Black Caucus having `big year'

Success: Under the direction of Del. Talmadge Branch, the legislators are realizing some significant victories.

March 29, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

This was an unusual sight, members of the Legislative Black Caucus hustling around the House chambers, taking a head count and firming up support for a bill extending voting rights to convicted felons.

They had talked over the strategy and their assignments. They compared notes during their morning meeting. Then they went to work.

"It was clicking," Del. James E. Proctor Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said afterward. "You've never seen that before, and I've been here 11 years."

It was classic politicking, and it paid off. The House of Delegates passed the bill 89 to 45.

The vote was another victory to go with a string of successful campaigns this legislative session. By all accounts, the 38-member caucus has been much more focused this year and, consequently, more influential.

High-profile bills increasing the state's use of businesses owned by minorities and women and setting up a process to address racial profiling have passed both chambers.

Issues that were formerly dead on arrival, such as a moratorium on the death penalty, have gone much farther than expected. The House approved such a measure last week. Senate passage is in question.

"They're having a big year," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "They've been more visible because they've had more front-burner issues."

At the center of this change is Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat elected in October to lead the caucus. The move thrust the second-term legislator into unfamiliar territory. His time was no longer his own.

"Last year, I could go out and play basketball," Branch said. "I could run home to my district and show my face there. When committee work was done, I was done. Now, as chairman, it's completely different."

When he was refused service in a bar in northern Florida - an incident that led Florida to file a civil rights complaint against the bar owner - news articles never failed to mention his position as chairman of Maryland's black caucus. At home, his phone calls have tripled. There are more meetings.

"At the end of the day, you're worn out," said Branch, 45. "I want to go to the hotel and go to bed."

He moved the caucus' weekly meeting from Monday night to Thursday morning, a change that put the group more in sync with the legislature.

His approach to State House politics has impressed many. Taylor mentioned his "comfortable style" and "respect for the process." Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has worked with previous caucus leaders, said Branch has put his stamp on the group.

"Sometimes, certain chairmen get in there and move an organization, and that's what Talmadge seems to be doing," said Glendening. "I would say he's quietly confident. He's not confrontational. He's confident."

Branch is quick to pass around praise for achievements. "The leadership is only as good as its membership, and I have a very good membership," he said.

Handling of the racial profiling bill provides a telling example of the new approach. Last session, political infighting among caucus members killed the bill. It was a devastating disappointment and a political embarrassment. People shook their heads over political egos superseding the greater good.

"In a sense it was perceived as the caucus not having its act together on that issue," said Branch. "After I became chairman, I wanted to make sure we all marched together."

Caucus members strove to put their differences behind them and become a voting bloc. Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a key part of the squabble that killed the bill, apologized from the Senate floor. This year, the bill was introduced as part of Glendening's package and was never in trouble.

State House observers note that the caucus has been a force in past years. Members provided crucial support for what became PSINet Stadium. Black senators flexed their political muscle during the 1999 debate over how the state would spend its share of the national tobacco settlement.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Senate majority leader, points to increased funding in recent years for the state's historically black colleges and various judicial appointments as evidence of the influence of the caucus. "These things don't just happen," he said. "Now, come on. Somebody had to have their hand in that."

Yet, the West Baltimore senator agreed that the caucus has worked differently and more effectively this year. As an example, he pointed to passage of the governor's minority business enterprise bill. "The MBE bill was done most masterfully," Blount said.

The groundwork began early in the session, almost by chance. Branch and Del. Sue Hecht, head of the 55-member Women's Legislative Caucus, were walking when Branch broached the idea of the two groups' working together. Both recalled the contentious debate in 1995 that ended in the failure of a similar bill.

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