographic changes in the legislature, now composed of more women and young people. Some are excruciatingly earnest. Take James Rzepkowski, a 23-year-old insurance salesman from Pasadena who was so honest he reimbursed Bruce Bereano for $12.60 to pay for a plastic name tag from the lobbyist.

The attitudes of these new lawmakers affect not only Annapolis' eating establishments, but the kind of legislation they pass as well. Their new health consciousness is reflected in the statewide smoking ban, the new law requiring children on bicycles to wear helmets and the new crackdown on drunken driving.

The vote to increase the speed limit on certain highways to 65 mph might seem to fly in the face of their new health and safety campaign, but on second look it fits the lifestyles of these new lawmakers, increasingly creatures of the suburbs. They commute and want to get where they're going faster, and that includes home from Annapolis.

And if technology can speed them on the information highway, they're all for it. Look at Gov. Parris N. Glendening's plan to wire the state capital so that citizens can order government services via computer.

Overall, the changes in the legislature are good. Although the restaurant and bar owners may regret the loss of business, I rather like the idea that these men and women take elective office seriously and aren't simply going to Annapolis to party.

Still, a part of me hates to see the times change. There was something romantic about the unkempt newshound in the trench coat cajoling the heavy-set politician with the fat cigar for the latest hot tip. And you so have to wonder where all this new emphasis on health, family and ethics will end up. I've heard some folks in the wake of the cigarette ban say they are afraid lawmakers will next try to outlaw steaks and butter. I'm not that paranoid, but you can bet there will be more changes.

Maybe they will pass laws creating mandatory jogging lanes on the roadways. Perhaps they will require government buildings to be outfitted with coolers of spring water. Maybe they will decree that the General Assembly will convene via the Internet so that the public servants can stay home with their families, eat healthy foods and avoid journalists.

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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