THE MARYLAND Legislative Black Caucus may have arrived as a force to be reckoned with.
After a history of questionable effectiveness in the past, the caucus last weekend held a successful issue-oriented summit, put out a call for unity and vowed to vote as a bloc in matters legislative.
But most important, the 36-member group raised a bunch of money after hitting up some of the state's most successful power brokers and lobbyists for support.
The two-day conference brought more than 500 people to Annapolis to discuss issues and map strategies for dealing with affirmative action, health care -- including AIDS and substance abuse -- economic development and education.
"This sets in place a process for dealing with problems and issues that are germane to the African-American community, but important to all people," said
Del. Joanne C. Benson, the Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the caucus. "The time is right that we should have this."
The caucus is becoming an important political entity, in its 25th year. Members of the group are more focused and operating less often as free agents. A growing number of the caucus' 36 legislators -- eight state senators and 28 delegates -- are in key leadership positions.
And significantly, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to make state government more diverse by including more women, blacks and other minorities.
Part of Mr. Glendening's call for diversity, of course, stems from his need to protect his base in Baltimore City and Prince George's County -- two of only three of the state's 24 jurisdictions he carried in last year's election, and both with majority-black populations.
But the importance is not lost on the caucus.
"The most crucial factor is that people are beginning to clearly understand that members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus played a key role in the election of the new governor," Ms. Benson said.
"Not only are we working in Annapolis, as advocates for African-Americans and legislators, but we have enough respect in the community to convince people to vote for certain candidates," she said.
And that, for leaders of 25 percent of the state's population, is true political power.
Credit for the first Legislative Black Caucus Weekend goes to Del. Salima Siler Marriott, the Baltimore Democrat who came up with the idea. She modeled it on efforts by the Congressional Black Caucus.
The concept -- and the effort -- certainly paid off. More than 300 people showed up at the summit's highlight, a gala dinner Friday night that was the centerpiece schmooze event of the two days. Among those companies or groups buying tickets for tables of 10 at $2,500 were:
* The Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico and Laurel race courses, and its lobbyist-lawyers Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver.
* The lobbying law firm of Dukes, Evans, Rozner & Steirhoff.
* H&S Bakery Inc., the company owned by John Paterakis, the political financier.
* Youth Services International Inc., the juvenile justice administrators represented by lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.
* Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland and its suburban Washington counterpart.
* MAXIMA Corp., the Prince George's County-based computer firm.
* And Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"When people observe that you're very much organized and doing your homework and speaking with one voice almost all the time, it brings the kinds of results that we saw Friday night," Ms. Benson said.
Two top legislators absent from football announcement
The speaker of the House of Delegates and the president of the Maryland Senate were conspicuously absent from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gala announcement last week about Baltimore's new football team.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. was at his home in Cumberland, fuming.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. was at his Clinton law office, keeping appointments previously made.
Both men said they were not invited by Mr. Glendening to Monday's 12:30 p.m. news conference until about 10 that morning.
For Mr. Taylor, it was too late to drive to Baltimore.
For Mr. Miller, it was too late to rearrange his schedule.
Gubernatorial spokesman Raymond C. Feldmann said the speaker and president could not be notified before then because of a confidentiality clause in the contract with Cleveland Browns' owner Art Modell not to disclose the deal earlier.
The governor "wanted them to be the first to know," Mr. Feldmann said. "He wanted them to be there."