Conway known in House as `fair, honest'

He succeeds Rawlings in Appropriations post

November 29, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Norm Conway will be the first to tell you he is no Pete Rawlings.

The short, rotund Eastern Shoreman doesn't have the rumbling voice, the imposing height and the kingmaker status of the late chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He also doesn't have the theatrical manner or sheer force of personality of the charismatic Baltimore delegate who died Nov. 13.

But Del. Norman H. Conway now has the job Del. Howard P. Rawlings held for more than a decade. Last week, House Speaker Michael E. Busch resisted the entreaties of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and some African-American leaders and gave the powerful position to Rawlings' longtime vice chairman.

"Pete was a tremendous presence and a tremendous mentor," Conway said in a soft Eastern Shore drawl. "I'll walk beside his prints, but it's not a matter of filling his shoes."

Busch's choice of the fifth-term Salisbury Democrat appears to be popular among House members, especially those who sit on Appropriations.

"He's fair, he's honest, and that goes quite a way in Annapolis," said Minority Leader George C. Edwards, a longtime member of the panel. "If he tells you something, you can take it to the bank."

Baltimore's loss of Rawlings as a champion in state budget battles has caused apprehension among city leaders. Many had supported the aspirations of Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, to take over Appropriations.

Conway said Baltimore needn't worry that the city will get short shrift. He pointed to a long record of working with Rawlings to secure the funding of critical Baltimore projects.

At times, Conway said, he had been criticized at home for his support of the city.

"It wasn't easy to support the stadiums, but I did, and I look at them as an economic engine," the 61-year-old lawmaker said. "Most of all, I strongly supported, with Pete, the changes that were necessary to the school system."

Those 1997 changes were an issue in more rural parts of the state because they came with a hefty $250 million price tag for increased aid to Baltimore schools. But through that fight, Conway never wavered in his support of Rawlings' efforts.

Conway, born and educated in Wicomico County, said he wasn't as sympathetic to Baltimore when he arrived in Annapolis in 1987 after 12 years on the Salisbury City Council. "I was probably more Eastern Shore us-against-them, whoever `them' was, and usually that was everybody across the bay," he said.

The former teacher and elementary school principal said the experience of working with colleagues from across the state and the influence of former Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. helped shape his perspective.

"I am a One Maryland person," said Conway, who works as an administrator in the Wicomico County school system. "Cas convinced me of that a long time ago,"

The core of Taylor's One Maryland philosophy - which became as much a style of doing business as a specific economic development program - is to look for common interests between urban and rural areas.

Conway noted that his home county of Wicomico is one of the state's less affluent counties, and that Salisbury has many of the same problems that Baltimore has, on a smaller scale.

On certain issues, particularly the environment, Conway's voting record reflects the largely rural character of his district. That is one reason Busch, who favors what he calls a "progressive" environmental agenda, decided to keep the more liberal McIntosh in charge of the committee that deals with those issues.

"In some areas, I'm probably very conservative," Conway said. "When it comes to the elderly and kids, I'm probably more moderate and in some instances maybe liberal. My causes really are good education, health opportunities and good jobs - economic development in every part of the state."

Taylor said Conway is a "very open, big-picture" lawmaker.

"Norman is clearly a mainstream, middle-of-the-road legislator when it comes to political philosophy," the former speaker said.

While Conway was generally a loyal ally of Rawlings and Taylor, he showed an independent streak on some important issues. He voted last year against the Thornton formula for funding public education because it did not identify a revenue source for the increased local aid.

Del. Bennett Bozman, a fellow Democrat from the district that Conway represents, said he would have been upset if his friend and ally had not received the promotion.

Some legislators expect Conway to be more inclusive than the often-dominating Rawlings, but Bozman said he doesn't expect a lot of change in how the Appropriations Committee operates.

"He may be more genteel than Pete, but he can get his dander up, too," Bozman said.

Edwards said that while Conway may not be as "boisterous" as Rawlings, he has the skills to lead the committee as it makes key decisions on the state's $22 billion budget.

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