Clinton carries his 'crusade' to receptive Md. legislators Welfare, education pitch to Assembly is first by president

February 11, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron and Carl M. Cannon | Thomas W. Waldron and Carl M. Cannon,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael Dresser, William F. Zorzi Jr. and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

In an address to a sometimes exuberant joint session of the Maryland General Assembly -- the first ever by a sitting president -- President Clinton began trying yesterday to sell the education and welfare reform proposals at the heart of his second-term domestic agenda.

Amid warm applause, Clinton made his case for national test standards for fourth- and eighth-graders, increased school spending and continued welfare reform.

"Education and welfare reform are about bringing all Americans to the starting line of the economy, then making sure all of them are ready to run the race," Clinton told state lawmakers. "Our number one priority must be to ensure that America has the best education in the world."

While the trip was mainly about building support for his policies, Clinton took time to buy books and Valentine's Day presents at shops near the State House and to have a bowl of seafood chowder with Gov. Parris N. Glendening at a local tavern. The president turned down a bartender's suggestion for an early-afternoon bourbon, noting that he still had work to do.

His four-hour stay in Annapolis had some of the feel of a campaign event, with Clinton pushing not for re-election but for some lasting policy achievements.

The State House speech was part of a self-styled "crusade" to traverse the country to champion the themes he outlined in his inauguration, the policies he promoted in last week's State of the Union address and the spending blueprint contained in his budget.

In his 55-minute speech in the ornate House of Delegates chamber, the president proposed no new initiatives, but reviewed his 10-point plan for education and his ideas about completing the job of welfare reform.

New emphasis

However, the emphasis he placed on promoting standardized nationwide tests for school children was new. It was the issue he spoke about the longest -- and he spoke about it with considerable passion.

"Let me say the most important thing we can do in education is to hold our students to high standards," Clinton told the senators and delegates and dozens of invited guests. "Children will grow according to the expectations we have of them."

The president scoffed at conservative critics who have expressed concern about an intrusion by Washington into an area that has generally been controlled by state and local jurisdictions.

"Already, in the last week I have heard some people saying, 'Sounds like a federal power grab to me.' That's nonsense!" Clinton said. "We will not attempt to require them."

In his welcoming remarks, Glendening noted that his agenda resembles Clinton's. Both men are pushing new scholarship programs, health coverage for uninsured working families and welfare changes to require the government to provide some benefits to legal immigrants.

"We cannot turn our backs on people who came to this country legally to look for the American dream," Glendening said. "We applaud your courage."

Thanks for state

Clinton returned the praise to Glendening and the legislature for having already taken action on several issues he highlighted, including the state's testing of students to measure educational progress.

"I want to thank the state of Maryland for taking the lead in doing so many of the right things," Clinton said.

The president received a warm two-minute ovation from legislators and guests when he arrived in the jammed House chamber. It was friendly territory for Clinton, who carried Maryland by large margins in his presidential runs in 1992 and last year.

Legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, reveled in the history that was clearly being made in the State House.

"President Clinton is my president, too," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Delegates and usually a staunch critic of Democratic officials. "He really is incredible a charming guy," Flanagan said after the speech.

Del. Gilbert J. Genn literally skipped out of the House lounge after meeting Clinton. He was thrilled that the president was able to discuss a mutual friend during a brief exchange on the receiving line.

"These are moments that stay with you for a lifetime," said Genn, a Montgomery County Democrat.

But seemingly the most moved by Clinton's appearance was Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime Clinton ally, whose eyes teared up during his welcoming remarks.

"You were a friend then [in 1992] and you will always be a friend," Miller told Clinton. Miller said his emotions caught up with him as he thought about the phone call the president made to his mother, Esther, before she died last year.

Many legislators brought cameras and some, such as Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, got Clinton's autograph. Dembrow had him sign a copy of the biography of Thomas Jefferson by Fawn M. Brodie.

"He said that's a great book," said Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat.

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