Legislators scramble to get out of town

Legislature: Yesterday, State Sen. John Hafer packed up his office for his 180-mile trek to Frostburg.

April 12, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

He was up until well past 1 the night before, but you'd never know it from the bustle in his office. It's evacuation day at the James Senate building in Annapolis, and Sen. John Hafer has a stack of letters to sign.

"All kinds of questions and messages," he says, inking a sheet and sliding it onto a growing pile. "They come by e-mail, in the mails, on the phone, some even on foot. Have to get them all answered before we go home."

For the 10th time in his political career, Hafer and his office staff are packing up at the end of a 90-day legislative session. As ever, the General Assembly had a logjam of business on its final night -- including a proposed pay raise for teachers and a children's health-insurance bill -- and things went right down to the wire. "We passed three different measures in the last 15 minutes," he says with an exasperated smile. "But all the critical business got done."

Hafer's business today is gathering his professional life into crates and boxes and transporting it from the state capital back to his hometown of Frostburg, 180 miles to the west. Assisting him in the task are Rick Rando, an intern from Frostburg, and Mary Beth Pirolozzi, his district administrator. As he talks, Hafer rummages through his desk, producing a half-empty bag of Utz potato chips, a sealed jar of apple butter, and a series of notebooks he stacks on a cart. The leavings of a winter hard at work.

The packing is an annual ritual by now. Like most state legislators, Hafer, a Republican, lives in Annapolis full-time for only a fourth of the year; when the session adjourns, he heads to his home district until the following January. Hafer's trek is one of the longest: His district, comprising Allegany and Garrett counties, is the westernmost in Maryland.

The legislature's annual calendar -- three months on, nine off -- stems from the days when Maryland was principally a farming state.

"There isn't much to do on a farm between January and April," Hafer says. "Back then, the farmers could come to Annapolis to do their legislating, and they wouldn't have to be thinking, `Gee, I wish I was home, getting the hay made or getting the oats cut.' "

Hafer rarely seems to wish he were someplace else. In a sense, the essence of home is always with him.

He makes the trip back to Frostburg each weekend during the session to stay in touch with constituents, and goes to as many fire-hall banquets as he can fit into his schedule. "When people ask me to describe my job," he says with a laugh, "I say it's `from the statehouse to the firehouse.' "

When he was first elected in 1990, Hafer made the trip back and forth solo. But within a few years, his wife, Lorene, retired from her job as a purchaser for a paper mill. Now, when Hafer is in Annapolis, so is she. "It's wonderful to have so much time to spend with each other," she says.

Hafer calls his annual migration to Annapolis "going South for the winter"; temperatures in the capital are generally 10 to 15 degrees warmer than in his native mountain climes.

But while they're here, neither is simply taking leisure. While the senator is in session, Lorene, an artist, uses the three months to paint landscapes in acrylic and watercolors; her work covers the walls of Hafer's office.

"She's multi-talented," says her husband, adding that during their months at home she's quite creative in the garden as well as at the easel. "During session I paint landscapes," she says. "In Frostburg, I paint fences and tractors."

Though his senate work offers only part-time pay, Hafer makes it a full-time occupation. Back home, he keeps his legislative office in the family mortuary.

"Saves us a bit of money," he says.

He's just as thrifty with his means of transportation. The aging Plymouth Acclaim he will drive home today, stuffed to the gills with boxes, has 200,000 miles on it.

"I like to drive them till there's no value left," he says.

He's been elected through 2002, so a few more treks from western Maryland to the capital ought to take care of that.

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