Point man on 2 critical issues Guns holds key House position chairing environmental panel

March 29, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Del. Ron Guns is not the best-educated legislator in Annapolis. He dropped out of college and spent years climbing telephone poles for a living.

Neither is he among the best known. In a capital city filled with publicity-hungry politicians, Guns is wary of reporters and prefers to stick to his work as chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

But this year, the burly former lineman from Elkton is clearly one of the most important players in the State House.

The 49-year-old Cecil County Democrat is in the thick of the action on two of the most complicated and politically sensitive issues of the 1998 General Assembly session -- Pfiesteria and children's health insurance.

So far, Guns' handling of the issues has won admiring reviews from opponents and supporters. With a deft touch, he has helped shape more conservative alternatives to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislation on the two issues and shepherded them to House passage.

This week, he is expected to lead the House side into negotiations with the Senate on both bills -- among the top items on Glendening's agenda this year.

The children's health bill is not expected to be a problem, because the governor has said he can live with the House legislation establishing the program.

But Guns' Pfiesteria bill is different from Glendening's legislation, which passed the Senate largely intact. Both Pfiesteria bills seek to address the problem of nutrient pollution from agriculture, but Guns' legislation takes a much more lenient approach with farmers.

At first glance, Guns' prominent role on a politically crucial issue does not bode well for Glendening. Philosophically, the Vietnam veteran from Elkton is a very different breed of Democrat -- anti-gun control, anti-abortion and deeply suspicious of government encroachment. In recent years, he has squelched some of Glendening's most cherished initiatives, including last year's Thriving By Three children's health program.

One liberal Democratic colleague, Del. Leon G. Billings of Montgomery County, has described Guns as the most conservative Democrat in the House from the most conservative district in Maryland.

'Tax and spend'

That might be an exaggeration -- but only slightly. All the counties of the sprawling, rural 36th District -- Kent, Queen Anne's and parts of Cecil, Talbot and Caroline -- voted heavily for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in the 1994 gubernatorial election.

Guns said that while some of his colleagues in Annapolis consider him an arch-conservative, the perspective is different in Elkton. "My local newspaper says I'm a tax-and-spend Democrat," he said.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a strong environmentalist who is expected to lead Senate conferees on the Pfiesteria bill, said Guns is a tough and skillful negotiator.

"If it's a process of give and take, he gets at least his share of take," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Frosh said that over the course of many negotiations -- some successful, some not -- he and Guns have forged a cooperative relationship and an understanding of each other's concerns.

"He's very cautious," Frosh said. "He is a classic conservative. He does not want to do something new unless you can convince him 100 percent it's a good idea."

Guns said that description is on target. "It's better to slow it down and have it right than to pass a bill and spend the summer listening to how bad it was," he said.

Guns' experience in the Signal Corps in Vietnam had a lot to do with his decision to run for the House in 1982. "I came out with a mistrust in government and figured there's no use sitting back and complaining about it," he said.

'Grow into the job'

Clayton A. Mitchell, the former House speaker, said he chose Guns to lead the Environmental Matters Committee in 1991 because he wanted a chairman who "knew the problems of the average man." Guns has since moved into an office job with Bell Atlantic, but at the time he was very much a blue-collar delegate.

Mitchell, now chief lobbyist for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said Guns struggled in his early years as chairman. But since then, the former speaker said, his former 36th District running mate has made himself into one of the Assembly's most effective committee chairmen.

"A lot of evenings he's there in the office till 8 or 9 at night with the staff, studying and boning up," Mitchell said. "I thought he could grow into the job, and I was right."

Now, when Guns is called upon to defend his committee's bills in the House chamber, he does so with the confidence of a student who knows he can ace the test. Seldom does he lose a bill on the floor.

On one particularly frustrating night this session, Guns said there are times when he misses the relatively simple task of representing the folks back home as a back-bench delegate. He said his statewide responsibilities as committee chairman often require him to take positions that are controversial in his district.

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