Rising star in Senate is gun bill point man

Van Hollen regarded as effective, tenacious

April 03, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

With Gov. Parris N. Glendening's gun safety bill hanging in the balance just over a week ago, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had a tough task to assign.

Somebody would have to explain the amendments that forged the compromise Miller had brokered in an attempt to rescue the legislation. Someone would have to defend the complex bill under hostile cross-examination by its opponents.

Miller's choice of Sen. Christopher J. Van Hollen Jr. came as no surprise to General Assembly observers. The youthful Montgomery County lawmaker has come to be seen as one of the Senate's most effective advocates and a rising power within its ranks.

"He's disciplined, he's well-organized, he has a great sense of timing," said Eric Gally, lobbyist for Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. "He's a quick thinker on the floor, which is very important."

Already a highly regarded legislator, Van Hollen has emerged this year as an important member of the Senate leadership and a stalwart of its liberal Democratic bloc.

The second-term senator has been at center stage throughout the session, not just on the gun bill, which cleared the Senate and is expected to win final approval in the House this week, but also in the struggle over how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars from the tobacco industry.

"He has exceeded all expectations," Miller said.

Van Hollen's admirers see him as a potential candidate for higher office. He's on virtually every political handicapper's short list of possible contenders for Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella's congressional seat.

Two local columnists have mentioned him as a potential running mate for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 gubernatorial election. If Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan joins that race, that could create an opening in Rockville for the ambitious young senator.

Van Hollen, 41, is keeping his options wide open.

"I wouldn't rule out anything," he said.

In choosing the lawyer from Kensington to lead the gun debate, Miller picked a lawmaker whose colleagues know him as a fierce competitor -- not to mention the Senate's arm-wrestling champ.

"He beat me," said Democratic Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a brawny farmer from Southern Maryland. "He's ferocious when it comes to arm wrestling."

A good start to session

Van Hollen's 2000 session started off well even before the General Assembly convened in January. Late last year, Miller vaulted him over a more senior senator to become vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee -- a position that puts him in line to some day succeed Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman in the chamber's second-most powerful post.

Van Hollen said he took an interest in Glendening's "Smart Guns" initiative from the beginning of the session. The governor's original proposal would have required manufacturers to introduce, as early as 2003, high-tech handguns that could "recognize" an authorized user through fingerprints or other methods.

Knowing that the legislation faced rejection in the conservative Judicial Proceedings Committee, Van Hollen began seeking alternative routes to the floor months ago.

It was Miller who crafted the compromise that took the high-tech element out of Glendening's bill but kept the requirement that any handgun sold in Maryland have a built-in lock. That was not enough to get the legislation out of committee, however. Miller had to invoke a rarely used rule to bring the bill to the Senate floor, where Van Hollen became its chief defender.

"There are people who, when given a position of responsibility, rise to the task," Miller said.

Miller also gave Van Hollen the job of negotiating with conservative Republicans over amendments that let them save face while dropping plans to filibuster the bill, which eventually passed the Senate 26-21.

"There's no doubt he could have dug in his heels on some of the amendments the gun advocates were pushing, but he was willing to listen," said Minority Leader Martin G. Madden of Howard County, who helped broker the deal.

Van Hollen has also played a pivotal role in one of the biggest money issues of the session. In his role as a budget subcommittee chairman, he took on the complicated task of turning Glendening's broad plans for spending Maryland's share of the national tobacco settlement into specific legislation.

The governor wanted to target the money for fighting cancer and smoking.

Van Hollen said that when he started drafting a bill, lawmakers were looking hungrily at the pile of money, thinking they could divert some to pet projects.

"It just became like a big pinata, and every member of the legislature decided to get their stick and take a whack at it," he said.

The legislation now heading for final General Assembly passage reflects Glendening's priorities and is largely based on Van Hollen's work.

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