MaryPIRG celebrates 30 years of helping bring about change

A group started in 1973 at UM is a lobbying force in Annapolis today

December 01, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

In 1973, inspired by a speech given at the University of Maryland by consumer crusader Ralph Nader, law student Jim Cubie gathered some of his classmates in an attempt to put into practice what Nader was preaching, that students, with help, could carry out significant social change.

They worked to protect tenants from unfair landlord practices, to protect children from faulty toys and to protect the environment.

"Back then it was just a collection of broke law students, basically," recalled Baltimore Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who was recruited by Cubie in those years. "It's become a much bigger thing ... than we could have imagined back then."

What they started, with almost no budget and while working mostly out of Cubie's apartment, was the Maryland chapter of the Public Interest Research Group, a fledgling movement started two years earlier in Oregon. Thirty years later, MaryPIRG, as it is known, has three offices, six full-time staffers and has branched out from the tenants' rights causes of its beginnings into a major lobbying force in Annapolis involved in everything from reducing pesticides in schools to promoting energy efficiency.

"It has been very satisfying to see how this organization has matured and grown and it is very much a part of the workings of Annapolis and very much a part of shaping consumer and environmental and energy legislation," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat and a member of MaryPIRG in 1977 while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park.

On Wednesday, MaryPIRG is holding its 30th anniversary reception at the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore, and Bronrott will be one of the speakers.

PIRGs are located in 27 states. MaryPIRG has 5,000 dues-paying members, not including student volunteers. A nonpartisan, nonprofit group, MaryPIRG goes door to door to recruit members and distribute literature: Its activists knock on 50,000 doors a year.

"The idea behind it is in order to really effect change, you have to have continuity and expertise," said Cubie, who is chief counsel for the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee and a United Methodist minister in South Carolina.

"There's a lot of great energy on campus with student activists, but they're just around a couple of years and then they leave," said Brad Heavner, MaryPIRG's executive director.

With funding secured by Cubie and his cohorts from student activity fees, MaryPIRG was able to hire a professional staff.

The organization's efforts are no longer confined to college campuses, where it began. In 1988, Heavner said, MaryPIRG persuaded Prince George's County officials to cancel plans for a new incinerator. In 1996, it was part of an effort to double the state's protected wilderness. Two years ago, he said, the group pushed the Maryland Department of the Environment to do proper fish consumption advisories based on mercury found in the water.

Heavner said that for the past few years the group has been working on a renewable energy bill in Annapolis, which would require 7.5 percent of Maryland's electricity to come from renewable sources. He expects it to be discussed again in the coming session.

After 30 years, he said, there is still plenty of work to be done.

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