Exercise put on the agenda Health: More state legislators and lobbyists are exercising, trying to combat the high-calorie environment of the General Assembly.

March 20, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Darkness has long fallen by the time the cheerful legislators and lobbyists finish celebrating the birthday of a colleague and leave the Maryland Inn. But for Del. James W. Campbell, it's still early enough to get his fix.

One more round on the Stairmaster.

In a place that always had a reputation for overindulgence -- expense account dinners, receptions laden with rich finger foods and free liquor, late-night cigars and cognac -- a man such as Campbell once stuck out like a teetotaler at a fraternity party.

Nowadays, however, more of the men and women who make up Maryland's part-time legislature have a lot in common with Campbell. The Baltimore Democrat drinks his cranberry juice without vodka and hits the Stairmaster twice a day.

"It's not as limited a group anymore," says Del. John Adams Hurson, the House majority leader and a long-distance runner who logs as much as eight miles several times a week. "There's definitely been a change. With the last election, we got in more young people who run or exercise."

The General Assembly still has the gossipy, close-knit familiarity of a small college during its 90-day session. Most of the 188 delegates and senators move into a handful of hotels in Annapolis.

They see each other constantly, not just in formal rooms at the State House, but on the street, at the breakfast buffet or on midnight snack forays.

Plenty of lawmakers keep going on cheese crackers and coffee. Plenty also relax in Annapolis' bars after the often-numbing daily routine of phone calls, hearings, meetings and voting sessions.

Sen. Robert R. Neall is known to breakfast occasionally on a hot dog with mustard. The Anne Arundel Republican -- who has a reputation not just for budget dexterity but for the ability to tie a cherry stem from a drink in a knot with his tongue -- shrinks back in mock horror at the thought of becoming health-conscious.

"I'd lose my edge," he quips.

But legislators' tradition of being wined and dined in Annapolis' finest restaurants has faded. Ethics reforms in 1995 curtailed the practice by requiring that lobbyists disclose the names of those who accept their hospitality.

Moreover, in a legislature that is younger and includes more women, a growing number of Neall's colleagues worry they'll gain the notorious "session 10" pounds. Increasingly, they're sipping bottled water and eating a salad for lunch.

Del. James M. Harkins, a Harford County Republican, wants to avoid the 15 pounds he put on as a freshman delegate in 1991. This year, he's riding a stationary bike. "If you sit around down here," he says, "you become a lump."

Basketball games

Men's voices erupt in shouts, laughter. Baltimore Dels. Talmadge Branch and Nathaniel T. Oaks jostle each other, their sneakers scraping the floor.

It's the Wednesday night basketball game at St. Mary's High School in Annapolis. Once a week, a group of delegates, lobbyists and a few guys from the State House bill room spend a couple of hours playing a few good-natured but hard-fought games.

"I'm always a significant factor," crows Howard County Del. Frank S. Turner as the ball arcs through the net with a soft swish.

Status, party affiliation, even age don't matter. On this night, all the delegates happen to be Democrats, but while Oaks is 51 and Turner 50, Del. Clay C. Opara of Baltimore is 33. On the court, they're not elected officials. They're just guys sizing each other up, trying to make the shot.

"During the week, we disagree with each other on different bills," Branch says, "but when we get here, it's just relaxing, laughing, joking. We challenge one another about what we're going to do on the court. We tell a few jokes. Guy stuff."

Two weeks earlier, while this group played ball, several senators, including Neall and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, happened to be kicking back nearby -- at O'Brien's Oyster Bar.

The Main Street pub has long been a favorite of legislators. But few still while away their nights at the dark, wooden bar the way they did in the 1970s, when lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters heartily caroused there.

"There was a lot of drinking then," recalls Laurence Levitan, a former Montgomery senator who returned to the State House as a lobbyist. "Then there was the 'born-again' era, when people stopped drinking but still got together at Fran O'Brien's. Today, there is almost none of that. I don't think the legislature knows each other as well."

Levitan is not alone in lamenting the diminished night life. Neither is he the only old-timer to suggest legislators don't share as close a camaraderie as those in the past.

Counting calories

But the sweats set finds that in the gym.

Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat who lifts weights religiously, has struck up a friendship with Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset Republican who has hired a personal trainer at a health club. The two men kid each other about how many calories they have to burn off from the meals or receptions of the previous day.

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