With cameras rolling and reporters scribbling, Gov. Martin O'Malley got down and dirty with a bunch of his constituents Friday morning. He turned over rocks to see what slithered from the gooey underside and cast a wide net to help them find spineless creatures that hid in the shadows.
No, Maryland's chief executive wasn't leading a State House tour. He was standing along the bank of a Patapsco River tributary, emphasizing the importance of enjoying the outdoors and being good stewards of the environment.
The constituents - of decidedly nonvoting age - are students at Franklin Square Elementary School in the city O'Malley once led. The 35 kids, their teachers and chaperones spent the previous night in Patapsco Valley State Park as part of a two-day field trip that included hiking, bird-watching and "making S'mores," as one girl told the governor.
After pitching tents at the Hilton area near Catonsville and getting settled, the kids got a tutorial in their surroundings. They learned about bugs and animals and stuff that lives in Sawmill Branch, which empties into the Patapsco River not far from their campsite.
O'Malley, in blue jeans and scuff-free, out-of-the-box hiking boots, showed up to quiz them on what they had learned. Then he slung a net over his shoulder and headed down the trail with everyone in tow to check the health of Sawmill Branch.
Although he's a city boy with suburban Montgomery County roots, the governor has taken a shine to the outdoors. (When teased about the mint-condition boots, the governor quickly explained that they were, "a Target purchase" to replace a worn pair that had to be retired.)
The governor put money in his budget to prop up the ailing state parks system and the understaffed Maryland Fisheries Service. He found the bucks to add officers to Natural Resources Police. Along with Virginia's governor, he put a halt to the indiscriminate taking of blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay.
But, O'Malley indicated, without a buy-in from the state's residents, the infusion of cash won't amount to much.
As someone still wondering why the Orioles insisted on getting a new bazillion-dollar Camden Yards video board to showcase lousy baseball, it made sense to me.
When they reached the water's edge, the kids jumped in. Laughter boomed off the high stream banks as the budding biologists tried to scoop samples of the tiny critters that live in the water.
"I got a rock," O'Malley shouted, sounding a little like Charlie Brown as he lifted his net.
Everyone gathered for the obligatory TV shots but soon turned back to the task of dipping and splashing.
The real reason for O'Malley's visit was to get a little publicity for the new Civic Justice Corps, an offshoot of the Maryland Conservation Corps.
The program will give summer jobs in the parks to 200 city kids, ages 14 to 20, who might land in trouble without intervention. The kids will help spruce up Patapsco Valley and Gunpowder Falls state parks, which have suffered in recent years under budget cutbacks. In return, they'll earn a paycheck and learn some outdoors and job skills before graduating Aug. 8.
With summer just weeks away, Lt. Peyton Taylor of the Maryland Parks Service is helping ramp up the program.
"We've gone from zero to 90 pretty much overnight," she explained. "In the beginning, we wondered whether we could fill all the positions. It wasn't that we were concerned that the kids weren't out there. The question was reaching them."
Already, parks staff has interviewed applicants for crew chiefs and with the help of the Parks and People Foundation are attending job fairs to recruit. When school lets out, the Civic Justice Corps will be ready to roll.
"This was meant to be," Taylor said, smiling.
O'Malley would like to expand the summer program to include at-risk kids from other parts of Maryland.
"We're going to try to connect kids and nature in a systematic way," he explained.
And the parents?
"The kids will get on the adults to become more connected and better stewards," replied O'Malley, the father of four. "At least that's how it works in my house."
Then he walked back up the trail, his entourage bringing up the rear. Let the record show that his boots were no longer scuff-free.