Unaccustomed to spotlight, Collins shines in a difficult role Baltimore Co. Democrat's performance wins praise

Senate Expels Young

January 17, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

In the end, it was an unlikely character who successfully defended the legislature's ethics committee report on Larry Young through an emotional, hours-long exchange on the floor of the Maryland Senate.

Not a lawyer, not one of the Senate's inside players, not one of its shining stars -- Sen. Michael J. Collins is an at-times prickly, 57-year-old retired high school history teacher from Essex who rarely, if ever, in his three terms has been called upon to lead the Senate through such a weighty matter.

Yet with near unanimity, those who witnessed the Maryland Senate's historic vote over whether to oust Young had high praise for the Baltimore County Democrat's performance in what was clearly one of the most difficult roles of his career.

When it was over, even those who had been on the other side of the expulsion vote were able to put aside differences in a decision many characterized as the most agonizing they had ever had to make.

In a moment of intense emotion just after the Senate adjourned, Collins embraced Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat whose explanation of his vote against the expulsion of Young was a dramatic high point of the day.

"He's the chairman of my standing committee and the man I most respect in this world, and he told me that he was talking directly to me, had me in mind during his speech," said Collins, choking back tears.

'Don't get called on very often'

Though his voice never wavered during the exchange on the floor, Collins' hands trembled a short time later as he sat quietly behind his desk in the Senate office building and fumbled absent-mindedly with his mail.

"You don't get called on very often to be the central figure in an event that is so historic," Collins said amid the Orioles posters and paraphernalia that adorn his office walls. "I haven't slept more than three hours since it became clear to me that this was going to be a major event in the history of Maryland."

It was a difficult position for any of the Senate's 47 members to be in -- that of leading the charge against another member -- but a particularly tough one for a senator unaccustomed to the spotlight.

Until yesterday, Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the co-chairman of the joint ethics committee, had been in the lead of the Young investigation. But his role had been largely behind closed doors or in the preparation of a written report with committee counsel.

When the time came to confront the accused publicly and defend the committee's charges on the Senate floor, the duty fell to Collins.

"I never dreamed this job would be this important or high profile," he said.

Collins seemed unflappable during the proceeding, occasionally holding the committee's 22-page report up in one hand, a microphone in the other.

"I think I articulated the positions and rationale of the committee very effectively and clearly," he said later in his office.

One sharp exchange

Only once yesterday did Collins display the sharp tongue for which he is known among his colleagues in Annapolis.

Young had just finished a long, roundabout explanation about a possible billing mistake by his company to Coppin State College. Collins invoked Shakespeare, retorting, "With all due respect, that was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing."

Young objected to Collins' tone, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller ruled the remark out of order. Collins apologized, saying, "I wasn't intending to insult you in any way. I just don't believe your comments were germane to the issue before us."

Largely blue-collar district

Collins represents the largely blue-collar 6th District, which encompasses much of eastern Baltimore County and a sliver of southern Harford County.

Born, reared and educated in Scranton, Pa., Collins moved to Baltimore County in 1962 to accept a job teaching history at Kenwood High School in Essex. He retired 30 years later.

He was appointed in 1978 to the House of Delegates, where he remained until the 1986 elections, when he ran for the Senate.

Last year, Collins found himself on the receiving end of questions about his ethics after a newspaper article appeared on his lobbyist-funded, private Monday night gatherings with other legislators at the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis.

No violation was alleged, but the situation was an embarrassment for the senator, who was defended strenuously by Miller.

"I've always tried to represent the citizens of the 6th District well," Collins said yesterday. "I've tried to do a good job, and I hope I did them proud today."

Pub Date: 1/17/98

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