Thirty years ago this month I first walked into the Maryland State House as a reporter, charged with keeping an eye on the legislative goings-on for the next 90 days and making sure the b’hoys and muldoons didn’t steal away with the capitol dome in the middle of the night.
I was a relatively young reporter for The Sun then and didn’t know my arse from my elbow when it came to making the sausage. I spent most of my time that year wandering blindly — but earnestly — around Annapolis and running up my expense account on the company American Express card. This much I did know, though: There would have been hell to pay, had I not been there to report on the theft of the dome — or if The Washington Post had discovered it missing first.
That has changed (though the threat to the dome is still real).
I left The Sun almost 16 years ago to try my hand at other things and never really looked back. But when my old friend Josh Kurtz rang me up — a weird coincidence this fall — I thought I might give this new-fangled e-reporting thing a try here at Maryland Matters. So here I am.
I had been to those hallowed halls before The Sun, probably more than 50 years ago, when my father, a former reporter turned lobbyist, dragged my brother Patrick and me down for a Saturday session of the Judiciary Committee. He placed us strategically in the empty seats of the committee room as props, I believe, hoping to win some sympathy from the chairman, who had the power to hear his testimony sooner, rather than later, and let us poor children get on with our day. It worked, as I recall.
Don’t ask me what the bill was or whether it was ever voted out or not — or even why I remember that it was the Judiciary Committee. I just don’t know any more. I do, however, believe it possible that my father later tried that trick with my sisters, as well, with some success. But I digress.
When I stumbled into the State House basement in 1988, William Donald Schaefer was governor. He and his horde of so-called “Kool-Aid Kids” had descended on Annapolis from Baltimore’s City Hall the previous January.
Schaefer was still being schooled on the finer legislative points, but seemed to have difficulty understanding that the General Assembly was not the Baltimore City Council, and that its members — particularly the legislature’s presiding officers — bristled at the notion of being steamrolled. It seemed to be a hard lesson.
You might have even described the governor as “prickly,” though it’s unclear whether his behavior differed at all before or after this particular point in time.
I recall one interview in which he simply didn’t want to answer any of my questions.
“Nice day, beautiful day,” he said to me initially in response.
I tried again, but he was having none of it. This went on for a bit, until this, finally:
“What the hell you’re trying to do, I don’t know. You’re trying to get so specific with me that I don’t know whether you’re trying to have me indicted, or you’re trying to put me in jail, or what the hell you’re trying to do.”
Thank you, Governor.
Eventually he got around to answering the questions. For the record, his replies did not lead to him being indicted — or going to jail. Just saying.
But putting Schaefer’s personality — and my father’s stunt — aside, it strikes me now in this brave new world that the more things are different in Annapolis, the more they remain the same.
Well, some things are different. There are no more “Legislative Follies” put on each year. And lawmakers are perhaps better behaved than they once were. For instance, I don’t think anyone bares his behind to a reporter any more, as three delegates did to me one freezing cold evening as I finished up dinner at a front-window table in Riordan’s Saloon on Market Space, downtown Annapolis.
I know I’m supposed to be above such things, but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure I’ve laughed that hard since. It is a picture — of three low-hanging moons — indelibly seared into my memory. Thank God we’re all older, wiser and more mature nowadays.
So, Riordan’s may now be Harvest, but the cast of characters on the State House campus is remarkably much the same.
Thomas V. Mike Miller is still president of the Senate. Sure, his hair’s now yet another different color, and he might have a few more wrinkles, but he’s essentially the same old University of Maryland frat boy and basketball fiend from Clinton with a penchant for Stonewall Jackson and all things historical. Then a 16-year lawmaker, he took the Senate gavel in January 1987, a week before Melvin A. “Mickey” Steinberg, formerly Mr. President, was sworn as Schaefer’s lieutenant governor. He’s been the Senate president ever since — longer than anyone in the world, I think.
That Class of 1987 — those representatives elected in November 1986 — well, it’s like some of them came and never left.
I was assigned by my “desk” — an editor named G. Jefferson Price III — to cover the House of Delegates the following year and spent a lot of time in the Judiciary Committee and with its members. Among them were three freshmen who seemed to get on quite famously: Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who, I thought, was some kind of rec league basketball coach; D. Bruce Poole, another Democrat, a sharp and easy-going trial lawyer from Washington County; and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an Arbutus, Baltimore County, jock and lawyer who had gone to the Gilman School and Princeton University on scholarship — and was a Republican.
Having been born and raised in Baltimore, up to that point in my narrow little life, I believe I had only ever met one Republican — Theodore R. McKeldin, the former governor who was twice Baltimore’s mayor. So, it was quite curious to me that there was this inter-party mixing going on after hours. These guys were like, well, bosom friends. Hell, I think Poole and Ehrlich, then both bachelors, even rented a summer beach house together after serving with each other in the House a couple years.
This was all before things went South, and everyone on both sides of the aisle decided they had no use for the other — a sort of hangover from the “Reagan Revolution” that was popularized and encouraged by U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who turned it into a scorched-earth mantra. It has only gotten steadily uglier in the last 25 years or so.
