Monday is citizen-lobbyist night in Assembly For two hours, power belongs to the people

March 03, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It's 6 on a Monday evening while the Maryland General Assembly is in session. The Great Annapolis Hall Crawl is about to begin.

Like salmon returning to their native streams, legislators make their way back to Annapolis after a long weekend away from the infighting and intrigue. At 8 p.m., ear-splitting bells will ring the last of several alarms, summoning senators and delegates into Monday night session.

But until then, the halls of power belong to the people. For two hours each week, the professional arm-twisters who work the corridors by day give way to a colorful contingent of citizen-lobbyists promoting causes dear to their hearts.

Some set up appointments with their own representatives, but most simply roam the halls of the House and Senate office buildings, talking with any legislator who will listen.

One Monday could bring out bikers in T-shirts and black leather jackets, pleading for the freedom to ride the highways without helmets. The next could bring state troopers in full uniform, showing the flag for a pay increase. Another could bring environmentalists, with colorful stickers plastered on their natural-fiber garments.

"It's citizen night, not amateur night," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director for Clean Water Action, one recent Monday.

Monday has long been known as "rally night" in Annapolis, and that hasn't changed. The same evening that Schmidt-Perkins brought 200 volunteers to lobby for "green" causes, hundreds of angry citizens gathered in Lawyers Mall outside the State House to protest plans to require an advanced -- and in their view more intrusive -- vehicle emissions test called the dynamometer.

"Anybody who votes for this, let them know in 1998 they're history!" shouted a Baltimore radio talk show host. The crowd responded with shouts of: "No dyno! No dyno!"

But veteran legislators say much of the action appears to have shifted away from the mall and into the office buildings, away from threats and toward persuasion.

Schmidt-Perkins, who was on the opposite side of the issue from the rally-goers, said face-to-face persuasion is more effective than loud demonstrations.

"The legislators come down the stairs and see the crowd in Lawyers Mall and guess what, they take the tunnels," she said, referring to the underground passageways between the State House and other legislative buildings.

"We taught people where the tunnels are. So we have people in the tunnels."

Making the rounds

One recent Monday night brought together state employees, dental hygienists and abortion rights advocates in the foyer of the Lowe House Office Building.

Jane Phillips, a dental hygienist from Easton, showed up in her work uniform, figuring it would make more of an impression.

Along with a dozen of her colleagues in the 2,600-member Maryland Dental Hygienist Association, she was making the rounds of legislators' offices, dropping off gift bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste samples and information about a bill that would impose stiffer certification requirements for hygienists. Phillips supports it.

She said she's been paying Monday night visits to legislators since 1988 and has noticed a gradual change. "Over time, the General Assembly is becoming a little more friendly to the public," she said.

Around the corner, Susan Esty of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was coaching about 15 state workers on proper lobbying techniques.

"Let them know you're from AFSCME," she said. "Start with the fourth floor and work your way down."

'The vote really speaks'

The hall-crawlers of Annapolis are refreshingly free of the political cynicism that grips so many of their fellow citizens.

"It's that group of us who really believe that the law works -- that the vote really speaks for the people," said Joan Foster of Montgomery County, who has been going to Annapolis since 1981 to lobby for abortion rights.

For the most part, people on the receiving end of lobbying say they enjoy hearing from constituents rather than highly paid lobbyists.

"Maybe I'm kind of old-fashioned," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "I get excited when I see democracy at work."

Rawlings, a veteran Baltimore Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said he particularly enjoys seeing his fellow African-Americans lobbying. "Ten years ago, you would see very few women or African-Americans down here," he said.

Moral issues

Del. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he always looks forward to the annual visit from members of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

"It's one of the few times during the session when you're forced to engage the basic moral issues that you deal with in the legislature," he said.

Rosapepe said he and three colleagues met recently with 15 to 20 constituents from the group when the discussion turned to the question of physician-assisted suicide. He said the legislators and their visitors discussed their experiences with the deaths of loved ones and talked about the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic teachings on the issue.

"That's about the highest-class lobbying you get down here," Rosapepe said.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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