Baltimore, Bob Neall and the fire this time

March 07, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

AFTER COVERING the General Assembly for nearly 30 years, I know where all the loose marble floor tiles are in the State House. I have spent, altogether, several weeks of my life on the stairs leading from press row on the ground floor to the House of Delegates chamber.

One legislative moment among many in that august chamber stands out, a moment when 70 of the 141 lawmakers acted responsibly, 70 blinked under the pressure and one didn't vote at all. The House was about to reintroduce fiscal sanity in the area of teacher and state employee pensions. Wall Street analysts said Maryland was lurching toward fiscal perdition. Years earlier, legislators had made unlimited cost-of-living increases a part of the state pension system.

In the first weeks of the 1984 session, the bill seemed certain to pass. It had the support of the powerful House speaker, Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore. Gov. Harry R. Hughes included the projected savings in his budget. Able legislators, led by Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel County and Paul Muldowney of Hagerstown, eagerly took on the teachers, who were furious that a bargain was about to be broken.

A decent pension had always been the reward for paltry pay over the course of a career with the state. No lobbying battle was ever waged more skillfully, with more energy and passion and heartfelt argument. Many legislators who knew the bill had to pass slipped away from Speaker Cardin to stand with the teachers, knowing that opposition could cost them their seats. Others had been un-elected by teacher-led opposition in earlier years, a kind of political taming of the shrew in which a blow across the brow of one or two legislators became a lesson for any who might have felt free to vote their conscience in the best interests of the state.

Mr. Neall and Mr. Muldowney persisted, and the bill passed narrowly after many exertions, trades and threats. The teachers stewed, and when Mr. Neall left the Assembly two years later, his House colleagues gave him a picture signed (they pretended) by Janice Piccinini, one of the fiercest of the teachers union lobbyists. The picture showed one of Mr. Neall's old haunts, Fran O'Brien's, engulfed in smoke and flame. The wicked inscription read: "Dear Bobby: Wish you were there," or words to that effect.

Another fire was coming. Mr. Neall ran for Congress against the basketball star Tom McMillan in 1986, and lost by 440 votes or so. The teachers claimed the victory. Mr. Neall has said repeatedly over the years that he wouldn't change a thing if the same set of circumstances came back. He's a smart, passionate man whose career represents virtually everything a public servant should bring to the table: humor, skill, courage and fortitude. He can be a bit histrionic - for effect or because that's who he is. It's all part of the package.

Today, he's doing a similar job. Once a banker and an expert on government finance, he's out of public office, working for the Johns Hopkins Medical Systems. He was advising the Baltimore City school board, which desperately needs his skills, but he resigned in frustration. However, he's likely to return for a painful period of retrenchment under a reconstituted board.

He's been recruited for that job by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was at pains the other day to declare that teachers - a Democratic faction, to be sure - are not making policy in Maryland anymore. It wasn't a helpful rant. And it may have exacerbated the idea that this is a grudge match for both men.

Maryland, Baltimore and Governor Ehrlich are lucky to have Mr. Neall at this moment.

At the same time, this is not 1986. The teachers of Baltimore are not trying to break the bank, shred the triple-A bond rating or set policy for the state. They're beginning to get a handle on student achievement. They're as bewildered as the rest of Maryland is about the fiscal crisis in Baltimore's schools. They don't need to be disciplined. They need to be encouraged, thanked and supported.

It may be difficult for some to see it now, but in time, Bobby Neall can make it easier for teachers to do their jobs - and get paid regularly. They will recognize it in time if they don't get discouraged and leave in the wake of pay cuts they don't deserve. If Mr. Neall is as good a workout master as he's famous for being, he'll save the system without sacrificing the teachers.

They are the ones in the burning building now. Nobody wishes they were there. Saving them and the building could become Mr. Neall's greatest feat.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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