By Josh Kurtz
It’s often said that lightning doesn’t strike twice. But in the case of state Del. Barrie Ciliberti (R), it kind of did.
Ciliberti might be called something of an accidental legislator. And it happened not once, but twice.
In 1994, running in a new Montgomery County district that had been drawn by Democrats to elect Democrats, he rode the Gingrich wave to a seat in the House of Delegates, part of a stunning Republican sweep in Dist. 39. He was bounced four years later as the Democrats ousted all three Dist. 39 House incumbents – Ciliberti, Del. Ray Beck (R) and Del. Mat Mossburg (R).
Ciliberti ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1996 and made a few furtive and futile comeback attempts after his 1998 defeat – most notably a loss in the 2014 Republican House primary to represent Dist. 4, which covers Frederick and Carroll counties. But then Gov. Larry Hogan (R) tapped Del. Kelly Schulz to serve as his labor secretary, and the Republican central committees of the two counties divided in their recommendations following a bitter process that saw more than 20 candidates come forward to try to replace Schulz. Hogan decided to install Ciliberti in the position.
So at the age of 78, 20 years and one month after he first took office in January 1995, Ciliberti, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Professional Development at Bowie State University, was back in Annapolis. Ironically, his swearing-in was delayed a couple of hours because he had to pay some campaign fines before he was eligible to rejoin the legislature.
How does it feel to be back? And what’s changed?
“Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed, because we have a Republican governor,” Ciliberti, whose first go-round in the House coincided with Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening’s first term, said in a recent interview.
Ciliberti said the state bureaucracy under the Hogan administration is considerably more in sync with where he is philosophically and is more responsive to his concerns – and those of his rural constituents – than Glendening’s. But he doesn’t think the balance of power in Annapolis has shifted enough.
“We still lose in committee,” he said. “We still lose in subcommittee. We still lose on the floor of the House. We still lose on the floor of the Senate.”
During Ciliberti’s first legislative term, he served on the House Environmental Matters Committee, which was then led by Del. Ron Guns, a conservative Democrat from the Eastern Shore. The panel was, he recalled a model of comity and bipartisanship that doesn’t exist anymore.
Today, Ciliberti serves on the Appropriations Committee, and observes, “The climate down here the first time – there was much more conviviality. Friendships on both sides of the aisle. Political correctness didn’t loom so large.”
Ciliberti was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Trump, when many in the Maryland GOP were keeping their distance. He believes that puts him at an even greater disadvantage with Democratic leaders in Annapolis than the average Maryland Republican.
“It makes it a bit uncomfortable from my position,” he said.
Yet Ciliberti looks to former Democratic presidents and their abilities to bridge partisan gaps and wishes some of modern-day Democrats in Annapolis would follow suit.
“Truman – his bourbon and branch water solved a lot of problems,” he said. “LBJ picked up the phone and said, ‘Let’s figure this out.’ Unfortunately, that’s not where we are.”