Pressure on gay rights bill puts Arundel senator on the spot

Jimeno's district opposes measure

April 10, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Piled on the desk of state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno is a dog-eared file stuffed thick with phone logs and letters, all about a single bill.

They show the strong sentiments of many in his district on the governor's gay rights bill and weigh heavily on Jimeno.

The Anne Arundel County Democrat casts hundreds of votes each year, but this decision -- on a bill to add homosexuals to the list of minority groups protected by Maryland's anti-discrimination law -- has placed him in a particularly unpleasant pickle.

Constituents have flooded his phone lines and filled his mailbox, most of them urging him to reject the bill. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a powerful Democratic ally, wants it dearly.

On the political turf of Annapolis, where constituents hold the keys to the next election, but the governor can supply or erase funds for needed local projects, it is a tug of war most legislators would trade anything to avoid.

Jimeno, 51, an affable insurance agent who has represented his northern Anne Arundel district for two decades in the legislature, is no different.

"There is no question; this one bill has made things extremely tough for me this year," he said yesterday, during a breather from the long day of Senate debate on another issue -- the tobacco tax. "It has become extremely hard to focus on anything else."

The issue has dogged the father of two since mid-January, when he was first targeted by the governor as one of three swing members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee who could either sink the bill or send it on to the Senate floor.

Even now, with the General Assembly nearing the end of its 90-day session, and the bill's chances wilting by the hour, Jimeno will in all likelihood be forced to cast a vote on the measure. And in doing so, he will face consequences.

"If those bills go down, there will be hell to pay," Glendening said yesterday about his legislative platform, of which the gay rights bill is a key plank.

Over the past several weeks, Glendening has aimed his considerable sway at the three Democratic members of Judicial Proceedings -- Jimeno, Norman R. Stone Jr. of Baltimore County and Leo E. Green of Prince George's.

He has tried desperately to negotiate their support with promises of help and threats of harm.

Jimeno says he was summoned to the governor's State House offices two weeks ago and told that funding for the Brooklyn Park performing arts center -- in the heart of the senator's district -- could hinge on his vote.

In a more unusual meeting, Glendening made an unannounced, St. Patrick's Day visit to the Judicial Proceedings offices.

The governor called each member out of bill hearings, one after the other, to press his point. He told them he wants the bill to end discrimination, and reminded them of the plight of his brother, a gay career Air Force employee who died of AIDS after years of fearing he would lose his job.

"That made it real tough," Jimeno said. "He told me this was very personal for him, about his brother, and I was sensitive to that and said I'd give it another look."

The governor's office says this is all part of the legislative process.

"It would be wrong for the governor not to use the authority and power of his office to get bills that he believes in passed in the legislature," said Ray Feldmann, his press secretary.

Jimeno says he doesn't like the tactics, but agrees they are as old as the State House dome.

"In this case it's been particularly intense, but that's the give and take of the legislative process," the senator said. "I have to be sensitive to the governor's wishes, but he has to be sensitive to the fact that I come from a very conservative district."

Among the piles of letters Jimeno has read was one from a Se- verna Park woman, saying, "I hope and pray that our state senators do not bow to the unrelenting pressures of our governor."

Another, from a man describing himself as "a member of a minority group: I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, male, Republican, conservative, evangelical Christian," says, "The citizens of Maryland do not need this legislation."

When Jimeno, a Roman Catholic, is pressed about his views on homosexuality, he says, "Twenty-five churches in my district are members of the Christian Coalition."

"I hope I'm open-minded, and I think it's very clear I'm against discrimination, but there are certain parts of the state where the governor's agenda is just not popular, and my district is one of them."

Jimeno's wife, Ramona, a lifelong resident of the Brooklyn Park area, said he rarely brings his legislative work home with him, but has agonized over this particular vote. It's a source of stress he has aired over the breakfast table.

In recent days, Jimeno has signaled he will vote against the bill.

"The governor's got a long memory, but we've been through a lot of other votes over five years," he said. Then, more wistful than forceful, he added, "At some point you have to take a stand."

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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