Acerbic Howard Denis Now Toils Quietly

July 08, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The 1994 Maryland governor's election marked the end of a sound-bite era.

For 18 years, state Sen. Howard A. Denis was one of the most acerbic of State House observers. The microphones and reporters vanished, though, once Ellen R. Sauerbrey trounced Helen Delich Bentley and her running mate, Mr. Denis, in the Republican primary.

Mr. Denis quietly left the General Assembly, but he didn't leave government. He landed a $70,000-a-year job as counsel to the subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia's tangled governmental affairs. Mr. Denis, 56, says he's thrilled with the work. Yet for the first time in two decades, he finds himself without an audience.

A moderate-to-liberal Republican in a Democratic-run General Assembly, Mr. Denis was counted on by Democratic leaders to pass much legislation -- to protect abortion rights, for example, or strengthen gun control. Mr. Denis, a strong advocate of open government, can also claim credit for the fact that proceedings in the state Senate and its committees are now tape-recorded.

He also helped eliminate Maryland's anachronistic film-censorship board, the last of its kind in the nation when it was abolished in 1981.

But his most important legacy was the pungent observations he sprinkled around the State House. To the delight of quote-hungry reporters, "Howie," the Montgomery Countian with the Brooklyn accent, could be counted on to encapsulate the day's events.

He once called Harry R. Hughes "the incredible shrinking governor" and declared that one of his State of the State addresses was "as profound as a fortune cookie."

During a filibuster over a school-prayer bill he helped defeat, Mr. Denis referred to God as "the big precinct chairman in the sky."

The latest Democratic governor, Parris N. Glendening, who has occasionally stumbled in his first five months in office, would make an inviting target for Mr. Denis' wit. But Mr. Denis says he has no desire to join the Republican roasting of Mr. Glendening.

After all, he went toe-to-toe with the politically ferocious William Donald Schaefer, at the height of Mr. Schaefer's power, over the Baltimore stadium legislation.

"Been there, done that, got the T-shirt," Mr. Denis says.

After two decades in the General Assembly, Mr. Denis agreed last spring to run with Mrs. Bentley, then a member of Congress and the presumed Republican favorite.

While the polls looked good, Mr. Denis realized early on, perhaps a month before the September primary, that they would lose. Mrs. Bentley was employing a passive front-runner's strategy, while Mrs. Sauerbrey was aggressively on the move.

"One day I woke up and said, 'This is not going to work,' " he recalls. "It was just an accumulation of a lot of little things."

He chucked that day's campaign schedule and bolted.

Mr. Denis thought about flying to New York to visit the Brighton Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up. Instead, he drove to one of his favorite places, the rocks overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"Nobody knew where I was," he says. "I literally went AWOL. I came back to all these frantic messages." The getaway left him fatalistic: Whatever happened was out of his control. He remained publicly cheerful. His premonition, of course, proved accurate, and Mrs. Sauerbrey won handily.

"If I had known that Republicans would control Congress and I would end up here, I would have been relieved," Mr. Denis says.

For the past six months, Mr. Denis has been in the thick of a frenzied congressional effort to pull the nation's capital out of its fiscal free fall.

Working long hours, Mr. Denis and other staffers helped a few key members of Congress draft a bill to establish an oversight board to manage Washington's finances. The legislation passed 10 days, and Mr. Denis was at the White House when President Clinton signed it into law in April.

While many around Capitol Hill regard oversight of the District of Columbia as a chore to be avoided, Mr. Denis delights in the city's unusual history.

"It's sort of a miracle that this was able to pass," he says, staring down at a bulging file drawer of D.C.-related documents he has accumulated over the past few months. "It's so complicated and so important."

During his time in the state Senate, Mr. Denis became accustomed to being on the outside, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. But with the GOP running Congress, Mr. Denis is suddenly helping to fashion legislation, not just carp at it.

"You really set the agenda, so it's very exciting," he says.

Being in the majority doesn't necessarily carry a wealth of perks, Mr. Denis has discovered. He shares with three other staffers a small office that overlooks a parking lot. He snared his well-used vinyl chair out of the hallway in the first days of the new Congress in January.

"It was an early requisition," he says with a boyish grin.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.