For a few moments yesterday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening left his cocoon of advisers and became Citizen Glendening, seated in a crowded House of Delegates hearing room, wedged between other supporters of gay rights legislation.
Glendening may have looked like just another person waiting to testify, fidgeting with his notes and conferring quietly with those around him, but there was nothing commonplace about his afternoon appearance before the House Judiciary Committee.
In his first-ever testimony before a General Assembly committee since becoming governor, Glendening saw the chance to send a strong signal that he wants to end legal discrimination against gays.
The decision to appear demonstrated the political currency he is investing to champion a bill that has failed to leave committee in six prior attempts.
"This was more than just me weighing in on some legislation," Glendening said afterward. "This was a chance for me to speak out with high visibility against something I care deeply about."
The bill that got the governor to leave the State House -- and cross Lawyer's Mall, where a statue pays tribute to Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first black Supreme Court Justice -- would add sexual orientation to anti-discrimination laws that already outlaw bias based on race, religion, age and gender.
After a short delay, the governor stepped forward to offer brief but deeply personal testimony.
It included recollections of the final visit he made to his brother Bruce -- a 19-year Air Force veteran and closeted homosexual who died of AIDS in a Florida hospital.
"I will never forget one of the last times I visited him, he was in great pain. You could not touch his skin without causing great pain," Glendening told the 22-member committee, and a rapt, over flow audience.
"As difficult as that was," the governor recalled, "he told me that it was more difficult to live 19 years of his life knowing that if anyone was aware of his sexual orientation, he would lose the job and the profession he loved so much."
Bruce Glendening, an airman who served three tours in Vietnam, died in 1993, five years after leaving the Air Force.
In talking of those last days, the governor went into far more detail than he has previously when discussing his brother's struggles.
For those in the gay community, it was welcome recognition that they occupy a place on Maryland's political radar screen.
"That fact that this was an unprecedented step for him speaks volumes," said Carolyn Watson, a supporter of the legislation who attended the hearing. "It's a real boost of morale that we've got the guy at the top fighting for us."
For opponents, it was seen as a moving tribute, but ultimately a distraction.
Several, including Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican and Judiciary Committee member, expressed disappointment that the governor dashed off after his testimony, not waiting for questions.
"It was nothing more than a political speech," O'Donnell said. "I don't think it will do anything to change the minds of people on either side of this issue."
While the bill's prospects in the Assembly remain uncertain, supporters believe it has a fighting chance this year.
They point to the notable presence of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. in the back of the hearing room yesterday, and to a private campaign in which Glendening has met or spoken with dozens of key legislators to try and win votes.
Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure, said the governor has given the bill "a real kick this year, and helped change the political climate to make voting for it more palatable."
Pub Date: 3/12/99