Rapid initiation of a new delegate

Freshman: In a short 90 days, newcomer Lisa A. Gladden is transformed from novice to well-regarded. But the road is not without bumps

A Freshman Learns The Ropes

April 05, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It is the 71st day of the Maryland General Assembly's 90-day session when first-year legislator Lisa A. Gladden summons her courage, reaches for her microphone and for the first time rises to join in the debate in the House of Delegates.

The topic is a ban on assisted suicide -- a bill the 34-year-old Baltimore delegate had passionately but unsuccessfully fought in committee. Gladden presses the button on her desk, seeking the attention of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. He recognizes another delegate.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a fourth-term legislator and her unofficial mentor, immediately kneels beside Gladden's desk. Don't do it, he tells her, you'll be breaking the unwritten code: Good legislators don't speak against their own committee's bills on the floor.

A chastened Gladden settles back in her seat, not sure if she has just wimped out. But the undelivered speech is one more chapter in the education of a freshman legislator.

Months ago, before the legislative session began, Gladden agreed to let The Sun document her crash course in how Annapolis works -- her journey toward finding a niche in the General Assembly.

Unlike some of her freshman classmates, Gladden has never held office before. She is not a former legislative staffer. Though she has lived most of her life in Baltimore, she has been to Annapolis only a handful of times.

She is, truly, one of the people -- a single woman with a full-time job as a public defender, two dogs and a mother who worries about her being on her own in a strange city. She bowls like a champ, volunteers in the schools and sings in her church choir.

Gladden ran for office out of a sense of duty, instilled by her parents and inspired by her studies of Reconstruction-era black politics. But her election is still a wonder to her because she has always seen herself as a behind-the-scenes worker.

She has known she would be going to Annapolis since the September primary, when she won one of three delegate seats in the 41st District, where Republicans don't bother to run. The victory resulted from hard work, but it didn't hurt that Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the West Baltimore political patriarch, picked her for his ticket.

In the House's Class of 1999, she is among 19 men and nine women from all over Maryland, ranging from their 20s to their 60s. Nine, including Gladden, are African-Americans. Six are Republicans, and 22 are Democrats.

She's a politician now, but she's yet to master the art of being someone other than herself. In the Assembly, she faces a steep learning curve -- one in which she will have to shift strategies, wrestle with how prominently to stand out as a freshman, horse-trade with the governor, and struggle to balance the demands of the session with the rest of her life.

And as this year's session hurtles toward adjournment at midnight April 12, she's still learning.

Thursday, Jan. 7

Gladden represents one of the state's poorest districts. It is at least 82 percent African-American, and its 89 percent Democratic registration is the highest in Maryland. But it is diverse -- from her middle-class neighborhood of Ashburton, the home of many African-American political leaders, to the tough blocks of Walbrook Junction.

Driving around, Gladden recounts the history of each neighborhood, and even the most scarred streets are beautiful in her eyes. "I love Baltimore," she says. "I'm a history major. I'm a goof, I admit it." Once she had a boyfriend from New York who made fun of the city; he didn't last.

Gladden is a week away from her swearing in. She has no firm agenda but a basic grasp of her identity. "I'm a traditional bread-and-butter urban Democrat, but that might change," she says. "I've listened to some conservative and moderate arguments since being elected that I've never heard before. Some of them seem to make sense."

Her passion is education. She went to Harford Heights Elementary, Western High, Duke University and the University of Maryland Law School, a natural progression for the daughter of Elzee and Jessie Gladden. He was the longtime principal of Dunbar High School; she was a teacher in city schools. "Between the two of them, they taught everybody," she says.

Making her rounds, Gladden shows her natural political skills, focusing on each person she comes across. Her zeal is leavened by self-mocking humor.

"If I had to do something for Belmont now that I've got this fancy title, what should I do?" she asks Sheila Kolman, Belmont Elementary's principal. Money for portable classrooms, new floors and a paint job, comes the reply.

At Mary Rodman Elementary in Edmondson Village, Principal Peggy Jackson says she needs money to teach her teachers about reading instruction. That stumps Gladden. "I really don't know how to get from legislation to a reading program for your teachers," she confesses.

Wednesday, Jan. 13

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