If I thought about it then — and I never did — out of the Judiciary bunch, Poole seemed the best bet as the rising star, being among the legislature’s best and brightest, and a Democratic lawyer from a conservative county. Busch seemed a smart enough guy all right, but, I don’t know, a basketball coach from Anne Arundel County? Ehrlich, I figured, stood the least chance of making it anywhere beyond the legislature — certainly not rising to a statewide office, not in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-1.
That’s how much I know.
Poole became the House majority leader, lost out in a change of House speakers from R. Clayton Mitchell to Casper R. Taylor Jr., then lost re-election in 1998 by a handful of votes in an increasingly red Washington County.
Busch, of course, ended up being elected Maryland House Speaker — and like Miller on the Senate side, is now the state’s longest serving presiding officer of the House of Delegates. For his part, Ehrlich did run and win statewide, becoming governor after four terms in Congress representing Maryland’s 2nd District.
The Class of 1987 was hardly confined to those three. Consider two other House freshmen, both Montgomery County Democrats: Brian E. Frosh, later a state senator who was elected Maryland attorney general in 2014, and the patrician Peter V.R. Franchot, now in his third term as state comptroller (and still trying to fill Louis L. Goldstein’s shoes).
A House member for a dozen years before those boyos came on the scene was Nancy K. Kopp, who was on Appropriations then. We now call her Madam Treasurer.
At that point, no one had really ever heard of Martin O’Malley, “Banjo Joe,” as Schaefer later liked to call him because of his guitar playing in the band O’Malley’s March.
Among the highlights of the 1988 session was the restructuring of the Maryland higher education system (featuring a $68 million added sweetener for the colleges) — Schaefer’s legislative centerpiece — as well as requiring jurisdictions statewide to meet modest recycling goals, and the approval of the first phase of Baltimore’s light rail system.
(This was the same light rail line that Schaefer, when confronted with the legislature’s compromise funding plan, told House Speaker Clay Mitchell he could shove “into an anatomically uncomfortable place.” That’s at least how The Sun gently paraphrased the governor’s suggestion to Mr. Speaker.)
But perhaps the crowning piece of legislation enacted 30 years ago was Maryland’s “Saturday Night Special” law, which sought to ban certain types of cheap, low-quality guns through a Handgun Roster Board, established by the legislation, beginning in 1990.
There was great hand-wringing throughout the session because of the staunch opposition by the gun lobby, primarily the National Rifle Association. Opponents spent more than $5 million to defeat the measure, which managed to get passed and signed into law, and ultimately put to the voters and approved the following November.
At the time, the legislation was heralded as an enormous and historic win for gun control advocates — and an equally enormous and historic loss by the gun lobby and its intractable position against anything that smacked of limits on 2nd Amendment rights.
Nowadays, though, just the idea of a ban on Saturday Night Specials to combat street crime and shootings seems kind of quaint, really.
A record 343 people were killed on the streets of Baltimore last year, 88 percent of them from shootings. In 1988, the number killed was a mere 234. It seems like everyone and his brother in the city has a handgun now — and not a cheap one, either, but a high-quality, high-caliber semi-automatic. All told, city police dealt with more than 1,000 shootings last year — fatal and nonfatal — and those are just the ones that got reported.
As I said, quaint.
Any piece of scholarship about the legislative process would be incomplete without some attention paid the lobbying corps, that occasionally lovable bunch of elbow-grabbers who stalk the halls of Annapolis from January through mid-April (and occasionally in the State House on Wednesdays twice a month throughout the rest of the year for Board of Public Works meetings).
Lobbying really has become a growth industry in our capital city. And only in America could the No. 1 and No. 2 lobbyists, ranked by income for the last legislative session, be federally convicted felons.
The No. 1 lobbyist when I arrived in Annapolis in 1988 was the irrepressible Bruce C. Bereano, who got his start in Annapolis as the top aide to now-Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Prince George’s County Democrat, when he was president of the Maryland Senate. While he was only paid roughly $643,000 in 1988 — a pittance by today’s top earners — that was still two-and-a-half times as much as the No. 2 lobbyist took in that year.
Gerard E. Evans wasn’t yet on lobbying’s big board, but a year or so later, he began his ascension to the top.
Since then, though, both Bereano and Evans fell from grace separately and did prison time as a result of federal convictions for offenses related to their lobbying efforts. And both men got out, got up, dusted themselves off and returned to the state capitol to do what they do.
Last session, Evans was No. 1, having earned $1.8 million for the six months ended April 30, and Bereano was No. 2, having brought in a tidy $1.7 million in the same period.
Over the years, trying to follow which lobbyist was working for which firm and when has been dizzying — sort of like trying to track three-tiered chess. The internecine battles among them have frequently sounded more like Peyton Place than a simple reshuffling of the business-card deck.
Back in the day, Bereano was already pushing the limits of what was permissible in fundraising, and taking care of, members of the legislature. It was high art.
