J. Lowell Stoltzfus brings to Annapolis a Mennonite devotion to peace, but recent events are helping to sharpen his aggressiveness

Senator Grows Into His Role


Westover -- Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a devout Mennonite, is seen as one of the gentlest members of the General Assembly. Balding, with big, warm brown eyes and glasses, he teaches Sunday school classes to adults and talks about his love of a cappella singing.

But Stoltzfus has been steamed lately, and he isn't hiding it. As one of four Republicans on the special committee investigating whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fired state workers for political reasons, he is fighting to make sure the eight Democrats on the panel don't turn the hearings into an election-year escapade that makes the governor look bad.

Though Stoltzfus, 56, denies he's Ehrlich's point man in the committee, he uses the word "we" frequently during the group's meetings. As in, "We're never going to have bipartisan cooperation." As in, "We have nothing to hide."

He has railed against the Democrats for granting the panel subpoena power and giving themselves the right to hire outside counsel. And, to make his outrage plain, he has threatened to abandon the hearings altogether.

"I'm the one who most wants to get out of it," he said during a recent interview at his Somerset County farm. "I think it's a silly waste of time."

Stoltzfus has served in the General Assembly since 1991 and hasn't decided yet whether to run again. One of two farmers in the General Assembly, the legislator says it has always been uncomfortable to be a Republican in a Democrat-dominated legislature.

And he despises the rancor that marks each special committee hearing. He'd rather be tending to more pressing business - the state's or his own.

"I don't like to fight, but I will when I have to," he said.

Given his roots, it's no surprise that Stoltzfus isn't keen on doing battle.

James Lowell Stoltzfus was born in Pottstown, Pa., the second of six children born to a "poor farmer" and a homemaker who had only completed eighth grade. His grandfather was born Amish; his parents were Mennonites. The church was the center of their lives.

When he was 5, Stoltzfus' family relocated to Snow Hill so his father could help start a Mennonite church there. Mennonites believe in peace above all and service to those in need.

Stoltzfus described his childhood as insular. The men in his life wore dark coats. The woman wore prayer veils and weren't permitted to cut their hair. Shorts were a no-no. Interest in government and politics was shunned as too worldly.

It was a very big deal, Stoltzfus said, when he chose to take a high school physical education class. Stoltzfus laughed as he recalled that he opted for longer Bermuda shorts instead of the skimpier gym shorts the other students were wearing.

Stoltzfus graduated from a Mennonite boarding school in Pennsylvania and then studied at what is now Salisbury University, where he majored in English and sociology and played center on the varsity basketball team. He also completed a year of seminary school at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

After teaching English and music at Pocomoke High School, Stoltzfus took over his father's nursery. He married a Mennonite woman whom he had first met in high school. Their business - Stoltzfus Plant Farm - grew, and so did their family.

Now a father of four and grandfather of one - James Lowell Stoltzfus III - Stoltzfus owns about 500 meticulously maintained acres of farmland on the Eastern Shore. He grows cabbage, soybeans, corn and wheat on the property and employs about 80 people, depending on the season.

Stoltzfus and his wife, Sharon, a sixth-grade teacher, raised their children in a 1902 farmhouse on the property. A few years ago, they sold it to build a modern home nearby. The Pocomoke River snakes past their backyard.

Inside, a Bible sits on a coffee table. Music for "Hymns of the Christian Life" is perched on the piano.

A challenging year

On a recent afternoon, Stoltzfus sat, legs crossed, in a living room chair. He was candid about the challenges he has faced over the past year. Even when he tries to stop himself from dwelling on the personal or political, he often continues. It's as if sharing comes most naturally to him.

Last session, Stoltzfus said, he survived a push to oust him as Senate minority leader.

"They said to me, `You're not aggressive enough,'" he recalled. "`You're not a fighter. We need a fighter.'"

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the minority whip, was the man who wanted to replace him. Harris said he has seen another side of Stoltzfus during the special committee hearings. The pit bull in Stoltzfus has surfaced, a development Harris sees as an expression of Stoltzfus' interest in justice, not politics.

"To understand Lowell, I think you have to understand that he really doesn't like when people don't treat other people fairly and with respect and honesty," Harris said. "And I think why he's been so outspoken on this issue is because he really truly in his heart perceives that this is not something that's being done for the good of the state but is a political maneuver."

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