Collins mulls retiring from Senate

Essex Democrat faces challenger in primary

April 11, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Sen. Michael J. Collins, Baltimore County's influential Senate delegation boss, is seriously considering stepping down from public office after more than two decades as a legislator.

Collins, who turns 62 this summer, has for months been hinting in Annapolis and his home district of Essex that he would like to find a new job. In a recent interview, he did not attempt to entirely dispel rumors that he's headed for a public- or private-sector job in education.

"After 24 years in the General Assembly, it might be time to change direction," said Collins, a Democrat. "I am fully vested in the pension system of the legislature and am also a retired high school teacher. I have to make a decision this year about my future."

But he added that he continues to be "running hard" for re-election in the 6th District "unless something comes along, and I can assess it." The 6th District has about 100,000 residents in Baltimore and Harford counties.

Collins said that he was not shrinking from a possible repeat, or worse, of his hard-won 1998 victory over Republican challenger Kenneth C. Holt -- a campaign marred by smear tactics and hate mail.

Some, including one of the most powerful voices in Annapolis, say they don't think Collins can resist running for a fifth Senate term. The legislator also served eight years in the House of Delegates.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he is assuming that Collins will seek re-election.

"I have seen polls that make Senator Collins an overwhelming favorite on Baltimore County's east side," said Miller. He described Collins as a crucial bridge between Baltimore County and Annapolis and a "proven leader in crisis situations in the Senate.

"He has excellent name recognition and is a very hard worker," Miller said.

Nevertheless, the strong possibility of Collins vacating the seat adds to the political uncertainty on the county's east side.

Del. Diane DeCarlo, an Essex Democrat and Middle River bar owner, has said she will challenge Collins.

The prospect of DeCarlo ascending to the Senate concerns leaders like Miller, who privately has voiced concerns about such a possibility.

DeCarlo, a lifetime board member of the county and city Licensed Beverage Dealers associations, draws power from the hundreds of liquor outlets in the 6th District and her association with Tom "Goose" Kaiser, owner of the Bay Cafe in Canton and a close ally of Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Perry Hall Democrat.

If he steps down, Collins would be the second veteran legislator from the 6th District to retire.

Del. Michael H. Weir, 77, is leaving office when his term ends in November, thus leaving two possible 6th District vacancies in the House.

Del. Nancy Hubers, the third delegate from the 6th, is expected to run for re-election.

A large field of candidates is expected to do battle in the September primary race for the House, including DeCarlo's close friend, businesswoman Janice Hundt.

Hundt, who gained name recognition after helping organize a movement against government property condemnation in 2000, said she will soon move from her home in Harford County to Baltimore County's east side, thus meeting a residency requirement to run for office.

Hundt owns properties in Baltimore and Harford counties, including an Essex building that houses a liquor store.

"We all have been surprised about the talk of Senator Collins retiring," said Democratic State Central Committee member Randy Cogar.

"If the senator does retire we will lose an important connection to Annapolis," said Cogar. "That's why it will be important to nominate someone who is a negotiator, a leader. ... We don't want just anyone in there."

Among the leading prospects for the interim is Weir, a respected, behind-the-scenes consensus builder in Annapolis. "I would do it if I had to," Weir said of the possibility.

Working in concert with County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger over the past seven years, Collins has helped funnel more than $800 million in state and county funds toward the east side's ambitious waterfront revitalization and area economic development.

Collins sits on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and he heads an education subcommittee. He has a solid relationship with Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

But it was in his role as chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics in 1998 that Collins stepped into Maryland history. Under great pressure, he successfully defended the ethics committee report on Larry Young of Baltimore, who was ousted from the Senate for ethics violations.

For now, Collins says that he is proud of his long public service. And he has no regrets if he decides to leave the Senate.

"I can't base my decision about my personal future on what could possibly happen in the district," Collins said last week.

If all goes well, he said, "I will find a new place to work. I still have energy and lots of accumulated knowledge. If something comes along, I don't want to be just a piece of furniture."

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