The torch was being passed from the old to the new then, but I got the chance to see James J. Doyle Jr. stand — not sit — before a committee and testify, time and again, beginning every session the same way:
“I’m Jim Doyle, and I’m an attorney from Baltimore.”
He had been top of the heap for a long time, tall and dapper — shirts always with cufflinks — with a shock of white hair. He shied from the flamboyance of the up-and-coming young ones. “Gentleman Jim,” some folks called him.
You’d have never guessed that Franklin Goldstein, an unassuming, bespectacled older man who always seemed to be wandering the halls in a raincoat, dragging around an old-time oversized briefcase, was a top earner.
Maxine Adler muscled her way into the top 10 highest paid lobbyists, the first woman to do so. Tough racket.
Former lawmakers and legislative staffers followed their noses through the revolving door, a time-honored tradition.
It was quite an education.
Helping us poor pilgrims read the hieroglyphics of all types was a fellow named William S. Ratchford II, a guy who was a wizard with numbers and political savvy. He headed the Department of Fiscal Services, the General Assembly’s nonpartisan professional staff.
At the time Ratchford had a couple of young upstarts working for him as analysts: Frederick W. Puddester and Warren G. Deschenaux. I’ve often wondered since then if they ever made anything of themselves.
It was ironic, I guess, that when I made my way to Annapolis in 1988, then-Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D) was under investigation and on the verge of being indicted on state charges for misuse of funds, owing to the handiwork of The Evening Sun’s Dan Fesperman. When I walked on the floor of the Senate opening day this year, Nat Oaks, a little older and now wearing what has become his trademark kufi, was under indictment again — this time by the federales.
The year I arrived, his good friend, Del. Larry Young, the onetime chair of Environmental Matters, was elevated to “the Mitchell seat” in the Maryland Senate. That came in February that year, when the feds carted off Sen. Michael B. Mitchell to the hoosegow, along with his brother, Clarence M. Mitchell III, after the two were convicted of taking payoffs to block a congressional investigation of the Wedtech Corporation.
Michael, once a Baltimore City Councilman, had run and won his brother’s Senate seat in 1986, after Clarence opted, instead, to run for Congress that year, but lost.
A few years later, former Senator Young met a rather inglorious end himself in the Senate of Maryland, in terms of a political career as an elected official.
For years, Oaks has called me “Poison” — short for “Poison Pen,” the full nickname with which he had anointed me, for being a member of the Fourth Estate.
It seemed an honorable calling, this newspaper career, and when I made it to the Annapolis Bureau of The Sun, I was in some of the best company of its sort I could imagine: John W. Frece, Richard H.P. Sia and C. Fraser Smith. These were guys who knew the craft, were level and kept steady on the tiller.
I’m sorry to report they’ve all moved on and/or retired.
The Evening Sun had not yet been merged then into what Baltimoreans would call “the morning Sun,” and their reporters — Fesperman, Thomas W. Waldron and Fern Shen, among them — were giving the a.m. paper’s scribes a run for their money.
The old Baltimore News American wasn’t quite two years in the grave then. The Washington Times was around, but is no longer.
Still standing was United Press International, which brought the estimable Mr. Frece to Annapolis from its Richmond bureau, before he took the helm at the capitol for The Sun. I’m afraid UPI is gone now for all intents and purposes, though its old logo decal is still on the door in the State House basement to what was the wire service’s bureau and is now The Sun’s room.
UPI’s competitor, The Associated Press, still has an office on press row in the basement, but the legendary wire-service man Tom Stuckey is no longer there, having retired in 2006. He called it quits after more than 40 years in the State House bureau, reporting on governors and legislators — and on stories as varied as the assassination attempt on George Wallace and the Cambridge riots that thrust H. Rap Brown into the nation’s consciousness with his infamous line, “Burn, baby, burn.”
In those days, there were far more news organizations down in Annapolis during the session, it seemed. Competition is a good thing, especially in the news business. But things have changed. I sure never thought I’d live to see The Sun and The Washington Post publishing each other’s stories.
One former Sun reporter, M. Dion Thompson, who covered a session of the General Assembly, is now an Episcopal priest assigned to — ta da — St. Anne’s Church on Church Circle, a stone’s throw from the State House.
Reporters like Lou Panos, Peter Kumpa and Lou Davis — print and broadcast — have passed away. All of them kept the place a little bit more honest — and made us all a little wiser.
James “Jimmy” Chambers, the State House shoeshine man, has died as well, along with “Miss Peggy” Kimbo of The Little Campus Inn. That place is now gone, too, after morphing into Galway Bay bar and restaurant. Even Chick and Ruth Levitt, who owned the Main Street deli, are gone. The joint is still there, still has a menu of sandwiches named for state politicians and still has a booth reserved for the Maryland governor, but someone else owns and runs it now.
Time rolls on.
Yet some things, like some characters and traditions, seem almost frozen in place. Among those many constants, touchstones and reliable things that never seem to change here in the capital city is a fellow named Iris H. Cormier III. You would know him as “Peanut” — bartender at the Drummer’s Lot, the Maryland Inn’s downstairs bar. He is still there after 37 years, pouring drinks and offering shelter from the storm.