Senator Della is all over the map Character: He doesn't always win, but the flamboyant Democrat works to make a difference in the political 'war of words down here.'

The Political Game

March 25, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

THE ENIGMATIC Sen. George Washington Della Jr. was at it again last week.

The unpredictable Democrat from South Baltimore seemed all over the map on a variety of issues.

"He has a way of looking at things a little differently than everybody else," said one lobbyist by way of an explanation.

Early in the week, in his politically incorrect mode, Della argued on the floor against bills favored by good-government types.

One of the proposals would take Baltimore liquor inspectors out of the patronage system -- appointees of city senators like Della -- and make them civil service employees instead. That, Della said, would be bad public policy because the city's civil service protections would make it more difficult to fire the bad apples.

"Why would you want to lock them in?" he asked. "My advice is if there are bad people there, get rid of them."

He also argued that computerizing campaign finance records -- another proposal being pushed by reformers -- would be downright un-American. "You would have to have a computer to file for public office" under that legislation, Della said.

"I mean, what would Melvin Perkins do?" he asked, referring to the late eccentric and perennial office-seeker.

Yet on Friday, he was out front on a cause championed by environmentalists, pushing a bill that would have required companies to expand the list of toxic substances stored on site that have to be disclosed. The bill, for which Della was the lead sponsor, died on the floor.

Harder to figure out was his attempt to amend hard-fought legislation that would ban construction of incinerators within a mile of a school -- a bill aimed at ensuring that Willard J. Hackerman's Pulaski Incinerator in East Baltimore would not operate again.

Some believed Della's amendment attempt was really an effort to kill the bill, which had already wound its way through the House of Delegates and was up for final passage.

But Della said he sought the amendment to make sure that a facility in his district -- Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. -- could not expand.

As he rose to speak on the floor, Della said, "I've been to the woodshed once today. Don't take me there again."

His plea fell on deaf ears. "Bend over," came the response from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller at the podium.

Della took it like a man as his amendment went down in flames.

"If you sit by and don't say anything, they think they can get away with anything," Della said later.

Earlier this year, Della took flak over legislation he sponsored last year that allowed the city to grant a tax break to the HarborView luxury condominium complex -- a 27-story tower on the edge of Federal Hill that he railed against in years past.

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke tried a similar tax break for HarborView three years ago, Della laid into him. "The crime rate's up in Baltimore City -- they're trying to perpetrate a holdup without the use of a gun," he said at the time.

But this year, Della said he had a change of heart because he feared the developers might pull out of the prominent project.

Della, 53, is a former Baltimore City Councilman whose father, the late George W. Della Sr., presided over the Maryland Senate for years.

The younger Della was a careful student of the late senator from what is now the 47th District, Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, whose demeanor and legislative prowess earned him the nickname of "Soft Shoes." And he is a loyal son of South Baltimore's Stonewall Democratic Club, at times a seeming throwback to the days of machine politics.

He is a character, one who seems always to be invoking the names of constituents and friends such as Bucky, Howdy and Bunny in making his case.

"I can usually get my point across, sometimes using a little flamboyance," Della said of his own performances.

He explained that his positions could seem all over the lot because, on a case-by-case basis, he's often trying to resolve problems that constituents have brought to his attention.

"Some of it is to get a reaction out of the bureaucracy," Della explained.

But, at other times, he said, "I sit there in Senate Finance and hear something that sparks me to pick up the phone and call Bill-Drafting.

"It's a war of words down here, how it affects people and their day-to-day lives," he said. "Through brackets and punctuation marks, I can make a great difference."

Lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, long an observer of aberrant legislative behavior, summed up Della this way: "You can put George in no specific category. He's truly a man for all seasons.

"You gotta love him," Evans said.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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