With an ironclad grip on power in Annapolis and elections more than two years away, most Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly can enjoy a measure of political security.
Not Sen. James Brochin.
The maverick lawmaker from Baltimore County has been moved to the back row of the Senate chamber with freshman lawmakers despite his six-year seniority - a subtle retaliatory move by one of the state's most powerful Democrats for defying his party during last year's special session.
His fiscally conservative and socially progressive views make him a reliable ally for neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. And a wealthy constituent is already exploring challenging him in the 2010 Democratic primary.
But what must really annoy his State House detractors is that Brochin has a surprising amount of clout. By virtue of his post on the divided Judicial Proceedings Committee - and the divided nature of his views - Brochin is frequently courted and often winds up as a deciding vote on issues including the death penalty, gun control, gay rights and traffic laws.
"He's fiercely independent and maybe even a little rebellious," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the committee that includes Brochin. "A lot of people find him frustrating."
Frosh said he has counseled Brochin to tone down his opposition when it doesn't sway the vote and merely makes their Democratic colleagues angry, but Brochin responded that he came to Annapolis to be an outspoken advocate for his stances. Frosh, echoing the sentiments of several lawmakers, said he could understand that.
"He has a set of principles that he adheres to, and as wrongheaded as I might think they are, I respect that," said Frosh, who represents Montgomery County.
Brochin has had several splits with Gov. Martin O'Malley.
He was one of two Democrats in the Senate to vote against a bill blocking a state takeover of some troubled Baltimore City schools two years ago. O'Malley, who was mayor then, has characterized the unsuccessful takeover bid as a Republican ploy.
More recently, Brochin sided with Republicans in an unsuccessful filibuster of O'Malley's budget-balancing plan that raised $1.3 billion in taxes. Brochin says he thought more spending cuts were warranted.
Critics say Brochin didn't have the political courage to vote for tax increases. Others said Brochin did what he believed his constituents wanted.
"He stuck by his word even though it might have made some people in his caucus uncomfortable," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican representing Howard and Carroll counties.
Soon afterward, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said, he changed the seating arrangements in the Senate chamber "just to send a little teeny message" to Brochin. "I moved him back one seat," Miller said. "He wouldn't give us a single vote on anything, and we had to move the state forward."
"I made a lot of friends, didn't I?" Brochin joked. "That's the story of my life."
But it wasn't always this way.
Brochin, 44, first went to Annapolis to work as Miller's legislative aide. At the time, Brochin was studying for his master's degree in international relations and Soviet foreign policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
And in 2002, when Brochin first ran for Senate in the 42nd District, which includes Towson, Lutherville, Timonium and a piece of Pikesville, O'Malley taped a TV commercial to give a much-needed boost to his candidacy.
Brochin beat the political odds that year, winning against Republican Martha S. Klima, who had spent 20 years in the House of Delegates. Four years later, he handily overcame Republican Douglas B. Riley, a popular former county councilman.
Neither victory has left Brochin with an incumbent's complacency. He continues to knock on thousands of doors in the offseason to discuss the issues - and keep his face in front of constituents.
Meanwhile, Martin G. Knott, who hails from a prominent Baltimore family, is weighing a campaign against Brochin. The businessman sits on the board of his family's charitable foundation and on O'Malley's work force investment board. Knott said that people involved in state government approached him about a possible run, though he declined to name them.
The scuttlebutt at the State House has been that O'Malley was behind efforts to recruit Knott, but spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor "has no interest in seeing someone run against Senator Brochin."
Abbruzzese said that Brochin was a "tremendous help" to O'Malley by campaigning for him while door-knocking in the last election, and noted that Brochin supports the governor's initiative to expand the DNA database used in criminal investigations.
Brochin is at the fulcrum of a number of issues this year.