Freshman building a reputation

Frederick senator known for stances

April 12, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

As word spread Saturday night that the filibuster gumming up the Maryland Senate was about to end, Sen. Alex X. Mooney kept talking.

Republicans had asked the young freshman from Frederick to help them try to kill the tobacco tax increase -- and his job was to offer amendments until party leaders said to stop.

But as his first season in the Senate comes to a close today, Mooney has proven himself to be more than just a soldier for the party who can help fuel a filibuster.

From his seat in the far right corner of the wide Senate floor, the 27-year-old has exhibited a brand of strident religious conservatism that stands out in a Maryland Republican Party long viewed as more moderate.

"People have taken notice," said Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden. "I think Alex is going to be here a long time, and could play a major role in our party and in the Senate as a whole."

"He's got a tremendous mind on him," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, the Cecil County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, on which Mooney sits. "I think the guy's good."

As quickly as he has impressed some leading lawmakers in Annapolis, however, he has left others uneasy.

Since his Senate committee began deliberating the governor's gay rights bill, Mooney has waged a vocal campaign against it that his critics say has bordered on hate-mongering. He has proposed a ban on gay teachers in public schools, and asked that the gay rights bill make clear that parents have the right to sue if a homosexual teacher molests their child.

"To be honest, he scares me," said Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, a Montgomery Democrat, who said Mooney cornered her in a hearing room and berated her for publicly criticizing his stance, wagging his finger within inches of her face. "This guy does not engage in the kind of behavior you would expect from a senator, no matter how old."

Nearly a decade younger than most of his colleagues, Mooney said he has tried to take a very conciliatory approach to his new position. But he acknowledges he hasn't always succeeded. "When things started to get thrown at me, like the transgender gay rights bill, I reacted. I reacted strongly," he said.

Alex Mooney did not follow the traditional path to the lofty corridors of the legislature. Instead of a plodding ascent through the school board, County Council and House of Delegates, Mooney's first serious race was the one that took him to the Senate.

Start came in college

It was not, however, his first campaign. In 1992, as a senior at Dartmouth College, while his friends played rugby and lounged at their fraternities, Mooney filed to run for the New Hampshire House of Representatives. As a non-native, unknown Republican running in a Democratic district, Mooney said his candidacy wound up being "a lark that never really got off the ground."

After graduating, he worked several jobs on Capitol Hill, including serving as an analyst and driver for Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, whom Mooney notes is "the only one of Maryland's congressmen who is pro-life."

He worked "for a couple of weeks" on the tainted Miami mayoral campaign of his uncle Xavier Suarez, whose victory was overturned in court amid allegations of ballot tampering. Mooney had no part in the scandal, and says his uncle clearly made some mistakes.

Among the lessons Mooney took from Miami: "Wear comfortable shoes because after a day of knocking on doors, your feet can really start to hurt."

He took a job as a legislative analyst with a Virginia-based conservative group called Council for National Policy Inc., but quit to go door to door in his hometown and make a run for the State House, taking strong stands against taxes and abortion.

Mooney made a low-key entry into the 90-day session, well aware that some would resent his winning the seat held by John W. Derr, a popular four-term incumbent with more moderate Republican views.

On the Senate floor, Mooney cornered his committee chairman, promising to support him if he were needed. He wrote no bills, and initiated casual meetings with several veterans.

"You don't want to jump into uncharted waters too fast," Mooney said. "I can promise you, I've been less active than you'll see in future years."

Change surprised some

Ivy-educated and built like a football lineman, Mooney has an easy manner and a boyish face, and he has usually stayed quiet in committee. So it seemed incongruous when, at the first hearing on the governor's bill to add gays to the groups protected from discrimination, he lit into a supporter of the bill, asking if she would also support "special rights for people who engage in bestiality."

He wrote an essay opposing the bill and caused a stir by asking a public relations firm to place it in targeted newspapers, trying to build opposition in the districts of senators who had not decided how to vote. The decision defied an unwritten rule against such practices.

Last week, he drafted 15 amendments to gut the bill. Critics found some of them, such as the ban on gay teachers, to be offensive. Mooney hasn't formally offered them.

He said his views on the governor's bill are consistent with the agenda on which he won election. The idea of special protections for gays, he said, is simply bad policy. He downplayed the amendments as "things I just drew up to prolong the debate. I probably won't even offer most of them."

When Madden was asked about the amendments, he just shook his head.

"My advice to Alex would be to not offer those," he said. "I suspect that he was just displaying youthful enthusiasm, and nothing more than that."

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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