Quiet master of the State House

Joe Bryce, who is leaving the O'Malley administration for a private lobbying job, has earned universal respect over two decades in Annapolis

November 02, 2012

This, according to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, is how Joe Bryce made his name in state government:

Mr. Bryce, who is leaving his job as Gov. Martin O'Malley's chief legislative officer for the lobbying firm Manis Canning and Associates, was hired by Senator Miller right out of Georgetown Law School, where he had been a top student. Mr. Bryce had been friends with Senator Miller's son at the University of Maryland and worked one summer at the Miller family store, and Mr. Miller had been impressed with him.

Mr. Bryce had "unbelievable writing skills," Mr. Miller says, and the Senate president was quick to take advantage of them when he got into a dispute with then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The governor had the idea at the time to hold bill signing ceremonies around the state, rather than in the State House, and Senator Miller didn't want to do that, considering it nothing more than a public relations stunt. Mr. Miller assigned Mr. Bryce the task of writing letters to the governor arguing that what he was proposing was unconstitutional. Mr. Miller signed the letters and sent them upstairs to the governor's office.

Governor Glendening quickly figured out that that it was Mr. Bryce, not Senator Miller, who had written the letters. He promptly offered Mr. Bryce a $20,000 raise to come work for him. His first job: Answering all those letters from Senator Miller.

Governor Glendening confirms that the story is at least more or less true. (Mr. Bryce's advice to him: He could make an argument for the legality of bill signings outside the State House, but was it really worth further alienating Senator Miller?) But the former governor says he had a few other things on his mind when he hired Mr. Bryce.

"We had a pretty aggressive agenda, and on most of it Mike was prepared to use his famous line, 'It's dead on arrival,'" Mr. Glendening says.

But with Mr. Bryce on board, gun control, a tobacco tax increase, smart growth, the use of cigarette settlement money, an expansion of the state's anti-discrimination law to protect gays — it all became un-dead.

"He's extraordinarily intelligent. He has a folksy way, so you don't immediately know that," Governor Glendening says. "Second, he is a person of his word. If he cuts a deal, both sides know it must be carried out. But the reason he is so effective, he looks beyond the substance and even the politics of an issue and looks at the personality, the psyche of the key players."

On this, at least, Senator Miller and Governor Glendening agree. "He's got a winning personality and amazing talent, but he hides it under a basket," Senator Miller says. "He doesn't tout it. He's easygoing and relaxed, a very conscientious, very sensitive person."

After the Glendening administration, Mr. Bryce worked as the chief legislative officer for the University System of Maryland, but when Governor O'Malley was elected, he took a massive pay cut to return to the State House. There he has been instrumental in getting the votes for Mr. O'Malley's tax packages, gambling legislation, same-sex marriage and a host of other issues. If Mr. O'Malley doesn't accomplish much in the next two years, don't assume it's because he's too focused on higher office. It may just be because he's missing Joe Bryce.

—Andrew A. Green

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